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

Where is the love? Invoking dispolitical love as a force for change in SEND policy and practice

Martina Smith, Postdoctoral Research Associate at University of Sheffield Katherine Runswick-Cole, Professor of Education at University of Sheffield

Where is the love in special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) policy? Politicising love, as a force for driving social justice and change, has deep roots in Black feminist activism (Nash, 2013). In the context of SEND, however, it has remained largely absent from serious policy discussion and reform. Where love is included in this context, it is narrowly constructed and understood as something private and confined to parent/professional–child relationships and the environments in which these relations flourish. We situate the ‘dis’ in our notion of dispolitical love as a means of assuring disabled childhoods are always a centralised and valued identity in any educational policy conversation, not an optional extra (Goodley & Runswick-Cole, 2016). 

We want to make explicitly clear that the dispolitical love that we write, think and evaluate SEND policy and practices with is not a traditionally held concept of private love. Neither is it a romanticised gentle love confined to specific relationships. Dispolitical love is an unshackled and indeterminate force that propels a public activism for social and educational justice for all childhoods. This justice is unimaginable without asserting an intersectional and indeterminate understanding of childhoods that simultaneously affirms the equitable human value of all childhoods, while recognising and celebrating the rich intersections of childhood difference and diversity (Curran & Runswick-Cole, 2014). 

‘Dispolitical love is an unshackled and indeterminate force that propels a public activism for social and educational justice for all childhoods.’ 

Dispolitical love as a serious force for social and educational justice breaks down the perpetual barriers between private and public domains; it cannot continue to fall upon parents and carers to fight for their children’s right to an equitable education (Runswick-Cole & Hodge, 2009). This is an activism for the entire community. A political notion of love holds the wider community to account for the ethical dimensions of SEND policies, pedagogical documents and educational practices that ultimately construct the educational lives of children with labels of SEND. This political love-force centralises mutual respect, care and response-ability for all lives that are impacted by and through the work of educational practitioners, policymakers and researchers in the context of SEND. 

Cultivating and enacting a working dispolitical love-force as a driver for social justice and meaningful reform demands a community culture that cares deeply and equitably about every childhood, not just childhoods that fit narrow and normative trajectories of development, attainment and social expectations. We celebrate, we respect and we deeply value how children who currently attract labels of SEND disrupt habitual thinking about education and childhoods that centralise ableist norms and neoliberal-capitalist values. 

The call for a dispolitical love to strengthen community has never been more urgent; we live and write in increasingly troubling times. There must be a personal accountability for the embedding of policies and practices into educational communities that perpetuate a notion of children with SEND as less-than or ‘other’ to their normatively labelled peers. If these policies and practices are not rooted in a collective dispolitical love and common humanity, then what are their foundations? Where is the dispolitical love? At times when questions abound as to the perceived successes of yet another round of SEND reforms (DfE & DHSC, 2022), dispolitical love offers a site of hope. Dispolitical love can be set in motion through the communities and practices we are deeply connected to, even when the state feels increasingly disconnected from its response-ability for growing inequalities and persisting injustices. 

In response to the latest SEND reforms (DfE & DHSC, 2022), we ask: How are children with labels of SEND positioned in relation to their normatively labelled peers and what values are these reforms reinforcing? We consider the educational practices that the reforms invoke against a central ethical compass of dispolitical love that demands response-ability for the nurturing of every child’s sense of equitable belonging within a community that celebrates its wealth of diverse childhoods. With hope, we ask again: Where is the dispolitical love for all children?


Curran, T., & Runswick-Cole, K. (2014). Disabled children’s childhood studies: An emerging domain of inquiry? Disability & Society, 29(10), 1617–1630.

Department for Education and Department of Health and Social Care [DfE & DHSC]. (2022). SEND review: Right support, right place, right time.

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.

Nash, J. C. (2013). Practicing love: Black feminism, love-politics and post-intersectionality. Meridians: Feminism, Race, Transnationalism, 11(2), 1–24.

Runswick-Cole, K., & Hodge, N. (2009). Needs or rights? A challenge to the discourse of special education. British Journal of Special Education, 36(4), 198–203.