Shaun Markham - a reluctant stand out

For years, Shaun Markham tried to keep his disability on the down-low. Today, as King’s High School dux, he’s embracing the opportunity to stand out and show others what people with disabilities can do

Shaun Markham, 17, Dunedin, New Zealand (image by Jacqui Gibson).

Shaun Markham, 17, Dunedin, New Zealand (image by Jacqui Gibson).


On Shaun Markham’s first day at secondary school, he decided to ditch his wheelchair and build up the strength and balance he needed to walk the grounds of Dunedin’s King’s High School. No ifs, no buts about it.

The year 9 student with athetoid cerebral palsy admits he was a little spooked by the challenge he set himself. But he reckoned with a dogged attitude and the right support he could do it.

The single-sex school’s particularly accessible layout meant Shaun would only have to navigate a two-level block of 28 classrooms.

There was a lift between floors that he could use until he could safely navigate the stairs.

The school had a full time, on site physiotherapist and occupational therapist, as well as three teacher aides to coach and lend a helping hand when he needed it.

The Sawyer’s Bay local, who would become dux just five years later, admits he was driven by the ordinary teenage desire to fit in.

“I was the only boy with a physical disability and, arriving in a wheelchair, I knew I’d be seen as different. But I really didn’t want people to underestimate me. I didn’t want them to think I couldn’t do as well as everyone else,” says Shaun, 17, looking back.

These days, King’s high school rector, Dan Reddiex, laughs at the irony of Shaun’s early decision.

“It’s with admiration and respect that I say Shaun never really blended in here. He always stood out. And that early decision really emphasises the point.

“Very quickly we saw him achieve his goal, with extraordinary tenacity, determination and hard work. He demonstrated his capability and taught us a lot about our own assumptions about disability and what students with disabilities can do.

“In fact, I don’t think I’ve met a young man as impressive as Shaun in all my time in education. That’s because of the challenges he’s had in front of him and the barriers he’s overcome – he has every excuse not to succeed and he’s never offered one. That’s what makes him stand out for me,” says Mr Reddiex.

Shaun’s disability affects his fine and gross motor functions, making him reliant on assistive equipment such as a specialised computer keyboard and someone to write down his study notes and answers in an exam. He tires quickly and his balance and speech is affected, too.

Shaun successfully mastered walking long distances unassisted in his first term at King’s – and never looked back.

He joined the decile six school’s athletics team, taking part in cross country running, shot put and discus. In 2012, he was invited by the first fifteen to lead the rugby team into Forsyth Barr Stadium as flagbearer for a white-knuckle match against Otago Boys.

“That’s an indication of what he achieved, as well as the respect the boys have for him,” says Mr Reddiex.

Over the past few years Shaun has excelled academically, too, achieving NCEA level 3 with excellence in economics, accounting, maths with statistics, history and geography.

Last year, his final year at King’s, he became a school prefect, sat scholarship statistics and economics and was awarded the school’s highest academic award – dux.

In a couple of weeks he’ll head to Otago University to study commerce (in his first year), followed by commerce and law (in his second).

Shaun says: “In the end, I hope I showed everyone another side to disability. One of the things I’ve found hard at school is the question mark that seems to hang over my head. People see me and assume certain things. They question my ability. I have to prove myself over and over. It’s frustrating.

“But I think the teachers and students at King’s saw how much effort I put into my studies and I hope I earned their respect.

“To be honest, I’m not actually a fan of studying – I find it hard work. Sometimes I hate it. I need a lot more study time than other students. But I know I’ve got to put in the time if I want to achieve at a high level and meet my goals.”

Shaun at home in Sawyer’s Bay, Dunedin.

Shaun at home in Sawyer’s Bay, Dunedin.

Shaun’s mum, Carroll, is hugely proud of her son’s achievements. “I always wanted Shaun to have as many opportunities as he could – that’s why his Dad, Richard, and I sent him to mainstream schools. He’s very capable. We could see he needed the competition and challenge of a mainstream environment,” she says.

“My advice to teachers is not to assume a child with disabilities can’t achieve. Get to know kids with disabilities. Care about their education and be prepared to support them – even when the funding’s not there. They need it. Like Shaun, they’ll go along way when you’re on their side.”

Carroll says seeing Shaun become dux was a particularly satisfying and emotional moment for her. “I couldn’t believe it at first. I thought: ‘Oh my god, he’s actually done it!’ We felt so proud of him.

“The entire assembly gave him a standing ovation. It was really moving. And it was wonderful to hear Shaun’s teachers stand up and say how he’d helped them become better teachers by challenging their perceptions of disability.”

