Jonathan Harvey waxes philosophical on how an understanding of disabled people’s lives and ambitions can inspire SEN teacher training.

In order to work effectively with those who have SEN, it makes sense to gain a sophisticated knowledge of how disabled people are included (or not) in today’s society. You won’t be surprised to learn that I come from a Disability Studies background…

Being an SEN teacher is not easy. We need a great deal of knowledge of practical pedagogy, while at the same time being prepared to mould this pedagogy to suit our students, and this must all be achieved against an ever-changing societal background. Our foremost consideration is achieving the best for our students, and this is completely dependent upon the individual students and their hopes for the future. 

Twenty-first century British society is arguably centered around economic achievement. This ideology puts disabled students in a precarious position. The way disabled people are considered ‘other’ within society is a constant source of difficulty to our students, and a candid recognition of this has to be the starting point for SEN educators. The structure of society, and the difficulties faced by those who are disabled, mean we must prepare our students for the difficulties they will face through life.

There is a dangerous social stigma for those who are disabled. One of the challenges of being defined as ‘other’ is the stigma that goes with it. This often takes the form of discrimination, from bullying and name-calling to employment hurdles such as complex application forms. Once again, an understanding of the reasons behind this stigma, and knowledge of how to tackle it, can build a firm foundation for becoming the best SEN teachers we can be.

One aspect of SEN teaching is crucial to our practice—no two people are the same; one size does not fit all. No group of people, such as disabled students, should be considered homogeneous. With all the competing demands upon our time, this basic premise can get buried in our consciousness. But we owe it to our students to recognise their individual concerns, and we individualise our pedagogy accordingly. All too often the lives of disabled people are governed by impairment labels and their destiny is decided for them. The very notion of ‘inclusion’ reinforces a divide between disabled and non-disabled students. Taking the time to study the lives of disabled people can only help with our appreciation of this. Although this may seem simplistic, it is all too easy to fall back upon the taken-for-granted assumptions of what disabled people’s futures may look like. Many disabled students who aspire to go to university have resisted the power of common-sense understandings of life which would state that a university education is not a ‘realistic’ option. Due in part to the much-cited fluidity of the contemporary world, the landscape is ever-changing for disabled individuals. For example, technological advances have dictated that students—who would have once found it difficult to attend university—can now purchase specific items of assistive technology that are designed to support the learning of disabled students in higher education institutions. Furthermore, it has been argued that technology has developed to such an extent that ‘mainstream’ electronic devices such as smartphones, tablets and laptops can perform similar functions to items that were once ‘reserved’ for the disabled person. Indeed, it is likely that there would have been little need for labels such as ‘disabled student’ which arguably merely serve to mark out differences between disabled students and their non-disabled peers. This view is counterbalanced by the need to access services (such as the disabled student’s allowance in the UK) which depend on the use of such labels. 

Impairment may restrict the choices of the disabled student. Reflecting on my own experience of being a disabled student in higher education, this resonates with me greatly. During the process of choosing an appropriate course to study,I was immediately put off by any course which contained a significant amount of examinations as the mode of assessment. This was because of my impairment and the way that I would need someone to write my answers for me. It would be interesting to establish what proportion of students make similar choices.

Neoliberal attitudes
A further aspect of contemporary education which affects disabled students is the increasing trend in classifying students as ‘consumers’ of education resources. This may have severe consequences for disabled students as they seek to learn in an environment which promotes the importance of notions such as self-determination and independence. 

Life is non-linear
The idea that life is not linear and predetermined also resonates with my own journey through education, and appears to represent the way that many students see their path to higher education. I suggest that an approach to education that views the journey as not a fixed, predetermined entity with inevitable hierarchical results is helpful. Such classifications of student journeys (both disabled and non-disabled) would celebrate the unknowable and unforeseen benefits of such a journey which is characterised by the gaining of experience, rather than the acquisition of a qualification.

And so…
And so, returning to the initial question of why we need to know about disability to be an SEN teacher. I have highlighted just a few of the major considerations which suggest that in order to be effective SEN teachers, we owe it to our students to have a solid knowledge of their lives and the challenges that they will face. It is hugely beneficial that we understand the reality of disability if we are to become the best teachers we can be.

Jonathan Harvey

Dr Jonathan Harvey is a senior lecturer and programme leader for the BA (Hons) Special Educational Needs and Disability Studies in the Institute of Education at Plymouth Marjon University.


  1. Thank you for sharing this important and personal story. As someone who has also experienced disability in their life, I can deeply relate to the themes of isolation and marginalization that you discuss. It’s so important to have these conversations and to raise awareness about the experiences of disabled people. Your bravery and honesty are an inspiration to me and I’m sure to many others. Keep sharing your voice and your story, it’s making a difference.


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