Disability History Month 2023: Focusing on disability, childhood and youth shows inclusion is going backwards

UK Disability History Month runs from 16th November to 16th December 2023. UKDHM is now in its 14th year. This year's theme is Disability, Childhood and Youth, which will be of particular interest to readers of SNJ.

The key purpose of the month is to raise awareness of the unequal position of disabled people in society and to advocate for disability equality; to develop an understanding of the historical roots of this inequality; to highlight the significance of disabled people’s struggles for equality and inclusion and the ‘social model’ of disability; to publicise and argue for the implementation of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of People with Disabilities and the Equalities Act (2010).

In our Broadsheet we have focused on childhood and youth and unpacked the theme examining how disabling barriers and treatment have led to cruel treatment of disabled young people in the past and how thinking based on discriminatory ideas has led to continuing isolation and poor treatment.

Attend the launch
If you would like to attend the UKDHM launch on the evening of Thursday 16th November online or in person in Central London email marth@worldofinclusion.com To get more resources go to https://ukdhm.org or share events you are holding contact rlrieser@gmail.com  0207 359 2855

The future according to children with disabilities

Disabled children (aged 8-17) are clear about what they want for a better world: as they told the Children’s Commissioner in England in March 2023 (a representative sample of 3,593)

  • To be understood, seen and heard; 
  • To benefit from a fantastic, ambitious education in mainstream school where possible and support at school when they need it; 
  • For all activities and services to be accessible;
  • To receive high-quality care locally and quickly;
  • To be free from harassment and discrimination;
  • For transitions to be smooth and prepare them for adulthood;
  • For services to see them as part of a family, and to take a whole family approach. 

In the UK today, after many years of service cuts, austerity and failure to effectively implement the Equality Act, the voices of disabled young people are still marginalised. There is increasing segregation in schools, a lack of access and support in the community and failure to provide families of disabled children with the support they need. Their aspirations are not being met.

Disability History and the social model

Taking a longer historical view, the cruelty, isolation, and segregation of the workhouse, institutions, asylums and residential schools of the 200 years to 1980, has largely been banished. But the ideas of “otherness”, prejudicial thinking, and undervaluing remain. Gains in medicine and welfare have banished or minimised many of the childhood impairments that dominated the 19th and first part of the 20th centuries. They’ve been replaced, however, by a new range of impairing conditions, such as learning difficulties, neurodiversity and mental health issues that can lead to just as damaging disabling barriers, discriminations and practices.

Efforts of the Disabled People’s Movement in the UK in the last 50 years have led to the state increasingly accepting a ‘social model’ approach to disability, putting the focus on the barriers in environment, attitudes, culture, communication, access and organisation that people with a multitude of impairments face, and that results in their disablement. In doing this, they challenge the individualistic /medical approach to disability that in various forms still dominates the lives of disabled people.

Conflicting childhood disability data

There are conflicting numbers and proportions of disabled children from different data sources. The latest annual government survey for SEND in England’s schools, identifies 9,073,832 pupils up to age 16. 289,171, or 4.3% have a statutory Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP). 13% (1,183,384) require SEN School Support. That’s a total of 17.3%, many of whom could also count as disabled under the Equality Act definition.

The Census 2021 found that 6% of children aged 0-14 (590,908) were limited “a little or a lot” in their day-to-day activities by long-term physical or mental health conditions or illnesses. The 2021-22 Family Resource Survey found 11% (0-19) with the most common impairment type social or behavioural impairments, with half reporting this. This was followed by a mental health impairment at 30%, then a learning impairment at 26%. In the Census for the UK 2021, there were 1.9 million disabled young people aged 0-24. 50% reported Social/Behavioural Impairments and 30% Mental Health difficulties.

A dark history of discrimination

UKDHM have examined several oral history archives and films laying out the experience of disabled children in workhouses, residential and day special schools and mainstream schools. We are of the view that the increasing pressure to isolate and segregate disabled children comes from approaches developed over this history. For example, the role of medical doctors in special education.

“The influence of doctors in special education can be illuminated by tracing their early involvement in state funded provision for children with physical and mental impairments. Doctors defined and classified disabilities; their categories became the non-educational basis for educational legislation and provision; they assessed the children referred for separate schooling; they inspected the special schools; they drafted educational policy documents as School Medical Officers within the Board of Education”.

Medicine, Morals and Mental Deficiency: the contribution of doctors to the development of special education in England
Photo Sandlebridge Colony and Hospital. Three adjoining Villars with many windows some bay windows and slanting till roof with some mock Tudor features built in Edwardian style.
Sandlebridge Colony /Mary Dendy Hospital (Wikimedia Commons)

Many in power would have viewed Mary Dendy as a social reformer, but she was an ideologue and a leading member of the British Eugenics movement that were convinced of an enemy within, caused by feeble-mindedness, who should be “stopped from breeding”, as Churchill believed to ‘maintain the British Race’. Dendy and a few others had agitated using false science and Social Darwinism to get a Royal Commission, and then an Act of Parliament, the 1913 Mental Deficiency Act.

