Special schools should be kept, urges disabled MP

Britain's first MP with cerebral palsy has made an impassioned plea to the Government not to close special schools in its overhaul of the education system. Paul Maynard, the Conservative MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys, said he hopes to inspire other people with disabilities to pursue a career in politics.

Mr Maynard believes he is the first MP to spend time in a special school, where he received speech therapy for two years and physiotherapy to help him walk.

In an interview with The Independent, he said he had faced ignorance about his condition from a young age, but had been determined to rise above the taunts. "There will always be people who will use it against you and you have to learn to deal with that," he said.

Mr Maynard, who transferred to mainstream education at the age of five and went on to obtain a first-class degree from Oxford University, said his life had been transformed by his early experience of special schools, and urged the Government to "stick up" for them.

"Because my problem was with the thighs, and their muscle development, they would strap you into tight iron callipers for several hours a day," he said.

"You had nothing to do, so I was doing all my numbers and all my reading far, far earlier than most children and very quickly learned to read and write, which was an unexpected bonus later on."

He had been dismayed by the drive over two decades to integrate children with special needs into mainstream education, and urged ministers to prevent more special schools closing.

"In the early 1980s, when I was at school, there was a flexible approach. I wish we had that flexibility now, and don't say that special schools are bad and somehow stigmatise," he said.

"They can be wrong for people, but they are not wrong for everyone just because they separate you. Sometimes that what's needed."

Mr Maynard, who also suffers from epilepsy, worked as a management consultant before gaining a job in Conservative Central Office. It was there that he decided to aim for a political career.

"I saw all around me other people being ambitious and I thought: 'Why shouldn't I push myself forward? If I think I can offer something, why shouldn't I try it?'"

Mr Maynard said he felt his condition had not been a serious issue as he broke into politics – until a few weeks before election day.

After a television interview he faced derogatory comments – including the accusation that he was drunk – on a Blackpool website. As local papers picked up the story, he was forced to explain his disability, emphasising that it did not affect his intellectual ability.

He said the comments were "not that wounding", but the row demonstrated that "the bar is always that bit higher" for disabled people entering public life.

The controversy appears not to have affected his result, with Mr Maynard achieving a 7 per cent swing to capture the seat from Labour, with a majority of 2,150.

He insisted he did not want to be a role model. "I just hope that simply by my being here, in the House of Commons, people who may be nervous about getting into politics are not put off by any fear of what might happen during the campaign."

Mr Maynard, 34, has already delivered his maiden speech and made his first intervention at Prime Minister's Question Time.

He said he had set himself a simple test of whether he had helped to tackle prejudice: "I hope I can tackle it by not being remembered as the MP who had cerebral palsy, but being remembered for something utterly unconnected to that, some other contribution to public life."

Like other new MPs, he found the lack of an office a challenge – he was finally allocated one last week.

"I have found it really, really tiring staggering around with boxes of this, that and the other and piles of mail and nowhere to put it."

Only one problem linked to his condition has arisen – when the Tory whips issued him with a BlackBerry: its keyboard is too small for him to use.

What is cerebral palsy?

Cerebal palsy is a catch-all term for a wide range of neurological conditions that affect movement. It can be spotted in babies, but its symptoms are often mild and go unnoticed until later childhood. It affects one in every 400 children born in the UK. The condition has a variety of causes, including difficulties before and during birth. It damages the motor control centres of the brain, affecting co-ordination. The condition does not tend to become more severe in later life, but there is no known cure.

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