Young disabled pupils have described how they are targeted by school bullies because of their impairments, and are treated as social outcasts, but still do not view themselves as disabled people, according to new research.
Researchers interviewed more than 40 disabled and non-disabled pupils, mostly aged 12 to 14, in both mainstream and special schools across England.
But most of the pupils who took part in the focus groups defined disability according to whether a person used aids, particularly wheelchairs.
They found that few of the young people who had been labelled as having special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) identified as disabled people according to the social model of disability.
Instead, they viewed disability as “a person-centric problem, rather than a social one”.
In some cases, pupils with SEND rejected any similarities with disabled people they knew, while they were reluctant to discuss their own impairments, or to link them to the support and adjustments they received in class.
The National Lottery-funded research, led by Disability Rights UK (DR UK), found that most of the young people with SEND described being bullied and socially excluded at school, and said their group of school friends was small or non-existent.
One said: “Like I’ll walk into a class and I’m met with horrible comments because I walk differently because I have mobility… I walk with my feet turned out and I’m met with ‘penguin’ or ‘retard’, stuff like that.”
There were also hints of a “culture of bullying denialism” among school leaders, with some pupils with SEND seeing anti-bullying initiatives as insufficient and unhelpful.
Those that did have friends in mainstream schools tended to associate with “fellow social outcasts”, says the report, Special or Unique: Young People’s Attitudes to Disability.
Non-disabled pupils who took part in the research expressed neutral or positive attitudes towards disabled pupils, but were not friends with them.
The report suggests that the failure of any non-disabled pupils to express hostility towards disabled classmates could be because they were aware that expressing positive views about disabled people “is the socially acceptable thing to do”.
And, the report adds, the pupils who took part in the focus groups were selected by their teachers, who may have chosen pupils they thought would provide answers that would reflect well on their school.
Among the report’s recommendations is a call for school leaders to encourage teachers to take more action to address bullying and social exclusion in the classroom, and to promote “greater openness” about disability in their schools.
It calls on the Department for Education to develop SEND-specific anti-bullying guidance, and to include information on the social model of disability, human rights and discrimination in the Personal, Social, Health and Economic education (PSHE) curriculum.
The report also says that local disabled people’s organisations should work with schools and local authorities to co-develop and co-deliver PSHE curriculum material on disability and provide disabled adult mentors for young disabled people.
Sue Bott, DR UK’s head of policy and research, says in the report: “The research shows that SEND pupils do not consider themselves to be disabled not from the belief that disability is somehow no longer relevant but because of their negative feelings towards disability generally.
“This research should be a wake-up call or else we will find yet another generation of disabled young people experiencing the same negative attitudes and behaviours.
“It’s only when you can accept yourself as who you are, a valued disabled person, that progress can be made.
“Then you can stop apologising for yourself and rejecting the support that helps with everyday life.
“We need disability to be understood and a valued part of the school environment.
“We need more interaction between all young people, and we need young disabled people to have the opportunity to draw support from disabled adults.
“If we fail to have an education system that is truly inclusive of disabled young people, that values disabled young people for who they are, and enables disabled people to reach their full potential then our efforts to realise the human, social and economic rights of disabled people will always be limited.”
Evan Odell (pictured), from DR UK, the lead researcher on the report, said: “These findings show that, in some areas, little has changed for disabled children in the last 40 years or so.
“Schools, special educational needs coordinators and teachers have understandably emphasised the need for reasonable adjustments and classroom support for pupils with SEND.
“Now they need to deal with bullying and ensure disabled children have the same chance to develop social skills and share in the experiences that mark out the teenage years.”
The report is the latest piece of research to come out of the five-year, £5 million Disability Research on Independent Living and Learning (DRILL) research programme, which is funded by the National Lottery Community Fund, and delivered by DR UK, Disability Action (in Northern Ireland), Inclusion Scotland and Disability Wales.
It is believed to be the world’s first major research programme led by disabled people, and should eventually fund about 40 pieces of research and pilot projects.
A note from the editor:
Please consider making a voluntary financial contribution to support the work of DNS and allow it to continue producing independent, carefully-researched news stories that focus on the lives and rights of disabled people and their user-led organisations.
Please do not contribute if you cannot afford to do so, and please note that DNS is not a charity. It is run and owned by disabled journalist John Pring and has been from its launch in April 2009.
Thank you for anything you can do to support the work of DNS…