Inclusion Resources

Current Debates: Part 1, Understanding Disability and the problem with “Special”

Academic and ALLFIE trustee Dr Miro Griffiths MBE begins a three part series for education students on some of the key issues around inclusive education.

Miro Griffiths, smiling, using a wheelchair headrest

Inclusive education is a complex issue, with considerable resistance emerging from political, economic, cultural, and social structures in society. There is substantial support for inclusive education with activists, scholars, policymakers, and public officials showing their commitment to developing, promoting, and implementing inclusive education practices. It is not possible to capture the entirety of the debate surrounding inclusive education; however, the aim here is to provide an overview of some of the central points. Please use this as an introduction, which, when combined with the list of suggested readings, provides you with substantial literature and points of reference to develop your own thinking on inclusive education.

Understanding Disability

The Disabled People’s Movement, which is closely aligned with the Inclusive Education Movement, challenges the traditional approach to understanding disability as a problem associated with the individual. The individualistic, and overtly medicalised, narrative proposes that a disabled person is marginalised and excluded on the basis of their body, impairment, health condition, and/or medical label. Activists and Disability Studies scholars have challenged this perspective by introducing the social model of disability. According to Barnes and Oliver (2010, p. 548), the social model places emphasis on “how far, and in what ways, society restricts [disabled people’s] opportunities to participate in mainstream economic and social activities rendering them more or less dependent”.

This perspective is important within the context of education, as it challenges the policy making process that promotes disability in medical terms. If such policy is not challenged then it reinforces service provision that is rooted in exclusion and institutionalisation. For this reason, disability becomes an inherently political issue. Concerns about power and politics lead to substantial questions with regard to how disabled people are positioned within society, how disabled people are supported within the community, and how the barriers encountered by the disabled people are addressed?

Barton (1988, p. 5) highlights the significance of politics within education policy, as it “is particularly applicable to those who would seek to raise the question of politics in relation to special education policy or practice. To do so is to raise doubts about the nature of your commitment and whether you have the proper interests of individuals with learning difficulties in view”.

Current education policy fails to engage with the significance of disability politics and, as a result, fails to capture the significance of inclusive education. Continuing with Barton (1998, p. 60), he provides a clear and concise approach to developing inclusive education by insisting “[it] is about the education of all children which necessitates serious changes, both in terms of society and its economic, social conditions and relations and in the schools of which they are part”.

With current policy far removed from implementing this approach within the current education systems, it comes as little surprise that questions remain as to whether disabled learners should be excluded from schools and placed in “special educational schools”. The failure of policy to engage with the politics of disability has led to debates prioritising the location of children labelled as having “special educational needs”. This comes at the expense of those who would rather design an education system that takes account of disabled people’s exclusion on the basis of how society is organised. 

The Problem with Special

The extensive labelling of disabled learners as having “special educational needs” is problematic. By adopting such labels, educational institutions and professionals associated with supporting disabled learners create the conditions in which disabled people are considered separate from those who conform and reflect normative values and practices. This process of othering is referenced extensively within the literature (Kumashiro 2000). There is little to be gained by referring to disabled people’s access requirements as “special”; furthermore, by positioning disabled people as different it reinforces a narrative to suggest there is a normal, expected way to behave, act, and exist within the education system. This means the barriers preventing disabled people from accessing education will lead to strategies and agendas that reinforce segregated initiatives.

Under the guise of “special” there is the potential to identify those that are considered imperfect, unruly, or disruptive to the functioning and operations of mainstream education systems. As Campbell (2009) suggests, disabled people who resist assimilating into normative practices and conformist expectations are subjected to diagnostic tools – typically as a way to justify their exclusion. This justification has led to calls that there is inclusive education bias within the UK (Runswick-Cole 2011), an argument that appears to be upheld by those across the political spectrum considering that little action has been taken to counter the argument. Within disabled people’s activism and Disability Studies, there has been notable resistance to this perspective. Warnock (2005) and Runswick-Cole (2011) draw attention to the persistent exclusionary approaches within the education system. This serves to undermine the argument that there is a bias towards inclusion but also draws attention to how disabled learners are problematised within the education system. If people are deemed “special” then they can also be deemed a problem.

As a final point on this, it is worthwhile considering the work of Beckett (2014) and Beckett and Buckner (2012). In their pursuit of exploring non-disabled children’s ideas about disability, they illustrate how disabled people are viewed as broken, faulty, problematic and undesirable. It also led to claims that disabled people are incompetent. Whilst the research makes no explicit reference to the impact of labelling disabled learners as having “special educational needs”, it is not surprising non-disabled children hold such views. Having an education system that challenges the idea of inclusion, and the provision of a separate system for those unable to conform to the expectations of the mainstream system, will undoubtedly lead to questions over the competency and value of disabled people.

Beckett and Buckner (2012) go on to suggest it is essential that an anti-disablist education is necessary if a fair, accessible, inclusive society is to be realised. Envisaging an anti-disablist education requires scrutiny of how all children are supported to learn and acquire knowledge; this, therefore, means challenging the label that some people are special.


This completes Part One of a three-part series on packing the current debates within inclusive education. Part Two explores support provision for disabled learners and considers the importance of international human rights in addressing barriers to inclusive education.


Barton, L. (1998) Sociology, disability studies and education. In The disability reader: Social science perspectives, ed. T. Shakespeare, 53-65. London: Cassell

Barton, L., ed. (1988) The politics of special educational needs. Lewes: Falmer

Beckett, A. (2014) Non-disabled children’s ideas about disability and disabled people, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 35:6, 856-875

Beckett, A. and Buckner, L. (2012) Promoting positive attitudes towards disabled people: definition of, rationale and prospects for anti-disablist education, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 33:6, 873-891

Campbell, F. K. (2009) Contours of Ableism. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Kumashiro, K.K. (2000) Toward a theory of anti-oppressive education, Review of Educational Research, 70:1, 25-53

Oliver, M. and Barnes, C. (2010) Disability studies, disabled people and the struggle for inclusion, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 31:5, 547-560.

Runswick-Cole, K. (2011) Time to end the bias towards inclusive education?, British Journal of Special Education, 38:3, 112-119

Warnock, M. (2005) Special Education: a new look. London: Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain