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MEP learning pack

Masters in Educational Practice: Special educational needs and inclusion learning pack


Inclusive learning environments


Models of disability

The medical model of disability, or the individual model, takes a ‘within child’ deficit approach and attempts to cure or remedy the condition. (Connor & Stalker, 2007: 21). This approach asks the individual to adjust to society, with the locus of control in decision making being retained by the professional rather than the individual, potentially exercising ‘power over’ the decisions that impact on placement and provision (Thompson, 2007).

In contrast, the social model of disability acknowledges the impact of access issues within physical environments and the effect of ‘discriminatory attitudes and practice’ (Booth & Ainscow, 2011: 45). In this sense, the notion of disability is a social construct. Diversity is valued and the barriers to participation are acknowledged. The social model of disability has been championed by individuals with the lived experience of disabling environments.

As a tool for change, the social model of disability was adopted by the Welsh Government in 2002 and underpins the development of policy strands. It has been noted that although an emphasis has been placed on physical environments and social attitudes, the effect of impairments needs to be acknowledged. For example the stress of pain, chronic illness and fatigue:

External disabling barriers may create social and economic disadvantage but our subjective experience of our bodies is also an integral part of our everyday reality.

(Crow, 2010: 127).

Recent discussion has focused on childhood models of disability and brings our attention to ‘barriers to doing’ linked to participation in activity and ‘barriers to being’. Barriers to being takes into consideration the image defining attitudes of others that impact on self-worth, and as Thomas describes in a seminal piece of writing, can potentially undermine psycho-emotional well-being (Thomas 1999: 156 cited in Connor and Stalker 2007:103).

Children and young people are perceived as active citizens rather than the passive receivers of services. Individuals  have a voice and a perception of experiences which may differ from their parents/carers, teachers and teaching assistants. Here, we begin to link the social model of disability within the context of education to the ideas of learner well-being and learner voice. Information relating to the above is available in the Listening to Learners toolkit and 'Thinking Positively' (external link).


Key definitions

Impairment can be defined as ‘the loss or limitation of physical, mental or sensory function on a long term, or permanent basis’.

Disablement can be defined as the ‘loss or limitation of opportunities to take part in the normal life of the community on an equal level with others due to physical and social barriers’ (Disabled People’s International 1981 cited in Rieser, 2003).

Impact on policy and practice

The models of disability are reflected in legislation and codes of practice. When reading through policies published at school, local authority or devolved administration level consider the language used and the focus for intervention.

Terminology may resonate with the ‘within child deficit’ approach or a whole-school response that is proactive in designing positive learning experiences. For example, consider how the medical model is reflected in the Special Educational Needs Code of Practice for Wales 2002.

Activity 1.1.1

Critically reflect on any tensions between the notion of special educational needs and that of inclusion. Which model of disability does the vision of inclusion reflect?

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