Raising disability awareness in schools

  • March 15, 2008
  • Bruce Bromley

SENCOs will have a significant role to play in carrying out the new duties set out in the Disability Discrimination Act, writes Bill Goler

The latest disability legislation (the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 ,or DDA) charges all public sector authorities with further responsibilities in relation towards disabled people. This includes schools, where it is likely that SENCOs will have a significant role to play in supporting their schools in carrying out these new duties.

Arguably, the 2001 SEN and Disability Act was about individual pupils and their need for reasonable adjustments to be made. The 2005 amendment is much broader and there is now a Disability Equality Duty (DED) which has required disability equality schemes since December 2006 in secondary schools, and requires the introduction of them from December 2007 in primary and special schools. Each school must develop an action plan which will explain how they will:

  • assess the impact of school activities on equality for disabled pupils
  • improve outcomes for disabled pupils
  • monitor whether outcomes are improving for disabled pupils
  • use the results of such monitoring to put in place strategies to improve outcomes for disabled pupils.

Two key elements in developing the plan are raising awareness of disability within the school itself and also consulting with the disabled pupils.

Consulting with disabled pupils
In my own local authority we have carried out a number of consultation exercises with disabled primary and secondary pupils sharing the methodology and outcomes with schools as examples of how they might meet this part of the duty.

What became very clear as we developed the project was that consulting with disabled pupils is relatively easy compared to the process of actually identifying which pupils need to be involved. In the secondary exercise we asked schools to nominate pupils to participate in the project. A number of schools reported that, although they had identified a number of disabled students, the pupils themselves had not wanted to take part because they were uncomfortable with being associated with the term \”˜disabled\”™.

In the primary project we selected two schools with SEN resourced provision, so we had a ready-made identified group to engage with. However, one of the headteachers spoke very openly about the difficulties that looking outside the resourced group into the mainstream might create, particularly with parents.

These experiences suggest that the social and emotional environment that surrounds the disability issue is complex and many disabled pupils, their parents and sometimes their teachers either refuse to recognise that particular pupils are disabled or perhaps, more likely, fear the consequences of accepting membership of a group which is almost universally discriminated against on a daily basis.

For schools, raising disability awareness to a level that allows pupils to recognise they have needs in this area is perhaps the most challenging aspect of their new responsibilities. The problem is that disability awareness does exist but it is distorted and based on a view of disability that focuses primarily on vision, hearing or mobility. If this continues schools will find themselves consulting with just a small number of pupils with very visible impairments which would confirm the very narrow view of disability that the new legislation is designed to challenge.

Who is disabled?
The DDA describes someone as disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities, for example in relation to: mobility; speech, hearing, eyesight; physical coordination; manual dexterity; continence; ability to lift, carry, move everyday objects; memory or ability to learn, concentrate or understand; perception or risk of physical danger; certain other conditions.

While many of these areas are familiar and lie within the popular perception of disability, it is quite a large step to move from the physical and sensory to the cognitive, ie \”˜memory or ability to learn, concentrate or understand\”™ and an even bigger one to realise that this may include pupils who display significant behavioural difficulties, ADHD, Asperger\”™s syndrome, etc. Raising awareness may involve a realisation that the school has been regularly discriminating against a number of its pupils, namely those pupils who have received exclusions and other sanctions as a consequence of behaviour that may have its roots in a personality difficulty that is covered by the disability legislation.

Raising awareness in school
Even if it presents some uncomfortable questions, the issue of disability awareness can\”™t be ignored.
In an ideal world, education would respond to disability, race, gender and other areas of equality as a cross curricular theme, picking up and challenging stereotypical beliefs wherever they surface, whether it is the impairment of Richard III (whose hunched back was an invention to make him appear more evil) or the various physical and mental \”˜ailments\”™ that characterise every James Bond villain.

Occasionally, more direct teaching may be called for, and as the DDA is government legislation it can be examined and discussed as a legitimate exercise in subjects such as PSHCE, politics and social studies.
Teachers looking for materials to use in promoting discussion around this issue will find a wealth of ideas in a joint publication by the British Film Institute and Disability Equality in Education Disabling Imagery? – A Teaching Guide to Disability and Moving Image Media (see below). This resource includes a mixture of stories, short documentaries, interviews and sound bites can be tailored for almost any aspect of disability discussion.

However, before any meaningful work can be undertaken to improve outcomes for disabled pupils it is vital that this wider understanding of disability is promoted and accepted within all education settings and the SENCO\”™s role in this is likely to be significant.


  • Disabling Imagery? – A Teaching Guide to Disability and Moving Image Media is available from Disability Equality in Education (£20) Tel: 0207 359 2855
  • Implementing the Disability Discrimination Act in Schools and Early Years Settings (Ref 0160-2006DOC-EN) is available free of charge from DfES publications. Tel: 0845 60 222 60

Bill Goler is a local authority education adviser for SEN and disability