Taking part in the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme is not something that I ever did when I was at school. I must have missed the meeting or something; either that, or I took no notice of it, after an unhappy week spent at the Dartmoor Adventure Centre when I was twelve, and I was the only one who turned up without a sleeping bag. Sleeping bag inners were provided, the letter said, so my mum took it at its word and, while other girls unpacked their own pillows and pillow cases, I was left to make do with a sleeping bag inner and a ripped and dirty sleeping bag with half the stuffing falling out. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep that week, and my enthusiasm for the outdoors and adventures was dimmed.
I didn’t really enjoy the activities either, it must be said. My group got lost when we ‘orienteered’ around a short course. I fell in the water, after going round and round in circles for a while, when it was me at the end of the canoe raft and I had to swap places with the one at the other end. I was too thin for the climbing harness and had to have a rope tied around my waist (I chickened out of the abseiling, which was probably a good thing). It wasn’t long before I was longing to go home.
The husband, on the other hand, loved it. He went and achieved his gold award, and, after we married, introduce me to the delights of hiking with bikes, and walking up mountains. Up until our Scottish Holiday, my only experience in tents had been in my parents’ garden and was Not Good. I still get a bit funny about sleeping bags. Sam, with the support of his dad, has decided to give the Bronze award a go. Volunteering at a charity café, check. Sport (football), check. Skill (guitar), check. All we have left to do is the adventurous activity. He’ll go camping at forest school and we’re off up Pen Y Fan in a couple of weeks.
Sam though, bless him, is not the happiest of campers. It always seems like so much fun until you actually have to go to bed, and then it all becomes a bit of a trial. He can’t get comfy in the sleeping bag. The ground is all slopy. There are funny noises. There’s weather. Last year, in the middle of a week away, he disappeared in the dark, only to be found, arms crossed and a most pugnacious of expressions applied, sitting in the car, determined to be taken to Grandma’s. Despite my early antipathy to life under canvas, tenting has become part of what we do, and so we persevere.
For some people, though, it’s an amazing thought that someone with special needs should have been camping with his family. Only the other week, I was given a leaflet about it by someone who was surprised when I handed it back and suggested that they gave it to someone for whom it would be a new and exciting experience. It felt weird, and terribly middle class to tell her the tale of the camping trip to the sailing club, and the fact that Sam has his own boat (a kayak). It was a shock, because, once we moved away from the mainstream, and we grew away from the nursery years and we chased off the home visits from the social worker and all of those other things that happen when there is special needs in the family, I got used to not being patronised.
You see, some people, and I include members of my own profession in this, forget that learning disability, or special educational needs, or whatever you want to call it, is no respecter of class or income. It’s as if special educational needs only happen to the disadvantaged, the poor or the working class. You know, the people you can blame for the whole Bad Parenting thing. That the answer to special needs is somehow to educate parents (send them on a parenting course, especially the mother), or get the children away from the parents (like the school for two-year-olds thing), to get the parents, those ignorant mistake makers to do as they are told because we, the professionals, are the ones who know what we are doing.
It used to be said that illness and disability, or the Bad Things That Happen were the wages of sin. You did Bad Things, and you got what you deserved. The way of thinking that thought that Bad Things didn’t happen to Good People. Sad to say, when you get thinking about it, when you get to mulling over attitudes to special educational needs, how they must be the fault of the parents, for not doing as they are told, it doesn’t feel like we have moved on very far.