Disability at School: Overcoming Barriers to Education

A disability can have a hugely significant effect on a child’s experience at school. Many disabled adults describe their experience at school as an ultimately negative one.

A study carried out by the University of London’s Institute of Education (IOE) showed that around 12 percent of special needs pupils at age seven felt like they were bullied ‘all of the time’.

However, bullying of disabled children is often ignored. The same study said disabled youngsters had been "largely neglected" in research assessing the impact of bullying.

There are several reasons why those affected by a disability might have a negative experience at school. This includes a lack of awareness among staff and other children; negative attitudes towards disabled pupils and a failure to provide the appropriate facilities.

In this article, we will

Look through key statistics regarding school-age disabled children 

Explore some of the unfavourable conditions they face at school 

Provide you with tips on how to destigmatize disability when talking with children

Understanding the problem

There are 770, 000 children with a disability in the uk, and 193,707 British children of school age have a learning disability. Most children with special educational needs (SEN) go to mainstream schools, with less than 10% attending special schools in the UK.

This means that the majority of school aged children with a disability are in mainstream schools. These schools often have poor facilities to support disabled children, combined with a lack of awareness and Disability at School: Overcoming Barriers to Educationnegative attitudes. 

As a result, 26% of disabled people report negative experiences at school and 82% of children with learning difficulties are bullied. The Children’s Commissioner (2013a, 2013b)  found Pupils with SEN are more likely to be illegally excluded than their peers, that they were sometimes taught separately from their peers with reduced access to the curriculum, and that a small number of schools ban disabled children from extracurricular activities.

Disabled children are also often the first to be discriminated against by structural changes to the education system. 

After the introduction of academies in 2016, there were up to 30 cases of children with special needs being refused an academy place, according to Ipsea, the special needs advice service. It has now been clarified that academies have the same legal obligations to children with special needs as maintained schools, howeverthe effects of such disruption are long lasting. Not just to those children directly affected, but in institutionalising a perception of disabled children as outside of the community these schools are required to serve. 

As you can see we still have some way to go in improving a disabled child’s experience at school.

What can we do about it?  

Mencap recommends the following key things that schools can do to help prevent the bullying of students with SEN or a learning disability:

Have a school policy against bullying

Create an inclusive school ethos and atmosphere

Raise awareness of disability amongst all students in mainstream schools

Support students to make and maintain friendships

Involve parents and carers as well as students in bullying prevention schemes

Provide training for teachers on bullying prevention

Provide training for teachers in mainstream schools on SEN and learning disability

Additionally, schools must train staff in special needs education, include disabled children in group activities, and increase the range of instructional materials. 

If you’re not in education that doesn’t mean you can’t help. De-stigmatising disability starts at home. 

Throughout their lives our children will come across children who are different from themselves, who might be of a different race, religion, gender identity or physical/mental ability. For this reason we must ensure that all children are educated in the principles of equality and how to understand diversity.

Here’s how you can teach little ones about disabilities:

1. Reassess your own attitude and set a good example for children.

You might feel it necessary to become better educated yourself before discussing disabilities with your children.

We must also avoid treating differently abled people differently from anybody else to make sure children don’t pick up any bad habits.

Similarly we must discuss the topic of disability in a politically correct manner. Teach your children by setting a good example for them.

2. Be open to an honest and frank discussion in which you answer as many of their questions as possible.

We all know that children don’t have the same anxieties that adults do when it comes to asking the questions that might make you feel a bit uncomfortable and awkward.

Never reprimand your children for this – they just don’t understand yet. Be prepared to answer all of their questions.

Here are some examples of ideas that you should explain to your children when answering their questions:

Every single person is different to the next.

A disability is just one part of a person, not the whole person.

Like all children they want friends and to be treated nicely.

Some people are born with a disability and others become disabled because of an accident or medical problem.

A physical disability doesn’t equal a mental disability and vice versa.

It’s impossible to catch a disability.

Although disabled children do all of the same things other children do they might need a little more help or a little more time.

3. Expose children to positive representations of disabled people.

You should keep your child away from negative or offensive stereotypes of disabled people that are perpetrated by the media.

Instead show them positive examples of disabled people or children. This might include showing them potential role models in the form of athletes who take part in the Special Olympics, or actors who have still landed key roles in films and television.

There are also lots of children’s books that provide a positive representation of disability; and can help you explain the nature of disabilities to your child.

Explaining disabilities to children might not be an easy task. Nevertheless, it is so important that children understand how to treat everybody equally no matter what differences they possess. Only then can we reduce the number of disabled pupils who are bullied at school.

We also have a huge range of disability aids that you may wish to check out!


Sources & Further Reading: 
Chatzitheochari, S; Parsons, S and Platt, L           (2016)     Doubly Disadvantaged? Bullying Experiences among DisabledChildren and Young People in England.Sociology , 50 (4) pp. 695-713. (2016)
Children’s Commissioner (2013a) “They go the Extra Mile”: Reducing Inequalities in School Exclusions.
Children’s Commissioner (2013b) Always Someone Else’s Problem: Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s Report on Illegal Exclusions.
Mooney, A; Owen, C and Statham, J  (2008)     Disabledchildren: Numbers, characteristics and local service provision.Department for Children, Schoolsand Families, Nottingham. (2008)


October 22, 2018

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