Labels are not a cure

2nd December 2016 at 00:00
'We tend to label children with special educational needs'
There is no miracle cure for SEND – we need to tackle the underlying social barriers that lie in the way of students’ success

I’ve been spending some time lately attempting to explain the social model of disability to colleagues. It’s not something I would usually do, but seeing as it is the key idea that underpins the SEN Code of Practice (even if it doesn’t quite go the whole hog), and I was delivering some training on the very subject, it was worth giving it a go.

On the face of it, it’s quite easy to explain. The idea, in a nutshell, is that the person with the disability is disabled not so much by themselves, as by the world and the society that surrounds them.

After the Paralympic Games, there was a great video doing the rounds that made this very point. The young man starring in it went about his business, visiting coffee shops and other public places, and finding that thanks to his use of a wheelchair, he was unable to get in or use the toilet without having to ask for help.

When you present it like that, it seems obvious.

'Needs invisible to the naked eye'

The problem for us is that children or young people with special educational needs and/or disabilities don’t tend to come with a handy sign. More often than not, their needs are invisible to the naked eye. So one of the things we like to do when we come across a young person with a learning disability or additional need of some sort – to help us to remember that they are experiencing barriers that we need to support them to overcome – is give them, and their needs, a label.

The person with the disability is disabled not so much by themselves, as by the world and society

Which is all very well, except that it opens up the medical model of disability trap. Now, doctors are wonderful people. I like my GP immensely. Whenever I feel that I am not getting better from some sort of child-induced lurgy, he is there to tell me what is wrong and give me some medicine to make it better. If it doesn’t improve in, say, 24 hours or so, he tells me to come back and what I should do. It’s great.

The thing is, though, that it is never quite as simple in the classroom. We might know what is “wrong” with a student. We might have tested them, diagnosed them and labelled them – but we cannot cure them. When we think we know what is “wrong” with a child, we expect some sort of miracle cure – a 24-hour stretch and everything will be fine.

Getting back to the social model, the problems they are experiencing do not reside inside them like germs. Rather, the problem might be that the displays are too busy, or the test is too small, or we are not making our questions or instructions clear enough.

The thing with barriers is that you keep on having to remove them. Whatever it was that caused the difficulty does not go away just because we know its name. For many, the effects can echo for years; for others, they last a lifetime.


Nancy Gedge is a consultant teacher for the Driver Youth Trust, which works with schools and teachers on SEND. She is the TES SEND specialist and author of Inclusion for Primary School Teachers

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