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Blog post Part of special issue: Spotlight on SEND: Curriculum design and practice

How can we challenge assumptions about learners with SEND?

Janet Hoskin, Associate Professor at University of East London

Life is determined by the normative. From the moment we are born, our weight, height and growth are tracked on charts that compare our trajectory of development with what is considered ‘normal’. This ‘normative model of difference’ is particularly dominant in education which presumes able-bodiedness and offers pedagogy and practice aimed at a ‘middle ground’ and teaching ‘to the majority’ (Florian & Black-Hawkins, 2011). Combined with a curriculum that is ‘invested in the support of normalizing discourses’ (Erevelles, 2005), perhaps it is not surprising that children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) can become invisible ‘others’. 

This othering of disabled people, which starts early in life, has real-life consequences. You only have to look at the high rates of deaths in the UK from Covid-19 of people with learning disabilities – eight times the general population (BMJ, 2021) – or the shocking numbers of young people dying in mental health residential units, to see how the lives of people with SEND appear to be more dispensable than the lives of their peers. As a result, low expectations and what Sara Ryan (2017) calls a ‘lack of imagined future’ can be a prevailing narrative for many young people with SEND. To challenge these assumptions as teachers we need to have some guiding principles. 

A good place to start is with disabled people themselves and the Social Model of Disability. This model, born out of the need to oppose tragic and medicalised views of disability, argues that it is society that disables people rather than people’s ‘differences’ or impairments (Oliver, 1983). Within a neoliberal ableist society young people with SEND can often be seen as ‘non-marketable commodities’ (Blackmore, 2000); in order to challenge this, we must have a positive professional identity for SEND (Hart et al., 2004). If teachers feel confident, equipped and supported to include young people and adults with SEND in our pedagogy and practice, then they will not be ‘add-ons’ but central to our planning. And, as Florian and Black-Hawkins remind us, good practice for a child or adult with SEND is good practice for all (Florian & Black-Hawkins, 2011). 

‘If teachers feel confident, equipped and supported to include young people and adults with SEND in our pedagogy and practice, then they will not be “add-ons” but central to our planning.’ 

Furthermore, we must commit to decolonising the curriculum so that it does not just privilege a certain type of student from a particular background. In their exploration of Sylvia Winters’s ideas on what it means to be human, based on the legacies of colonisation, Desai and Sanya (2016) argue that the curriculum is a mechanism for social regulation, and that by deregulating it we move away from language that marginalises and ‘others’. Over the past few years, important steps have been taken across the education sector to decolonise the curriculum so that it identifies and challenges oppressive ways of thinking, and this must include acknowledging ableist epistemologies and practices. Central to challenging ableist principles is ensuring that young people with SEND and their families are given a voice, in whatever form this takes. Furthermore, inclusive practice demands us to reflect on our own position as teachers and to challenge the power imbalance between us and our students, as well as to question whose knowledge should be included and whose privilege reproduced (Kaneva et al., 2020). 

A final suggestion in challenging assumptions for SEND is to ensure that we set the bar high for all our learners, and especially those with SEND. As well as good-quality teaching and personalised support, this means challenging the lack of expectations for those students who do not fit into the normative model. This requires thinking about what makes a happy and meaningful life – often a consideration left out of planning for many young people, with or without SEND. Furthermore, Goodley and Runswick-Cole’s notion of the ‘Dishuman’ helps us to make sense of how disability and difference can challenge normative ideas of success: through centring the voices and experience of disabled children we can see their ‘inherent humanness’ which both disrupts and reshapes our ideas of typical development and what it means to be human (Goodley & Runswick-Cole, 2016). 


Blackmore, J., (2000). Can we create a form of public education that delivers high standards for all students in the emerging knowledge society? Journal of Educational Change, 1, 81–387.    

British Medical Journal [BMJ]. (2021). Risks of Covid-19 hospital admission and death for people with learning disability: Population based cohort study using the OpenSAFELY platform. BMJ, 374(1592). 

Desai, K., & Sanya, B. N. (2016). Towards decolonial praxis: Reconfiguring the human and the curriculum. Gender and Education, 28(6), 710–724.  

Erevelles, N. (2005). Understanding curriculum as normalizing text: Disability studies meet curriculum theory. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 37(4), 421–439.  

Florian, L., & Black-Hawkins, K. (2011). Exploring inclusive pedagogy. British Educational Research Journal, 37(5), 813–828.    

Goodley, D., & Runswick-Cole, K. (2016). Becoming dishuman: Thinking about the human through dis/ability. Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 37(1), 1–15.  

Hart, S., Dixon, A., Drummond, M. J., & McIntyre, D. (2004). Learning without limits. Open University Press. 

Kaneva, D., Bishop, J., & Whitelaw, N. E. (2020). Initiating decolonial praxis: Childhood studies curricula in an English university. Third World Thematics: A TWQ Journal, 5(1-2), 79–96.  

Oliver, M. (1983). Social work with disabled people. Macmillan. 

Ryan, S. (2017). Justice for laughing boy: Connor Sparrowhawk – A death by indifference. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.