Special Educational Needs And Disability: Key Theoretical Debates And Changing Concepts

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Introduction to Special Educational Needs and Disability Studies

This essay will discuss the key issues, theories and concepts surrounding Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND), including the various models of disability and the labelling and representation of people with SEND. This essay will also discuss relevant policy changes that relate to SEND and how these have an impact on educational provision for children with SEND, putting a primary focus on the children’s rights to an education. As Boggis (2018. P. 2) [3] states, the terminology surrounding SEND has been the cause of much debate between academics and is widely contested. Due to this, SEND can be described in several ways, defined by the Equality Act 2010 [1] as having a physical or mental impairment that has a ‘substantial and long-term’ negative effect on the person’s ability to do normal day-to-day activities (Gov.UK, 2018). SEND has also be defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as not just being a health problem but being a ‘complex phenomenon’. SEND is a broad term that covers impairment, activity limitations and other participation restrictions (who.int, 2019) [2]. A key debate among professionals in this area is the disability versus impairment debate. An impairment is, as defined by the Disabled People’s International (DPI, cited in Goodley, 2011. p. ) [4] is the functional limitation within the individual caused by physical, mental or sensory illness, injury or condition. Impairment is seen as a medical condition coming from within the individual, which follows the medical model of disability, whereas disability today follows a more social or interactionist approach.

The first issue this essay will discuss is the different models of disability. Overall, the models of disability provide the foundations of the concepts within Disability Studies by their definitions of what a disability is, as well as how the person with the disability is treated. They also provide debate within the field of disability and challenge ideologies of what disabilities are. The first model is the medical model of disability which began to be widely accepted in the late nineteenth century. Barnes and Mercer (2010, p. 19) [5] define the medical model of disability as a focus on bodily abnormality, disorder, and deficiency and how it causes functional limitations or disability. The foundations are laid by professional diagnosis, treatment and the measure of recovery. Wall (2010 p. 201) [6] states, one of the key issues with the medical model is that it does not reflect on the individual but instead focuses on the condition – assuming that treatment will ameliorate difficulties. The medical model also affects the way in which people with disabilities think about themselves; it conveys a message that all the problems for people living with disabilities stem from not having a ‘normal’ body. (PUT IN A REFERENCE!) Another limitation of the medical model of disability is that the environmental and social influences are ignored. The assumption is that disability is pathological and therefore to have a disability is to have “something wrong with you” (Oliver, 1996b, quoted in Barnes and Mercer 2010, p. 24).[5]

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In contrast to the medical model, the social model seeks to move the focus away from the limitations of impaired bodies. This looks instead at the difficulties caused for disabled people by societal limitations, attitudes, and cultures (Mallett and Runswick-Cole 2014, p. 10).[7] Barnes (2008, p. 5) [8] states that the social model aims to expose barriers and remove them so disabled people can participate in all areas of life - including education and work systems, accessing benefits, health and social services. Indeed, Shakespeare (2017, p. 198) [9] identifies that by removing social barriers, the social model has been effective in the liberation of disabled people. The social model enables disabled people to reject the medical model and assert their rights to equality. That said, the social model of disability has generated much debate within the field of Disability Studies. Shakespeare (2017, p. 199) [9] suggests that the social model of disability disowns approaches and by doing so, it risks implying that impairment is not a problem. This can be interpreted as rejecting medical rehabilitation or cure, even if this was not intended.

In comparison to both of these models, the Nordic Relational model, recognised by Goodley. (2011) [4] revolves around three tenets, disability is a person-environment mismatch, it is contextual and relative. Tøssebro (2004. p. 4) [10] states that in Scandinavia, disability has been defined as a mismatch between the person’s capabilities and the functional demands of the environment. Tøssebro also distinguishes disability as a relationship which is dependent on the environment. As Mallett and Runswick-Cole (2014. p. 21) [7] explain, normalisation is a key element of Disability Studies in Scandinavia. Wolfensberger, W (1980, cited in Mallett and Runswick-Cole. 2014, p. 21) [7] is strongly affiliated with the normalisation principles and these are considered to be the strengths of the Nordic model. However, one of the weaknesses of the normalisation theory, as explained by Chappell, A.L. (1992, cited in Mallett and Runswick-Cole 2014, p. 22) [7] is that it runs the risk of presenting the people with the disabilities as deviant.

