The Butler Scholarly Journal

Disability Awareness: Barriers in Education

By Ella Pattison

This year, over 11 million viewers tuned in to watch the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Paralympic Games[1], introducing disability awareness into the forefront of mainstream media like never before. Internationally, Britain is one of the forerunners for disability provision; and although attitudes  are changing and becoming more positive, there is still an immense lack of understanding about mental and physical disabilities. According to the NHS, over 10 million people in the UK are registered disabled- 770,000 of whom are children. Of course, the term ‘disabled’ covers a vast range of mental and physical impairments; the Equality Act 2010[2] includes everything from multiple sclerosis to depression. But whatever the issue, growing up with a disability and overcoming obstacles in education, work and independent living can be incredibly challenging. The barriers to learning faced by students with disabilities are many and complex,  but there are strategies in place to ensure disabled students have access to equal educational opportunities.

The law states that all UK schools must protect disabled students from all forms of discrimination, and make ‘reasonable adjustments’ to provide support and equipment for those with special educational needs (SEN). Finding the correct education provider is a huge factor in reducing problems for children with disabilities. Suitable academic provision, solutions to practical concerns such as wheelchair access, and even anti-bullying campaigns can all have a beneficial effect on school life and individual attainment. Currently, the decision whether to send a child to Mainstream or Special Needs School is generally left to parents and carers, who have the responsibility to choose which best suits their child, while the school must adapt to accommodate each individual. However, plans put forward by the coalition government in the SEN and Disability Green Paper[3] have the potential to change this, giving the government authority to overrule parents’ wishes and make decisions about a disabled child and the education they receive. For example, the proposal states parents will be given a diverse range of schools to choose from,

“and have their preference met unless it would not meet the needs of the child, be incompatible with the efficient education of other children, or be an inefficient use of resources. “

This could have huge effect on educational attainment of children with disabilities. An ‘efficient’ use of resources is likely to encourage children with SEN into special schools where physical needs are more easily met, extra support staff are not as necessary and the system is not required to adapt to the individual in the same way as in mainstream schools. In some instances, mainstream schools are already phasing out disability provision to allow the ‘efficient’ education of others, while protecting their league table status. A recent case involved a student with Down’s syndrome attending a mainstream secondary school. Equality laws prevented the school from refusing the child admittance based on his disability; however when the school began a push to move up the league tables, his life was made so difficult his parents were forced to move him to the local special needs school. It has since been speculated that this was done to prevent his future GCSE grades affecting the school’s averages, as until the change in school administration the student had been coping well with mainstream education. Although this student had a one-on-one helper, the level of his work was advanced suddenly, and such unrealistic expectations resulted in claims that the school could no longer meet the needs of the child. Another student diagnosed with both Down’s syndrome and Autism suffered similar problems with educational provision, being made to attend three separate schools simultaneously; two mainstream and one special school, as it was the only way the local education authority could ‘cater for his needs’.

Subtle segregation of disabled students in this way is not uncommon, and should be brought to the attention of wider society. Though of course it does not suit all individuals, students with milder forms of disability and learning difficulties have been shown to progress further in mainstream schools.  Evidence shows that they attain better results than in specialised schools for a multitude of reasons, perhaps the most obvious being comparison and competition with peers. Reducing the number of children with SEN in mainstream schools could not only impact those individuals, but also increase prejudice by discriminating between ‘normal’ and ‘special’ students, undoing the positive changes to opinions of disability. Ultimately, education for disabled students should be determined by what is best for the individual, ensuring provisions for learning are adequate, and all schools provide equal opportunities for all students to acquire the academic and social competency required for an independent adult life.


Ella Pattison is in her second year, studying Education and Psychology.