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

SEND: Looking through an intersectionality lens

Chandrika Devarakonda, Associate Professor at University of Chester

This blog post explores the concepts of special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and intersectionality, and highlights the importance of having an awareness of how these are linked. I will explain how important it is to perceive SEND relating to intersections between the multiple identities of an individual. 

Special educational needs and disabilities or SEND is a term referred to in education, health and care contexts, and is defined by the National Health Service as: ‘A child or young person has special educational needs and disabilities if they have a learning difficulty and/or a disability that means they need special health and education support.’ SEND relates to the special needs of an individual met by different professionals (from education, health or care contexts) who sometimes use specific resources and equipment and adjustments made to meet the individual’s needs. 

A child may be identified by their visible characteristics and may be stereotyped to be labelled as SEND. The labels could relate to one or more of the categories such as race, gender, ability or disability, education, ethnicity, language (especially if they do not speak the majority language as their first language), social class, culture and sexuality. Assumptions are made in relation to the intellectual abilities of children based on, for example, their race and gender. These assumptions that are based on the child’s characteristics can then influence the judgements of some practitioners and professionals in the identification of special educational needs. 

‘These assumptions that are based on the child’s characteristics can then influence the judgements of some practitioners and professionals in the identification of special educational needs.’ 

Intersectionality is a term coined by Kimberle Crenshaw (1989) originally concerning the interaction between race and gender relating to Black women and this was further extended by Patricia Hill Collins (2019) to include oppression related to gender and social status. The intersections of some of these categories (such as gender and race) may have a negative impact on the child, especially around the identification, assessment, choices of educational provision, and access to support from professionals and services for children with SEND. Furthermore, the child’s weaknesses – such as an inability to speak the majority language or belonging to a minority group – may be highlighted and limit the child’s abilities. The child’s strengths (for example, being able to read, being creative, playing an instrument) may be overlooked. Families of these children may struggle to understand associated processes and systems and struggle to access provision. In some cases, families may be less likely to challenge decisions made due to a lack of confidence to confront authority and due to their lack of linguistic ability to communicate in English. 

John-Baptiste (2021) highlighted wrong identification of Black children as having special needs in a news report based on a BBC documentary titled Subnormal: A British Scandal. The documentary highlighted prejudice caused by linking race and intelligence. This form of prejudice is also identified in recent work by Strand and Lindorff (2018, p. 4) who reported that in the UK, Black Caribbean and Pakistani pupils were 1.5 times more identified with moderate learning difficulties (MLD) when compared to White British pupils. 

Children with SEND must be identified using appropriate assessments considering the many barriers they face as well as the many abilities and strengths they possess. Otherwise, these children could be stereotyped resulting in the wrong assessment and/or inappropriate resource provision. In addition, prejudice, in this context, may result in lowered expectations, stigmatisation and unfair outcomes. It is, therefore, necessary for professionals to relate to a child through an intersectional lens, taking into consideration their identities before diagnosing their special educational needs and advising appropriate provision.


Crenshaw, K. W. (2017). On intersectionality: Essential writings. The New Press. 

Hill Collins, P. (2019). Intersectionality as critical social theory. Duke University Press. 

John-Baptiste, A. (2021, May 20). The black children wrongly sent to ‘special’ schools in the 1970s. BBC News. 

Strand, S., & Lindorff, A. (2018). Ethnic disproportionality in the identification of special educational needs (SEN) in England: Extent, causes and consequences. University of Oxford.