The use of the different models of disability has led to the labelling of children and young people with SEND and has had a significant impact on how they are represented. This labelling and representation are incredibly significant in children’s lives and their journey through the education system. Davis (2013) [13] discusses normality, what it is that makes people with SEND ‘abnormal’. The ‘problem’ does not lie with the individual who has a disability; but the problem lies in the way ‘normal’ is constructed by society (Davis, 2013, p1). [13] There is a point of view that can be argued that people with SEND deviate from the norm, meaning thy do not fit in with the ideal curve of deviation within modern society. This leads others to believe that individuals with SEND are abnormal (Davis, 2013, p3). [13]

A significant factor to the labelling of children and young people with SEND is the use of Education, Health and Care (EHC) Plans. EHC Plans were introduced in the Children and Families Act 2014 (Children and Families Act 2014). [14] and replaced the ‘statements’ which were first introduced in the Education Act 1981 (Education Act 1981). [15]

The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 details that local authorities were legally obligated to make further provisions in respect to the welfare of chronically sick and disabled people in the home. The Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act also provides respite care for children with disabilities, giving families some time apart, however, this is only available if they meet certain criteria. (Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970). [11] Based on this piece of legislation, the focus was primarily on what services can be provided to families within their homes, to meet the needs of children with SEND. Linking this to the models of disability, this Act appears to follow the medical model more closely, which is expected due to the time it was enacted.

Another factor which has contributed to the representation and labelling of children and young people with SEND are symbols which have become representative for disabilities and Special Educational Needs (SEN); the wheelchair with the blue background, a symbol which was first created in the late 1960s and it can be found in car parks, on disabled toilets and on public transport seating. (Vice et al., 2019) [16] It can be debated whether or not this symbol actually represents all people with SEND.

Reference List:

  1. Equality Act 2010, c. 15. United Kingdom. Available at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/section/6 (Accessed: 28th November 2019).
  2. World Health Organisation (2017) Disabilities. Available at: https://www.who.int/topics/disabilities/en/ (Accessed: 28th November 2019).
  3. Boggis, A. (2018) Dis/abled Childhoods? A Transdisciplinary Approach. 1st ed. London: Palgrave.
  4. Goodley, D (2011) Disability Studies. An Interdisciplinary Introduction. London: SAGE
  5. Barnes, C. and Mercer, G. (2010) Exploring Disability. 2nd edn. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  6. Wall, K. (2012) Special Needs and Early Years. 3rd edn. London: Sage Publishing
  7. Mallett, R. and Runswick-Cole, K. (2014) Approaching Disability: Critical Issues and Perspectives. Oxon: Routledge.
  8. Barnes, C. (2008) ‘Disability and the academy: A British perspective’. Available at: http:// disability-studies.leeds.ac.uk/files/library/Barnes-paris-presentation.pdf (Accessed 20 October 2019).
  9. Shakespeare, T. (2017) ‘The Social Model of Disability’ in Davis, Lennard J. (ed) The Disability Studies Reader. New York NY: Routledge.
  10. Tøssebro, J. (2004) ‘Understanding disability’: Introduction to the special issue ‘Understanding Disability’, Scandinavian Journal of Disability Studies, 6, 1.
  11. Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, c. 44. United Kingdom. Available at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1970/44/introduction (Accessed: 3rd December 2019).
  12. McKinley, J. (2015). 'Critical Argument and Writer Identity: Social Constructivism as a Theoretical Framework for EFL Academic Writing' (PDF). Critical Inquiry in Language Studies. 12 (3): 184–207. doi:10.1080/15427587.2015.1060558 (Accessed: 2nd December 2019)
  13. Davis, L. (2013) The disability studies reader. 4th edn. London: Routledge
  14. Children and Families Act 2014, c. 6. United Kingdom. Available at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2014/6/introduction (Accessed: 1st December 2019).
  15. Education Act 1981, c. 60. United Kingdom. Available at: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/1981/60/pdfs/ukpga_19810060_en.pdf (Accessed: 3rd December 2019).
  16. Vice, J., Barstow, B., Bowman, S., Mehta, T. and Padalabalanarayanan, S. (2019). Effectiveness of the International Symbol of Access and inclusivity of other disability groups. Disability and Health Journal, p.100836.
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