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‘People of determination’: a better term for SEND?

When the UAE introduced a new term to describe those with SEND, opinions were split. What can we learn from the change?

Should we call pupils with SEND 'people of determination’?

When the UAE introduced a new term to describe those with SEND, opinions were split. What can we learn from the change?

In April 2017, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum made a controversial choice.

As part of a national strategy to empower people with disabilities, Sheikh Mohammed, the vice president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirate and ruler of Dubai, introduced a new term to refer to people with special educational needs and disabilities: "people of determination".

This change came as part of a mission to, by 2021, make the UAE a more inclusive country that “integrates all segments of society while preserving culture, heritage and traditions”.

Speaking to the Khaleej Times, Sheikh Mohammed said that the word “disability” implied an “inability to make progress and achievements”.

The idea behind the "people of determination" label, therefore, was to acknowledge the tenacity of people with SEND, who often go on to achieve much in life, despite having additional challenges to overcome.

The terminology was so rapidly embedded in city-wide signage, services and facilities that one might assume that "people of determination" was immediately and universally accepted. However, the reception amongst SEND professionals was tepid as they puzzled over what appeared to be an ineffective translation that fell short of the initial good intentions.

What does 'people of determination' mean?

What was the problem? Well, from a non-disabled perspective, the term felt potentially patronising; it seeks to validate a character trait (determination) that may, or may not, be present within individual members of the disabled community. How would an able-bodied person feel if they faced evaluation against similar standards?

In addition, those of us working in private international schools, who were already striving to pursue an international social inclusion model – governed as we are by parental expectations, inspection requirements and policy recommendations – now also had to adapt to this unfamiliar local terminology.

Some colleagues initially struggled to understand the rationale for the change, and therefore did not reflect on the potential merits of the new phrase.

That said, many sendcos and school leaders have since taken the time to dig deeper in order to better understand the choice of our host nation. And I think that there are lessons that we can all take from this new terminology about how we approach inclusion in general.

The spirit behind the change, after all, was admirable – representing a move away from a deficit model to a strengths-based model, demonstrating that the true power of inclusivity lies in valuing strengths and differences.


On reflection, perhaps the issue is not with the specific language of choice, but with an overly literal interpretation of the phrase. Non-native residents may prefer a slightly reorganised structure: "self-determined people".

The notion of self-determination is more universally recognised and can be applied equally to all people, irrespective of differences in physical or intellectual ability. A self-determined person knows what they want and how to achieve it; they have control over the quality of their own life. People who are self-determined advocate for themselves; they overcome barriers, set goals, and work to achieve them – recognising that this is not always possible to do alone.

In fact, it seems to me that, with a little reinterpretation, the UAE’s phrasing could actually provide a perfect example of the mindset required for a barrier-free society.

Is it possible that, with time, a phrase that celebrates self-determination and avoids all potentially limiting identification labels may negate the need for terminology pertaining to "disabilities" in any regard? Only time and the language and attitude of a nation will tell.

Emma Dibden is head of learning support and inclusion champion at Jumeirah English Speaking School in Dubai

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