Experience of conference participation

31 May

After reading a call for papers for a seminar organised by the BSA ‘New Variants on the undeserving poor: current perceptions and experiences of disability and illness’ to be held in Coventry University on 24th May, I submitted an abstract for consideration.  The abstract was based on research I had carried out for the final assignment of a third year undergraduate module, Disability and Society.  My abstract was accepted, and I was asked to be one of the speakers. 

The title of my presentation was: To what degree has the concept of social exclusion been applied to the education of children with disabilities in Northern Ireland?  The paper discussed the change in the education system in Northern Ireland from segregation to inclusion, and detailed arguments both for and against the existence of ‘special schools’.   It argued that while the current policy of inclusion has resulted in more children with disabilities attending mainstream schools, the underlying structure remains unchanged and is failing many of our children. A report by the Education and Training Inspectorate in 2010-11 found that 18% of primary schools and 38% of post-primary schools failed to meet the required standards of arrangements to identify, assess and meet the needs of Special Educational Needs (SEN) pupils.  There are fears that the assessment procedures for the new SEN system which is due to be introduced this year will lead to further inconsistences between schools.  Another cause for concern is the change from ‘Statements’ to ‘Coordinated Support Plans’ (CSP’s).  It is estimated that up to 50% of children who would have previously had the legal protection of a Statement will not now meet the much more stringent criteria needed for a CSP, and therefore also lose the right to appeal if any recommended support provision fails to materialise.  However, my paper concluded by highlighting the fact that children with disabilities themselves are rarely, if ever, included in the decision making surrounding their support provision, and until their voices are heard, SEN will remain a sub-system of education, and their social exclusion will continue. 

I was unsure of my ability to deliver a paper at such an event, but with encouragement from School staff and great support from Dr Byrne, (not to mention an offer from the School to cover my travel expenses), I decided that it was too good an opportunity to miss.

The seminar was attended by people with a wide range of interests, and this was reflected by the other speakers: Paul Grant, a lecturer from Wolverhampton University, Jamie Beddard, an actor with disabilities, Dr Sarah Woodin from Leeds University, and Debbie Jolly, a representative of Disabled People Against the Cuts (DEPAC).

I informed the organisers of the event that this would be my first time presenting a paper, and from the start they were extremely understanding, promising a supporting atmosphere.  From the moment I arrived at the venue I was made to feel comfortable, everyone was very welcoming, and interested in what I had to say.  I learnt a lot, met some fantastic people, and came away feeling very positive about the whole experience, and really glad that I had been given the opportunity to attend.  I would encourage any Post Graduate student – Taught or Research – to submit papers if they hear a call for any in an area they are interested in.  Yes, the thought of standing up and talking in front of academics is a daunting one, but the rewards make it worth putting yourself out there.

Elizabeth Martin

Elizabeth is currently studying on the MA Sociology programme.

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