The prospect of ensuring disabled people have the right level of support in order to participate in the education system has continuously been questioned and undermined. The Coalition Government in 2010 called to end the “bias” towards inclusion; focusing, rather, on the diagnostic assessment tools to detail school children’s medical needs and shift policy to undermine an inclusive education approach. The recent Equality and Human Rights Commission report highlighted disabled students as having lower attainment rates in school, twice as likely as their non-disabled peers to not be in education, employment or training and the proportion of disabled people with no qualifications was three times that of non-disabled people. Currently, disabled people and their user led organisations (organisations run by and for disabled people) are raising awareness of the government’s £30 million cuts to the Disabled Student Allowance programme.
The cuts will be severe; no funding for expensive assistive technology, no funding to pay for additional staff to provide academic support (note-taking, sign language interpreters, examination support or study skills mentoring) and no funding to meet the additional transport costs incurred because of disability. With the infiltration of neoliberal economics becoming the inspiration for how universities should operate, we will expect to see a drop in the numbers of disabled people getting and remaining in university. Attainment levels predominately become a reflection of the barriers imposed upon the student as they attempt to access their studies. With universities taking responsibility for addressing the access and support requirements of disabled learners, there will be a reluctance to take on disabled undergraduates and postgraduates – and students will, no doubt, be reluctant to inform staff of their “experience of disability”. We witnessed this within the employment sector, which led to the Access to Work initiative.
Disability is often seen as a burden upon society – stereotypical representations in the media and political rhetoric led to disabled people being perceived as worthless and unproductive. Fictional depictions of disabled people are usually portrayed as pathetic, sinister or an object of ridicule; personal accounts of those favouring assisted suicide regularly highlight the issue of ‘being/becoming a burden‘ and – every so often – influential figures suggest disabled people should be paid less than the minimum wage.
These types of views, in turn, justifies medical interventions. Contemporary service provision is based upon the assumption that the problems facing disabled people is a result of their medical condition. Prevention, rehabilitation and re-enablement take precedence over adjusting the structured social environment to take account of the needs and aspirations of disabled people. Access to support is determined by medical assessments and medical professional scrutiny, which reinforces the perspective that disabled people’s marginalisation is a direct consequence of their physical impairment, learning disability and/or health condition. Not only does this lead to further exclusion and isolation but has also led to tragic deaths of people placed within institutions – such as 18 year-old Connor Sparrowhawk, who drowned in an assessment and treatment unit.
Within education, there are separatist approaches to schooling – such as “mainstream” and “specialist”. Under the current system, learner’s “abilities” to perform standardised tasks are scrutinised and teachers and educators make judgements on where these pupils should “belong” or what level they should be achieving.
Once in the system, learners can fail repeatedly to have their needs met – as highlighted in the proportion of learners labelled with ‘special educational needs and disabilities’ attending secondary mainstream settings dropping from 40.5% (2012) to 33.1% (2016). Disabled students in England, Wales and Scotland are significantly more likely to be permanently or temporarily excluded compared to the non-disabled peers. This is not because of individual’s access requirements, support needs or medical diagnosis – it is because pupils have experienced rejection by an educational environment that is supposed to support their personal and academic development.
A Social Construct
Our society is incredibly exclusionary and our education system is at the core of this. By accepting this interpretation of disability, it becomes no surprise that only 18% of disabled people get a job through the UK Government’s “Work Programme” or that over 50% of disabled adults are not in employment compared with 20% of the non-disabled adult population. Disabled young people (16-24) and women have the lowest median hourly earnings and the majority of people’s support packages are means-tested and incur charges placed upon the individual. The intake of disabled academics also remains low.
It is also worth noting that the UK is the first country to be investigated for human rights violations towards disabled people. The United Nations inquiry concluded that austerity policies have disproportionally and adversely affected disabled people – particularly in relation to the cuts to social care and the Independent Living Fund, the flawed medical assessments associated with employment support and increase in disabled people experiencing debt and eviction. It was also acknowledged that disabled people were portrayed as “lazy and putting a burden on taxpayers”. In response, the UK government rejected the findings and dismissed the recommendations to address the violations, stating “while the government continues to improve and build on the support available to disabled people, it stands by and is proud of its record”.
But effectively, disability is socially constructed. It has developed because of the dominant political, economic and cultural frameworks – which have established negative social attitudes towards disabled people, policies that focus on medicalisation and inaccessible built environments. This means disability is a result of society’s failure to provide adequate and appropriate support. This is known as the Social Model of Disability – an idea and tool born from the conversations between disabled campaigners, activists and their user led organisations.
All of this shows just how far society has to go to bring about disabled people’s emancipation; if it is to be realised it requires the debate surrounding disablement to be synonymous with political agendas as well as become part of discussions on empowerment, choice and citizenship.
Time for Change
There is a need to map existing organisations who foster the demand and desire for inclusive education; the Alliance for Inclusive Education demonstrates what is required to ensure every learner has equality and participation in all aspects of the learning environment. Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities details what is expected in an inclusive education system, from early years to higher education. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development outlines the expectations for what state governments should be doing.
Positive change can only be achieved if we formulate the problem correctly and offer potential solutions. The Universal Design for Learning initiative offers hope by providing a tool to change our approach to teaching, assessing and providing services. It has been developed with input from across Europe and can be utilised from the perspective of scholars, teachers or students.
Alas, it is becoming increasingly important that an inclusive education will require allies from across society to mobilise together. An inclusive education system is one that supports an individual to discover their own way under their own initiative and focus on equipping students to enquire, explore their innovative ideas and challenge dominant themes. Current policy and practice undermines every attempt to move towards an inclusive approach and, ironically, as I conclude this article using my voice recognition software and support from a personal assistant (both funded through the Disabled Student Allowance) I am left wondering how we create the idea for a future education system within the present one.
Levitt, J.M. (2017), Developing a model of disability that focuses on the actions of disabled people. Disability & Society, 32:5, 735-747.
Oliver, M. (2013), The social model of disability: thirty years on. Disability & Society, 28:7, 1024-1026.
Runswick-Cole, K. (2011), Time to end the bias towards inclusive education? British Journal of Special Education, 38: 112–119.
Slorach, R. (2016), A Very Capitalist Condition: A History and Politics of Disability. London: Bookmarks.
Miro Griffiths MBE is a PhD researcher and teacher at Liverpool John Moores University; his research interests are disability studies, political ideology and social movements. He has worked on human rights for over fourteen years and collaborated with various organisations, institutes and government departments on a wide range of issues pertaining to disability. He currently advises – amongst others – the European Network on Independent Living, the British Council and the European Commission.
Image Disability News Service