“Outcasts” and segregated schools

Recently, it has been argued that this agitation was as much motivated by fear of the working class and women not being controlled by men, as it was eugenics. Visiting board schools as a member of the Manchester School Board from 1896, Mary Dendy was struck by the ‘outcast’ children in the school playgrounds and those unable to make use of the education on offer. After personally inspecting nearly 40,000 children, she pressed the board for day special schools and became a driving force in the establishment of the residential Sandlebridge Schools for the Permanent Care of the Feeble-minded.

Opened in 1902 under the aegis of the Lancashire and Cheshire Society for the Permanent Care of the Feeble-minded, Sandlebridge was the first institution of importance to be certified under the Elementary Education (Defective and Epileptic Children) Act, 1899. The children in these institutions progressed onto Sandlebridge Hospital where there were still nearly 400 incarcerated in1947.

Not all social reformers supported this segregationist approach. In Victorian London’s East End, where Thomas Barnardo set up his first home for boys in 1870, there was also post-Industrial Revolution overcrowding, filth, poverty and disease to contend with. Poor children suffered from rickets, curved spines, respiratory diseases, inherited syphilis and a variety of ‘deformities’.

But Barnardo prided himself on welcoming children of all abilities and health into his care. In 1877, he wrote:

“Given the destitution and when accompanied by disease, deformity or ill-health…. We will render assistance.” He disapproved of segregation between non-disabled and disabled children, declaring instead that all young people could benefit from integration. “Unkindness to these little unfortunates from the other boys or girls,” he wrote, “is a thing quite unknown to us.”

Thomas Barnardo

Barnardo believed that, “the presence of a child maimed for life, or marked by some serious deformity, draws out only kind deeds and gentle thoughts from the roughest boys and wildest girls”. Later, when Thomas and his wife had a child, Marjorie, with Downs Syndrome they included her in everything.

Integration and Warnock

Despite such views, undoubtedly special education based on a medical model diagnosis of the child’s impairment, to distinguish how different they are from normal children, triumphed. The Warnock Report and subsequent 1981 Education Act allowed for the integration of disabled children in mainstream education, provided they could do what ‘normal children did, they would not interfere with their efficient education and there were appropriate resources’. To allow for some support, a statutory statementing process was established to make SEN provision.

The history of doctors and later, psychologists, dominating this process of selection, often informed by eugenicist notions of children having fixed abilities that could be measured by tests, is still a dominant ideology within the English education system. This has led to a deficit approach to disabled children based on what they cannot do rather than what they can do. The table below shows the general trend to segregation of disabled children and young people to education in separate locations away from their non-disabled peers. This is particularly strange as the 1981 Education Act, 1996 Education Act, and Part 3 of 2014 Children and Families Act, 2001 Disability Discrimination Act and the Equality Act 2010 all support the development of mainstreaming and what is now known as inclusive education.

Number of disabled children educated separately in
England 1897-2023. From Government Statistics
DateNos. of children
*All EHCP Plan students in Special, Independent Schools
& Alternate Provision including SEN Support

Looking at the table, the big surge in numbers from 1967 to 1977, came about from the 1970 Education Act, which for the first time created universality of education. It abolished “educationally sub-normal” schools and junior training centres, replacing them with Learning Difficulty schools. The drops from 1977 to 1994/2001/06 were caused by the impetus for mainstreaming given by the 1981 Act and New Labour’s policy of inclusive education (1997 to 2006). By 2008, Labour had reversed this policy and the massive growth since then is largely down to Tory policies

Lack of inclusive practice and capacity leading to more segregation

The tendency to increase segregated education is linked to the lack of mainstream teacher and support staff capacity, failure to effectively tackle disablist bullying, narrowing and raising the level of the curriculum, loss of continuous assessment, cuts in education budgets, structural reform of schools such as the Academies Programme, and reduction in local authority specialist support teams.

The growth of neurodiversity and mental health issues mixed with increased competition and impoverishment parallels the growth in stress for young people. When this is matched with behaviourist rather than person-centred approaches, based on relationship building and emotional intelligence, it leads to increased levels of suspension and exclusion, especially for disabled young people intersecting with racism towards those from a Black and Ethnic Minority background.

In addition, though most parents start off wanting their disabled children included in their local nursery and school, the failure to meet their child’s needs brought about by the above factors leads to them becoming refugees from the mainstream. This process is ‘bankrupting’ the High Needs Budget, as parents utilise their statutory rights to seek specialist and independent provision.

