Ugly Duckling Syndrome

Ugly Duckling Syndrome is a concept I created many years ago, in my early 20s, as my attempt to explain my experiences of people as the only child with significance impairments at an all-boys mainstream school in 1985 from age 11 to 16.

I believe the metaphor is self-explanatory. The ducklings are other children without any visible impairments, while the swans are people with cerebral palsy.

Since I was around children without impairments, I had no cultural reference to having cerebral palsy, and therefore saw myself as an ‘ugly’ child without impairments who looked a bit different. I knew I had all these funny labels but I did not know what they meant.

It was not until I was 17 that I started to fully understand what being ‘disabled’ meant and started to begin the process of becoming a swan as someone with cerebral palsy, which took me many years.

I was an ugly duckling because I was forced to normalised by my environment and conform to the non-impaired norms of the school, ‘passing’ as non-impaired as best as I can regardless of what I actually needed or what would have helped me have a better experience.

Over time I learnt to denormalise and stop conforming, becoming the swan as someone with cerebral palsy, accepting both my in terms of my identity and the lifestyle I needed for a better life. This including starting using bibs, nappies, harnesses, helmets and so on, which have all helped me in various ways. These and many other items took time to accept as I gradually became more confident with my cerebral palsy identity.

Look back, I wished I had worn a helmet at school as at a time I was mostly walking, I often fell over changing classrooms with 1000 other children doing the same. I also wished I wear a bib or painting type smock at lunchtime so I did not get mess down my uniform as this did not help the situation. Finally, I wished had a full boilersuit for after school pottery as it was not pleasant going home by taxi covered head to toe in clay on my school uniform!

I am sure I am not the only child with significant who meant to mainstream education who experienced Ugly Duckling Syndrome, even now. although I do not have heard anyone else talk about it. I am sure children with various impairments now have their needs better understood and do not have to normalise as much as I did.

I believe there should be more research on the psychological and social experiences of children with significant impairments both in special schools and mainstream education so we can all better understand their experiences and how we can make improvements their life experiences and opportunities.

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