According to Shaun, it’s been a two-way street.

“There are a lot of people who’ve supported and helped me over the years – my parents, for starters. I’ve had amazing teacher aides – at primary I had Mrs Rees and Mrs Cobby. At intermediate, there was Mr Otto. At King’s, I had Viv, Gai and Barry, who were awesome. 

“And my economics teacher, Mr Kyle, is so passionate about economics that it sort of rubbed off on me.

“He says I should aim to become Governor of the Reserve Bank one day. I don’t know about that. But I like that Mr Kyle believes I could do it. It makes me think I can do anything I set my mind to,” says Shaun.

Mr Reddiex says King’s has a well-developed culture of inclusion, which is there to foster the success of students just like Shaun.

“We’re a mixed community because we sit between a high income area and a high density, low-income area. We’ve got boys from all walks of life, abilities and cultures. It’s the most diverse boys’ school I’ve worked in. It’s a brilliant place for that reason.”

Mr Reddiex says the school’s culture of inclusion has evolved over time.

It started in the 1990s when the school was completely remodelled, improving the facilities for students with special education needs. A unit was built, a lift added and new specialists and paraprofessionals employed.

More recently, several initiatives aimed at building a more inclusive culture among students have been introduced.

Every week, for example, Mr Reddiex discusses one of the school’s seven core values such as respect at the junior and senior school assemblies.

“It’s just me and the students. I use the time to set my expectations of them as the leader of the school. I might explain what respecting one another actually means in practice; in nitty gritty terms. I want to paint a picture of what it looks like, using real-life examples.”

Teachers reinforce Mr Reddiex’s messages in class.

King’s High School has a zero tolerance policy for bullying and also gives students the opportunity to formally address their peers at assemblies, as a way to emphasise the school’s values and reinforce positive behaviour.

 “Shaun spoke to assembly last year about having ‘no excuses’ when it comes to striving to achieve and doing your best. His speech was extremely powerful. I actually sat there, absorbed what he said and cried.

 “I think, in reality, Shaun has given far more to our school, than we’ve given in return. Just look at the impact he’s had. The student applause when he finished that speech was deafening, it was just incredible.”

Making a successful transition to university – Shaun’s story

Like thousands of teens around the country, Shaun Markham is about to dust off his rucksack and tackle his first-ever day at university.

The 17-year-old says he’s both nervous and excited. On the one hand, university represents a complete break from the security and support offered at secondary school. On the other, he’s looking forward to the independence that it will bring.

Ministry of Education project manager for transition support in Dunedin, Ian Craven, reckons that’s just how it should be for any young person making the transition to university.

“Particularly if things are well planned and everything a student needs is in place from day one,” says Mr Craven.

“I’ve had the pleasure of working with Shaun, his parents and the Disability Information and Support Student Services team at Otago University for a couple of years now.

“Together, we’ve put a lot of time and energy planning and building up to Shaun’s first day at uni. We’re all very excited about what lies ahead. And we’ve learned a lot about the things that go into a successful transition.”

 “My advice is to start the process early!”.

Ian Craven’s top tips on making a successful transition to university

1.     Find out what your students goals are, the subjects they like and what they want to achieve when they leave school

Do this in term one, year 11.

“Shaun’s bright and knew from the outset he wanted to study accounting and economics. But he’s since added law to the list after a recent meeting with the head of law. They hit it off straight away.”

2.     Give yourselves a timeframe of two years to plan, prepare and make the transition from secondary school to university

Do this in term two, year 11.

“I encourage students to start the transition process early. Shaun’s documentation has been gathered and verified by his GP. All the support he needs is place. He’ll be ready to go from day one.”

3.     Visit the university 10 months before starting to find out what support services the university can offer

Ask about scholarships. Meet the heads of department. Ask about assistive equipment. Find out what documentation needs to be collected and from whom. Do this in term two, year 13.

“Getting to know people at your chosen university will help make your first few months on campus much easier. Otago’s disability services team have really got to know Shaun. They can’t wait till he starts.” 

4.     Gather information and use it to access the range of services and support offered to students with special education needs

Do this in term three, year 13.

“You’ll find universities are keen to offer students high levels of support that can be adjusted over time. It’s about making sure that first year is as successful as it can possibly be.”

5.     Be prepared to review the level of services and support you receive

Do this at the start of each new semester.

“Shaun’s got his first review meeting in his diary already. It’ll give him a chance to meet with the disability services team and make any necessary adjustments to the support needed.”

This story was first published in the Education Gazette.