The Human Rights approach to inclusion

The Social Model and inclusion focus on removing barriers to presence, participation, achievement and friendships e.g. barriers of attitude, communication, environment and organisation. The Human Rights approach to inclusion. 

Inclusion involves a process of systemic reform embodying changes and modifications in content, teaching methods, approaches, structures and strategies in education, to overcome barriers with a vision serving to provide all students of the relevant age range with an equitable and participatory learning experience and environment that best corresponds to their requirements and preferences. Placing disabled students within mainstream classes without accompanying structural changes to, organisation, curriculum, teaching and learning strategies, does not constitute inclusion. Furthermore, integration does not automatically guarantee the transition from segregation to inclusion.

Eastlea Secondary colour photo. A white person helping a black student with a book in a classroom of Yr 9 students. To their left are  four other students of varying heritage seated at desks looking forward.
Eastlea School
Colour photo classroom at Emerson Green primary school. A range of Yr5 or Yr 6 children in green sweat shirts sitting around  5 tables with a range of paper and writing materials in front of them. There are 2 adults sitting next to children assisting them. The one in the right foreground is next to a girl in a powerchair.
Emersons Green School

Despite the rise in segregation and the policy reasons given earlier, there are still hundreds of mainstream schools with inclusive practice and we know this is the dream of most disabled children and young people.

Reasonable Adjustments Project

There are more than 40 schools filmed as part of the Reasonable Adjustment Project in 2003/04 (RAP). Some examples linked below are:

In England, the current position on inclusive education is harder. Twenty years ago in the RAP project, we found that mainstream schools successful at inclusion of disabled students had the following:

  • Vision and values based on an inclusive ethos.
  • A ‘can do’ attitude from all staff.
  • A proactive approach to identifying barriers and finding practical solutions.
  • Strong collaborative relationships with students and parents.
  • A meaningful voice for students.
  • A positive approach to challenging behaviour.
  • Strong leadership by senior management and governors.
  • Effective staff training and development.
  • The use of expertise from outside the school/college.
  • Building disability into resourcing arrangements.
  • A sensitive approach to meeting the impairment-specific needs of students.
  • Regular critical review and evaluation—at student level, departmental level, and school/college level.
  • The availability of role models and positive images of disability.

In the Inclusion Movement, we should be engaging with the Government Change Programme locally and emphasising:-

  • Local groups of teachers, parents, disabled people and disabled young people should engage with these processes and argue for what we know works, to enhance good inclusive practice.
  • We need to keep pressing that all partners are much more aware of the Equality Act and its implications for Disability Equality and intersectionality. This includes insisting the Access Planning Duty is fully implemented.
  • Create much more awareness of good inclusive mainstream practice developing around the world and the link to Article 24 of the UNCRPPD.

We don’t need to re-invent the wheel but we can learn from the many studies and recordings of good inclusive practice in English schools over the last 30 years e.g. the 2006 Reasonable Adjustment Project

It is ironic that a Conservative government that came to power with David Cameron committed to ridding the education system of the ‘bias to inclusion’ has been so successful, that it now has to come up with a whole range of measures to reduce reliance on expensive independent schools, reduce numbers in special schools and work on ways of improving inclusive practice in mainstream schools for budgetary reasons! What they and potential Governments need to realise is that inclusive values and equality have to be at the heart of the state education system and many of their policy folies that hinder this must be got rid of.

Cartoon of teacher and inspector in a classroom in front of black board talking. 
In front a boy and girl at desks. In the corner a boy also in uniform drawing on the wall a formula E+MC2 with some other calculations below. The speech bubble from the teacher says " We just leave him in the corner-he's Autistic so we don't expect to get much sense out of him!'

What can be done?

Other demands for better lives for young disabled people UKDHM is calling for :

  • Get rid of the normal. Value difference.
  • Remove all barriers. Full access and communication
  • Enforce Disability Equality Law
  • Challenge disability hate crime and bullying
  • Get rid of Disablism
  • Fund Inclusive Education properly in nurseries, schools, colleges and universities
  • Support our independent living, meaningful relationships and having fun
  • Meaningful and adequate livelihood and/or employment for all
  • Empower disabled children and young people and their peers to challenge the oppression they face
  • Recruit parents, teachers, social workers, health workers etc. to be allies in our struggle for equality
  • Fully Implement the UNCRPD - Nothing About Us Without Us

If you would like to attend the UKDHM launch on the evening of Thursday 16th November online or in person in Central London email marth@worldofinclusion.com To get more resources go to https://ukdhm.org or share events you are holding contact rlrieser@gmail.com  0207 359 2855

Also read:

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Richard Rieser

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