'The social stepping stone', also known as school

'The social stepping stone', also known as school

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN - One of the first few milestones in my life that did not involve doctors, needles or the promise of reincarnated lower limbs was school.

This idea had lingered in my mind for the longest time.

I was convinced it would be more worth my while than alternating between idling and experimenting with different treatments and therapies that would lead to finding a cure for my partial paralysis. The naysayers were aplenty. Their efforts in trying to change my mind, strong, often causing me to be at headlocks with them. Imagine that: wanting to go to school and being told it wasn't the best option for you.

However, the main stakeholders in this great endeavour - my parents - were not influenced by this general consensus. And through the right channels, and the right people, we soon found a school that was accessible enough for a wheelchair, but more importantly, willing to accommodate a person with special needs.

My first official day of the rest of my schooling life was in September of 1996.

Wooden planks made up the walls of the classrooms. These planks didn't meet the concrete floor and left gaps big enough for kids on the outside to slide packet after packet of sweets and Capri Sonne to their seniors on the inside.

Not entirely what I had imagined, but there was a way to make this work, I thought. There's always a way.

Children were running everywhere. They glistened in the scorching midday sun, their uniforms slowly losing its opaqueness. Some stood under trees in the compound, against their will, watching.

My parents - in typical first day of school fashion - had taken the day off to settle me in. It was only much later did I learn they were waiting in the car park in case I had second thoughts about my whole grand master plan of going to school sometime during first period.

The last bell for the morning session rang. Streams of bigger kids poured out from these stable-like rooms, which were almost instantly filled with all those bite-sized beings from the compound.

These beings, I soon learned, came with something else that still leaves me baffling in awe, or completely unimpressed: an opinion.

Interesting characters were aplenty, and I soon discovered the difference between being a friend, and what it actually meant to be friendly.

The Debate Club was largely responsible for this, it was after all the only club that taught you how to completely and publicly obliterate your opponent's opinions tactfully. If that isn't a life skill everyone should have, I really don't know what is.

Debate Club - in all its permitted slander glory- was where some of my most time-tested friendships were born. Telling a peer their opinions are downright ludicrous, and then later making up for it with a nice warm bungkus of Nasi Kari Ayam from the school's canteen seems so juvenile in retrospect, but was a widely accepted and often used gesture that meant "No hard feelings, bro".

Despite every class period feeling like an eternity, the entire lifespan of school felt like it ended five years too soon.

In a nutshell, although hardly unique to me, school was the stepping stone for me socially.

Sadly, I've learned that in recent years, some children have been turned away by ''regular schools'' due to lack of expertise, inadequate facilities and unsuitable infrastructure in the Sultanate. As a result, these children are forced to consider the option of being home-schooled, or join special needs centres.

There is nothing wrong with those alternatives, but it deprives these kids of cultivating a social identity more organically. At these centres, they are taught to interact instead of being able to interact independently and more naturally. They also begin to see no difference between their capabilities and their disabilities.

The true intent of these centres are not set on being detrimental, nor are they entirely negative.

Still, with a global shift in special schooling to mainstream all-inclusive education taking place, parents of children with special needs in Brunei should be aware that the Special Education Unit under the Ministry of Education upholds the right of every child to fully participate in mainstream education.

Don't let the schools be the bully!

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