The neglect of so many disabled pupils is scandalous

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The Independent Online

Today's report on the plight of the UK's 22,000 blind and partially sighted young has a special resonance for David Blunkett, the country's first blind Cabinet minister. Mr Blunkett, who attended special schools for the blind, knows all about the misery of confining children with special needs to educational ghettos. He has been a passionate supporter of a policy that brings such children into mainstream schools, where it is practical. No wonder he was angry when he read the report from the Royal National Institute for the Blind.

Today's report on the plight of the UK's 22,000 blind and partially sighted young has a special resonance for David Blunkett, the country's first blind Cabinet minister. Mr Blunkett, who attended special schools for the blind, knows all about the misery of confining children with special needs to educational ghettos. He has been a passionate supporter of a policy that brings such children into mainstream schools, where it is practical. No wonder he was angry when he read the report from the Royal National Institute for the Blind.

For the Institute's survey reveals the scandalous neglect of blind young people in mainstream schools. What conceivable reason is there for not giving a quarter of visually-impaired secondary pupils handouts in large print or Braille, or excluding them from some courses? Universities are even worse, with only half the students getting materials they need in the right format.

The report exposes the potential dangers of the Government's policy of encouraging mainstream schooling for growing numbers of pupils - not just blind pupils, but all those with learning difficulties. It is right that every effort should be made to give children the chance of education in an ordinary school, but both schools and ministers have to face up to the consequences. Mr Blunkett is pumping more money into schools to help them to adapt to the needs of pupils with disabilities. Training teachers to be more sensitive to these children is also a matter of urgency. Our story of Simon Cruden, whose teachers didn't want to know after he became blind, is horrifying.

A Bill due to be announced in the Queen's Speech is expected to strengthen the rights of special-needs pupils by extending to children the rights already enjoyed by adults under the Disability Discrimination Act. New advocates will help parents in their lonely struggle to force local education authorities to pay for the help these children so desperately need.

Mr Blunkett must not let down all those children currently being failed by the education system. When he leaves his present post, children with special needs must have stronger support than they have now. But changes in the law will not by themselves guarantee that cases like those of Simon Cruden do not recur, or that others like him receive the simple, practical support that they should expect in any civilised society. Ministers must remain vigilant.

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