Eamonn McCauley, Church of Ireland College of Education, Rathmines, Dublin

Person Centred Models

Until comparatively recently many professionals and policy makers working with people who have special educational needs have attempted to explain the difficulties of these people solely in terms of their individual characteristics, social background and psychological attributes. Despite more recent trends towards the inclusion of children with special educational needs ‘the deficit orientation towards difference continues to be deeply ingrained in many schools and classrooms’ (Ainscow 1998, p.11). Roger Slee (1999, p.197) notes his view that the special educational ‘industry’ has proven remarkably attached to medical explanation of disability with its adherence to ‘diagnosis and treatment’, ‘individual educational programmes’ and ‘the technical apparatus for identifying defective students’, including measurement of intelligence.

Even the law, it seems is determined to adhere to a ‘within child’ construct of disability. The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, 2004 (Government of Ireland 2004, p.6) defines special educational needs as ‘a restriction in the capacity of the person to participate in and benefit from education on account of an enduring physical, sensory, mental health or learning disability, or any other condition which results in a person learning differently from a person without that condition …’

Social Models of Disability and Special Educational Needs

Slee (1999, pp.196-7) expresses the view that medical models of understanding are not only inaccurate but that they deflect from more credible social explanations of disability. He believes that the language of special education de-politicises failure and shifts responsibility onto disabled individuals. As Farrell and Ainscow (2002, p.6) put it, such notions of disability distract ‘attention away from questions about why schools fail to teach so many children successfully’.

In contrast, social constructs of disability focus on the mismatch between characteristics of a particular person and the social context within which they find themselves. Within such models it is postulated that, while individuals may have impairments, disabilities arise when the environment within which they find themselves is structured in such a way as to erect barriers to their social participation. The implication is that environments can be structured in such a way as to cause an individual’s impairments to become more or less visible, more or less disabling.

An obvious example is that of the student who uses a wheelchair, but who cannot access science labs and specialist classrooms because they are located on the second floor of a school which has no lift. Similarly, one can imagine that the difficulties of a student with dyslexia living in agrarian Ireland two centuries ago would be far less visible than for one living in the same location today. Two hundred years ago they may have been one of many in their locality who never acquired literacy skills and may have encountered only a handful of situations where such skills were required. Today, however, the law would require them to be at school, often interacting with text for a majority of their time. In other words they would be forced to engage in those activities that cause them greatest difficulty. In this latter example the individual and the impairment have not changed, but the demands of the social context in which our factitious young man finds himself has made his impairment visible to such an extend that we call it a specific learning disability.


Within the social model of disability, barriers to participation can arise within the built environment or by virtue of discriminatory attitudes, cultures, policies, practices and/or institutional structures and procedures with which they come in contact. Extending this analysis to the educational settings, it is argued that schools can have a considerable impact on the degree to which students with impairments are disabled. To become truly inclusive schools must enter a process of self-examination where barriers to access are identified and diminished or eradicated. Failure to act to remove such barriers is, in the eyes of those who subscribe to this analysis, tantamount to discrimination.

The idea of inclusion in education was internationally endorsed by the adoption of the Salamanca Statement (UNESCO 1994). The Framework for Action that accompanied it concluded that

for far too long, the problems of people with disabilities have been compounded by a disabling society that has focused upon their impairments rather than their potential.

The guiding principle informing the framework is that schools should accommodate all children regardless of their physical, intellectual, social, emotional, linguistic or other conditions.

Inclusion is generally understood to mean enabling all children to learn together and participate to the fullest degree practicable in the life of the mainstream school, with appropriate networks of support. The term has been used to reflect a philosophy in which all students, regardless of ability, are educated within a single environment which meets their individual needs. Booth (1999, p.78) defines inclusion, not as an educational objective but as a process: ‘the process of increasing participation of learners in and reducing their exclusion from the curricula, cultures and communities of neighbourhood mainstream centres of learning’. Proponents of this view hold that, in order to work towards inclusion, schools must constantly examine and, if necessary, restructure their learning environments and programmes in response to the diverse needs of all those students who attend. Only in this way, they argue, can these schools become aware of the barriers that exist to participation, as well as the support structures and resources that may be needed to promote the inclusion of all students, regardless of ability or need, to the greatest degree practicable in every aspect of school life.

Nor is this a process that can be carried out by one school, which can then offer a ‘road map’ to others. The process is one which each school will need to take for itself, taking cognisance of its own unique ethos and culture, the resources that it can mobilise towards increasing inclusion and different barriers that are, and have been, created in respect of an ever-changing profile of student need. The objective of this process is not to erase differences between individuals. Rather it is to enable all students to belong to an educational community without prejudice and within which individual difference is celebrated.

Booth and Ainscow (2002, p.8) believe that this process is a cyclical one where schools, through a process of constant self-examination, increase the inclusiveness. To do this, they argue, schools must focus upon a number of key areas. These include:

  • The creation of inclusive values where the school strives to create a secure, accepting, collaborating and stimulating community in which everyone is valued.
  • The production of inclusive policies where existing policies are examined insofar as they affect or limit any student’s access to, or participation in, important aspects of the school community and its life or programmes. The underlying principle of inclusion should also permeate the creation of any new policy devised by the school.
  • The evolution of inclusive practices where the school makes sure that pedagogic and other practices within classrooms and elsewhere reflect the inclusive culture and policies.

