‘Instead of seeing a student with disabilities as a square peg to be squeezed into a round hole, we need to change the shape of the hole’

Making reasonable adjustments for students with disabilities does not need to be expensive, says one disability researcher — it may just mean a change in attitude

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Too often, it is assumed that the mere physical presence of student with disabilities in a mainstream school means that the student is being “included”. But inclusion is more than simply “being there”; inclusion is about being accepted for who you are. 

Rather than seeing a student with disabilities as square peg to be squeezed into a round hole, it is about changing the shape of the hole itself. 

The duty to make reasonable adjustments under the Equality Act offers strong legal support to this approach. It requires schools to take “reasonable” (and anticipatory) steps to ensure that pupils with disabilities can fully participate in every aspect of their education, including extra-curricular activities and school trips.

In practice, this means that schools should adjust their policies and procedures to ensure that, as far as is reasonable, a student with disabilities has the same access to school life as a non-disabled student. 

Reasonable adjustments for students with disabilities

Making these adjustments does not have to be expensive or time-consuming. Often, it simply means altering things we cannot see, such as our own attitudes, or addressing the unintended consequences of our routine policies and practices if they unfairly impact on students with disabilities.

For example, rather than insisting that everyone wear the same school uniform, a school uniform policy should be adapted to acknowledge the needs of pupils with disabilities, such as those with autism and sensory sensitivity conditions which may cause a child to suffer extreme discomfort when wearing particular kinds of clothes or shoes. 

Likewise, a school’s behaviour policy (and exclusion policy) should recognise the need to make reasonable adjustments to behaviour which is a result of a student’s disability.

Reasonable adjustments might also need to be made in relation to the classroom environment, such as providing a visually-impaired child with printed handouts in larger print; or a student with dyslexia with handouts on different coloured paper.

It’s true that these changes will mean treating some students differently. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing. 

Disabled students face different barriers and treating them differently is often the only way to protect their equality of access to education.

Dr Debbie Sayers runs the legal consultancy interalia.org.uk and is a founder and executive committee member of the Educational Rights Alliance. She tweets at @ERA_tweet

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