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History Bones: Elaine’s Story

  • Posted on Jun 21, 2018

“I was born in Stevenage in the early 60’s. My infants’ school was mainstream but when it came to moving on to junior school the local authority were very keen to place me in their new “special school” for disabled children.

My parents were not so keen. After visiting the school they realised the emphasis was very much on improving disabled children’s physical challenges and less on their educational needs. My physical abilities were indeed complex, but I could certainly use my brain! We won the fight and I was placed in a local mainstream school which I loved. I had a close network of friends that didn’t “see” my disability at all. Of course I fractured occasionally but that would have happened whichever school I had attended.

At the age of 11 I went on to a mainstream comprehensive that already had a number of disabled pupils, as this was the thalidomide era. The school was very accommodating with ramps and a lift and both pupils and teachers were very accepting of disability. However, at the age of 15, due to my father’s work we moved to Dorset and I had to enrol at another comprehensive school to complete my education.

The headmaster was willing to take me on despite the fact I was their first disabled pupil. This became a huge learning curve for all of us and I have to say in a large school of over 1,000 pupils it proved a difficult placement for me. Many of the children had not encountered disabled classmates before and were very reluctant to get to know me, which in such an alien environment left me keeping to myself.

The building was totally unsuitable for a wheelchair user with different blocks for each subject.

There were no ramps so I had to entrust children with no experience of wheelchairs to take me up and down steps. Even the teachers struggled with my disability and my lowest point came when one looked at me and told me I was a “nuisance” because I needed a lower desk!

After I left, my school continued to take disabled pupils and I’m sure they would have had a better experience than I did: Everybody can learn from their own mistakes. I still believe mainstream school has huge advantages, not least the acceptance of disability from a young age. I’m sure today’s schools are far better – and thank-goodness for that!”

– Elaine Rush

If you have any memories of how OI has affected you or your family over the past fifty years, we would love to hear from you. We are collecting items of historical significance for our upcoming History Bones exhibition, and anything you might be able to lend us would be gratefully received. Please email us at if you want to get involved!