The adopting or development of inclusive curricula could be added to this list. The school should ensure that a range of quality educational experiences is provided to all students and ensure that all have access to a broad and balanced curriculum commensurate with their talents and abilities. It should enable students to access a differentiated curriculum, including individual learning programmes where necessary.

National Policy

Importantly, Section 2 of the Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act, 2004 refers to the inclusion, rather than the integration, and notes that ‘A child with special educational needs shall be educated in an inclusive environment with children who do not have such needs …’

Some would argue that the presence of ‘different sets of statutes for those with disability’ is, of itself, discriminatory and ‘serves only to illustrate and expose exclusivity’ (Daniels and Garner 1999, p.5). Nevertheless statements such as that quoted above would seem to suggest that inclusion has become copper-fastened into Irish legislation. But there is still considerable confusion as to what exactly constitutes government’s policy is in relation to special education. There seems to be some internal inconsistencies within the 2004 act itself, which on the one hand purports to promote inclusion, but which still defines disability in person-centred terms. Moreover the act charges the new National Council for Special Education with ensuring that ‘a continuum of special education provision is available as required in relation to each type of disability’. So what is it to be, inclusion or a continuum? McGee (2004) believes that the Special Education Review Committee Report’s (SERC 1993) view of a continuum of provision is still the current orthodoxy. Others, such as O’Keeffe (2004), are not so sure. Certainly there are many aspects of the two approaches that seem contradictory. For example, Mittler (2000, p.11) contends that inclusion ‘normally implies attending the school that the pupil would have attended in the absence of a significant special need’. Within such a conceptualisation one can clearly empathise with the types of concern expressed by O’Keeffe (2004, pp.8-9) in relation to the future role of special schools in the provision of education to students with special educational needs.

Whatever the situation, it is imperative that a coherent policy, responsive to the expressed needs and experiences of students with disability is articulated. Only in this way can a clear and coherent response to students with special needs be developed and the counter-productive levels of disillusionment and anxiety described by O’Keeffe (2004) be ameliorated.

Other Issues

An underlying rationale for inclusion is the notion that there are significant benefits available in the inclusive environment that is not available in segregated settings. The findings of O’Donnell (2003), who investigated the views of some Irish students with physical disabilities who had transferred from special to mainstream settings, seemed to confirm that these new settings conferred considerable benefits to the group surveyed. In general, reports of student experiences in mainstream were positive. Encouraging levels of social adjustment, acceptance and peer affirmation were reported. O’Donnell went on to suggest that integration into the mainstream led to the forging of friendships with non-disabled peers, greater inclusion in community activities and aspirations for the future within ‘a normal range of expectations and occupations’. Other writers suggest more extensive benefits (for a useful summary, see Block 2000, p.34). A notable caveat was added by Margaret O’Donnell, however. The students surveyed expressed considerable reservations about the likelihood that less intellectually able students would report similarly positive experiences. It is interesting that the findings of Kenny, McNeela and Shevlin (2003) gave rise to less encouraging conclusions than the O’Donnell study. The former reported that the views of respondents in their survey were ‘saturated with … the struggle to engage, conducted under the gaze of their peers and without appropriate supports …’

The inclusion philosophy suggests that children with disabilities are the responsibility of both general and special education members of staff. The suggestion is that only through the merging of resources, knowledge and skills of general subject and special education staff can both students with and without disability receive a comprehensive and appropriate education. The presence of trained special education personnel and continuing support and training for general subject teachers is essential in order to make this system work. Certainly, it is this writer’s experience (from his visits to many tens of post-primary schools each year), that class and subject teachers in mainstream schools feel ill-prepared and ill-informed when it comes to understanding and accommodating the needs of students with disability. Similarly, Shevlin, Kenny and McNeela (2004), who surveyed the views of students with special educational needs regarding their experiences in mainstream settings, found that ‘teachers were generally ill prepared for full inclusion’ (p.60). A concerted and national programme of whole staff in-service education in the area of special educational needs would do much to respond to the needs and anxieties of teachers in this connection.

Implicit in the notion of inclusion is the understanding that students with special educational needs will receive individualised instruction, services and /or programmes that meet their particular needs. Again, however, Shevlin, Kenny and McNeela (2004 p.60) found that ‘most adaptations’ that occurred in the school environment in response to the special educational needs of students ‘were devised by individual teachers, and lacked theoretical or philosophical underpinning’. While resources are clearly implicated here, there are also issues of coordination, organisation, training and other factors at play.

Overall, there can be little doubt that the debate regarding inclusion in this country is still in its infancy. If inclusion is indeed the main policy objective for government, much greater thinking, planning and coordination of resources and expertise will need to occur in the education system as a whole. The dividend of such work is tantalizing, however. A properly conceived and coordinated programme of inclusion, driven by a clear vision, has the potential to ‘transform the mainstream in ways that will increase its capacity for responding to all learners’ (Ainscow 2002, p.25).


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