The label ‘special educational needs’ has been critiqued for diverting the attention from a rights-based approach to a needs-led approach in the provision of education. Education is an enabling right and the concern is that the categorization of need can influence teachers’ perceptions of learners and decision making, reinforcing disabling attitudes (EHRC, 2011; Richards, 2011; Thomas and Loxley, 2007).
Historically, the language used to describe conditions reflects the values and social attitudes of the era. For example, the 1944 Education Act (external link) identified ‘categories of handicap’. These categories were identified by terms such as the ‘educationally sub-normal’, the ‘delicate’ and the ‘maladjusted’. Clough and Garner (2003: 75–76) suggest that terms such as maladjusted were open to interpretation and that once categorized the learning trajectory for the child was set.
IQ and a medical diagnosis were seen to be unchanging characteristics and were factors which contributed to the assessment and decisions relating to placement. The legislation reflected the medical model of disability and the perception of difficulties as being ‘within child deficits’ required a segregated and special education for individuals. This psycho-medical lens saw provision overseen within hospitals and training centres with a vocational or life skills approach that impacted on life chances. Children could also be placed in special ‘Educationally Sub Normal’ (ESN) schools and the remedial classes of the secondary modern schools.
Such decisions illustrate the power and potential for practitioners to impose identities and labels, effectively segregating learners as ‘other’ and defining ‘normal’ in the context of learning and teaching. These dynamics contribute to disabling environments where learning and teaching becomes a specialist teaching process, the domain of experts (Richards 2011: 91: Hodge and Chantler, 2010: 12).
The current Special Educational Needs Code of Practice for Wales 2002 (NAfW, 2002) states that all teachers are teachers of learners with special educational needs. Therefore an understanding of the power and impact of labels and the values embedded in language supports innovations in inclusive practice.
As Richards (2011: 92) notes, ‘a focus on an individual child and how they learn in your classroom is much more helpful’. The current and ongoing challenge is to develop a shared language of inclusion which supports the move towards integrated planning and provision (Welsh Government, 2012). Sharing expertise and research and engaging in reflective dialogues with colleagues in communities of practice.
Perceptions of difference have changed over the past decades and language is a key indicator of how we view others. Over the period of a term, keep a reflective diary that addresses the following:
- The language used by practitioners from different disciplines, i.e. health and social care.
- Reflects on the accessibility of language for learners and families.
- Considers the values that underpin language used in school policies and guidance documents, school culture and ethos.
- Examples of good practice to support inclusion.
- Stereotypical images in displays.
- Stereotyping in learning and teaching material.
- Perceptions of labels such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
- Emotions when resolving challenges.
- Timelines for assessments.