“Special or Unique”: A new report from Disability Rights UK and LKMco

Education ministers should boost the disability-specific elements of anti-bullying guidelines and personal, social and health education (PSHE), a new report urges today (2nd August 2019).

Based on focus groups with 12-14 year old children, the report suggests there is widespread ignorance of disability issues among schoolchildren, even those who have special educational needs or who are disabled (SEND).

Researchers found widespread frustration amongst SEND pupils in both mainstream and special schools at the failure of teachers and school leaders to deal with bullying and to promote inclusive classroom environments.

Special or Unique – Young People’s Attitudes to Disability, which is based on 11 focus groups with a mix of SEND pupils and non-SEND pupils in mainstream and special schools,  is published by the DRILL programme (Disability Research on Living and Learning).

DRILL is a 5 year programme funded by The National Lottery Community Fund, the biggest funder of community activity in the UK, and is led by disabled people. It aims to build better evidence about approaches to enable disabled people to achieve independent living, which is used to inform future policy and service provision, as well as give a greater voice to disabled people in decisions which affect them.

As well as uncovering widespread unhappiness at schools’ response to bullying behaviour, the research suggests that young disabled people are often excluded from social networks and have few friends.

Lead researcher Evan Odell from Disability Rights UK said: “These findings show that, in some areas, little has changed for disabled children in the last 40 years or so.

“Schools, special educational needs coordinators and teachers have understandably emphasised the need for reasonable adjustments and classroom support for pupils with SEND. Now they need to deal with bullying and ensure disabled children have the same chance to develop social skills and share in the experiences that mark out the teenage years.”

The Department for Education should support teachers and schools by developing SEND-specific anti-bullying guidance and establishing a minimum inclusion standard for disability awareness in the PHSE curriculum, the report says.

The disability component of that curriculum, the report suggests, should be co-developed and co-delivered by disabled people’s organisations working with schools and councils.

The focus groups suggest:

  • Many young disabled people don’t see themselves as disabled – with disability most frequently linked by SEND and non-SEND pupils to use of a wheelchair – or understand why they received extra support or ‘reasonable adjustments’
  • Researchers felt this could be because of a wish to keep a degree of privacy and control
  • Asked to describe themselves many SEND children used self-deprecatory terms such as annoying or lazy – something the researchers suggest could reflect ‘gallows humour’ or a defensiveness that might affect them asking for help or support
  • Pupils with SEND want their schools to be more proactive in facilitating their social and educational inclusion and reducing bullying
  • Despite that, many SEND pupils spoke positively about the subjects or activities they enjoyed – suggesting that other demographic factors are more important than disability for disabled children in an accessible environment that provides sufficient support.

The report argues that supporting pupils with SEND to better understand their disability and the reasonable adjustments and support they can access, could improve academic outcomes and better prepare them for life with disability.

Kate Bowen-Viner, Senior Associate at LKMco, who provided support with the design of the research, said:

“We hope this research will help teachers, school leaders and policymakers better understand how they can support young disabled people. The research also highlights the value of creating forums for young people to reflect critically on the perceptions they have of their peers with special educational needs and disabilities.

The report’s other recommendations include:

  • School leaders should foster greater openness about SEND and disability in the school, and support pupils with SEND to understand their own disability.
  • Local disabled people’s organisations should be involved in planning and delivering PSHE lessons on disability.

A copy of the full report is available here.

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