Self-advocate James Martin recently represented Northern Ireland at a European Parliament hearing on inclusive education
“I was just a wee bit nervous,” admits James Martin, a self-advocate with a learning disability, who recently represented Northern Ireland at a European Parliament hearing on inclusive education. “But it was a really good experience. I actually did enjoy it.”
James, 19, from Belfast, was nominated by Mencap, along with his brother Daniel and friend John Bennington, to join 90 other young people from 27 countries at the hearing in Brussels on 7 November. Hosted by the European Agency for Development in Special Needs Education, the hearing was an opportunity for young people aged 14 to 18 with and without special educational needs to have their say about inclusive education. As a member of the Shout Out self-advocacy group, speaking up and influencing decision makers is nothing new to James, who already has several visits to the Stormont Parliament Buildings under his belt. However, presenting his views to top European politicians was a new experience – and one he took firmly in his stride.
The same choices for all
Before setting off for Brussels, all the young representatives attending the hearing were tasked with designing a poster summing up what inclusive education meant to them. “I liked everything on our poster,” says James. “It was a picture of a school where everyone attended and had the same choices.”
The visit was also of interest to education minister John O’Dowd, who invited James, Daniel and John to Stormont. “He asked us what we thought of inclusive education. We talked about Brussels and he wished us good luck,” says James.
After arriving in Brussels, there was just time to take in some of the sights and make the most of the hotel’s swimming pool and gym, before the hard work commenced. “We went to see the big square with lovely buildings,” says James. “And the hotel was lovely, but the food was really bad!”
On the day before the hearing, all the young people took part in workshops to discuss their thoughts on inclusive education. James, whose group included students from Estonia and Portugal, was keen to express his views.
“The point I wanted to make was that everyone should have a say in their education,” explains James. “Everyone should be included and everyone should learn together.” The workshops were also a chance for the young people to learn more about inclusive education in each other’s countries.
“I loved meeting new people and hearing what they said,” says James. “I learned that lots of countries had problems and some people didn’t get to go to the schools they wanted.”
The workshops also provided a warm-up opportunity for the day ahead at the European Parliament, where James, along with others from his workshop group, presented his thoughts to a packed audience of about 200, including European Commission members.
“The presentation went well,” he says. “They listened to us very well, I have to say. I think it will help change things for the future.”
In his presentation, James spoke about the importance of self-confidence for young people with a disability in mainstream education.
“In inclusive education, we can get support from other students, who help us learn. But sometimes students can be mean, so we need to have self-confidence.”
It’s a busy life
Thankfully, negative treatment is not something James often experiences at Belfast Metropolitan College, where he studies catering and ICT.
His is a mainstream college where students with a learning disability attend separate courses, but where all students, with and without a disability, share the same building and socialise together.
“I have friends with and without a disability,” says James. “It’s really good fun.” And college, he says, is helping him to be more independent, with the support he gets to travel and to manage his money.
“My college is very good at inclusive education,” he says. “I can take part in things. I also have two classroom assistants. They help me with typing and writing.”
Outside of school, James enjoys doing voluntary work for Mencap and pursuing his love of rugby, swimming and drama. “It’s a busy life,” he admits, “but I really like being busy.”
His future aspirations include learning sign language and getting a full-time job at Starbucks, where he already works part time. There are also plans in the pipeline to invite some of the young people he met in Brussels to a disability rights conference in Belfast, this March. So is inclusive education a cause James will continue to champion?
“I can go back to the Shout Out group with information from the hearing,” he says. “Then we can go back to the minister to tell him what we think good education is. It’s important to me.”