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Blog post Part of special issue: Framing research: Theories, concepts and reflexivity in educational research

Positioning children with a vision impairment as knowledge producers and change agents

Anna Pilson, PhD student and Lecturer at University of Birmingham

‘The ability to collaborate on both a small- and large-scale is becoming one of the core requisites of postmodern society’ (Fullan, 1993, p.5). Yet it is ‘still relatively rare for children to initiate and drive a research project of their own choosing’ (Kellett, 2006, p.3), and even more so for children with disabilities to be involved (Franklin & Sloper, 2006). This is perhaps indicative of the (unwitting) adherence within education and educational research to traditional constructs of childhood, which undervalue children’s agency and capacity. This blog outlines how my PhD project aims to invert this narrative by creating a participatory action research model that positions visually-impaired children as knowledge producers/change agents, thereby creating opportunities for ‘critical inquiry and social action concerning opportunities and constraints within the education system’ (Giraldo-Garcia & Galletta, 2015, p. 91).

The rationale for my study stems from the paucity of existing research which specifically involves visually-impaired pupils as knowledge producers rather than subjects (Whitburn, 2014). This intimates that their experience and knowledge remains largely unknown and perhaps subjugated. Indeed, studies with an overt focus on disability appear infrequently within educational research, and those which involve sensory impairment are even fewer. To counter this, scholars must make disability visible in our academic field, or they risk sending a message to young disabled people that their experiences within the education system are not as important as those of their peers. Participatory action research (PAR) can provide a means of democratising research, by ‘challenging the normative (and ableist) rubrics of research’ (Liddiard et al, 2019, p. 164). Critical PAR is therefore appealing as an epistemological basis, given its inherent aims to destabilise power structures and achieve equality of accepted expertise in research.

‘Critical PAR is appealing as an epistemological basis, given its inherent aims to destabilise power structures and achieve equality of accepted expertise in research.’

November 2019 marked the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). However, the UN’s 2016 review of the UK’s implementation of the UNCRC stated that the views of children are still ‘not systematically heard’ within UK policy and practice (UN, 2016, point 30). This is despite the 2014 Children’s and Families Act legislating a commitment to explicitly person-centred support processes and enshrining in policy children’s right to ‘have a real say in what help they get’ (DfE, 2014, p. 26). In 2017, Ofsted still found pupils with special educational needs and disability (SEND) to be having a poorer educational experience than their peers. I hypothesise that a key reason for this is that the right to participation and voice for pupils with SEND is not translating at grassroots educational level. As Webster and Blatchford (2017, pp. 19–20) state, ‘following the overhaul of the SEND system, we still do not know what the provision set out in a Statement looks like to the … pupils on the receiving end.’

Therefore, in the current political and legislative climate, the vision impairment (VI) education sector is being both reactive and proactive in its attempts to ensure that the children and young people it supports are equipped with the skills and experience required to navigate an uncertain world. The impact of loss/absence of vision as an integrating sense, means that visually-impaired children may require explicit teaching and learning in a range of skills that are often learned implicitly and organically by their peers. It is hoped that this project will constitute a pilot for a curriculum intervention to support development of transferable academic, inter- and intra-personal skills in participants, and contribute to a national project which aims to create a specialist additional curriculum for children with VI (see Keil & Cobb (2019) for an in-depth overview of the rationale for this project).

It is hoped that participation in the first phase of my PhD project will allow pupils to collaboratively identify an ‘area for action’; that is, something they would like to find out more about, change, improve or extend good practice. The second phase will then allow pupils to utilise the skills and knowledge they have developed by providing them with the opportunity to plan, deliver and evaluate their own research project on this topic of their choice. I will act as facilitator, but this phase of the project will be led by the pupil participants. It is hoped that the results of participation in this project may support the development of clearer understandings of how best to self-advocate and enable young people with VI to develop transferable skills that will help them to ‘achieve both academic outcomes and to make a successful transition to independent adulthood’ (VIEW Teach, 2019, p. 19).

Join BERA’s ECR Network on 18 September 2020 for the online event, ‘Academic writing and publishing: Experiences from an ECR’. In it, Yang Hu – senior lecturer at Lancaster University – will share his experiences of publishing during and after his PhD, consider potential issues when publishing from one’s PhD research, offer ways to navigate (and survive/enjoy) the writing and peer-review process, and give some insights into solo-versus-collaborative research. Click here for more information and to book your place.


Department for Education [DfE]. (2014). The young person’s guide to the Children and Families Act 2014. London. Retrieved from

Franklin, A., & Sloper, P. (2006). Participation of disabled children and young people in decision making within social services departments: A survey of current and recent activities in England. British Journal of Social Work, 36(5), 723–741.

Fullan, M. G. (1993). Why teachers must become change agents. Educational Leadership, 50(6), 12–17.

Giraldo-Garcia, R. J., & Galletta, A. (2015). ‘What happened to our sense of justice?’ Tracing agency, inquiry, and action in a youth participatory project. Journal of Urban Learning, Teaching and Research, 11, 91–98.

Keil, S., & Cobb, R. (2019). Learning to access: Why we need a new UK specialist curriculum to enable equitable participation for children and young people with vision impairment [Discussion paper]. Retrieved from

Kellett, M. (2006, September). Pupils as active researchers: Using engagement with research process to enhance creativity and thinking skills in 10–12 year-olds. Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, University of Warwick.

Liddiard, K., Runswick-Cole, K., Goodley, D., Whitney, S., Vogelmann, E., & Watts, L. (2019). ‘I was excited by the idea of a project that focuses on those unasked questions’. Co-producing disability research with disabled young people. Children and Society, 33, 154–167.

United Nations [UN]. (2016). Convention on the Rights of the Child concluding observations on the fifth periodic report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Retrieved from

VIEW Teach. (2019). The importance of specialist outcomes for learners with vision impairment. Journal of the Vision Impairment Education Workforce, 1. Retrieved from

Webster, R., & Blatchford, P. (2017). The special educational needs in secondary education (SENSE) study. London: University College London/Nuffield Health.

Whitburn, B. (2014). ‘A really good teaching strategy’: Secondary students with vision impairment voice their experiences of inclusive teacher pedagogy. British Journal of Visual Impairment, 32(2), 148–156.