Re-mapping special education needs

Roy McConkey (Extracts from a paper given at the 11th World Down Syndrome Congress in Cape Town, August 2012)


The governments of the world have given special needs education an exacting challenge for the 21st Century. The United Nations Convention of Rights of Persons with Disabilities spells out the aspirations for enabling disabled people to lead happy, fulfilled and self-determined lives. Of course, these rights are the same as for all citizens, but this convention recognises the extra support required by persons who either are born with impairments or who acquire them later in life.

Education is a vital means for preparing our children and youth to gain a lifestyle that fulfils their aspirations and talents. Is the same true for pupils with special educational needs? I suspect not. The reason, I fear, is simple: their disabilities—what they can’t do or what they struggle to do—so that we devote little attention to the conditions that help these young people obtain fulfilled lives.

Martin Segilman, the father of Positive Psychology, in his recent book Flourish, writes this: ‘Removing disabling conditions is not remotely the same as building the enabling conditions of life.’ In the past two decades, big businesses have harnessed the insights from positive psychology to refocus their efforts on creating and sustaining a fulfilling lifestyle for their workforces. Likewise, educators in the USA and the UK are reshaping their curricula and school communities to better prepare their pupils to lead happy, fulfilled lives. Segilman’s book is replete with examples of how these ideas have been put into practice.

To date this thinking has had little impact on special education, whose pupils ironically stand to benefit most from it. Segilman identified five enabling influences to transform people’s lives for the better. Together they provide a RE-MAP for teachers and families to follow.

R is for Relationships. A lack of peer friendships is common for many students with disabilities. They spend many hours after school and at weekends alone. Giving them the skills of making and keeping friends is vital to their future wellbeing. Friendships may lead to more intimate relationships and, for some, even marriage. Is your school a community in which friendships are nurtured and extended beyond the school day?

E is for Engagement. Personal fulfilment comes from pursuing the things that fascinate and intrigue us and on which we will happily spend hours of concentrated effort. Paradoxically we often refer to these pursuits as ‘hobbies’, to distinguish them from real work! The creative arts of music, drama, art and dance are all ways of engaging students and giving them a sense of personal fulfilment in ways that academic subjects may never do. How much are they a valued part of your school curriculum?

M is for Meaning. We all need a purpose in life. It gives us an identity and a reason for living. Disabled young people face extra challenges in this regard as they struggle to make sense of their difference, while being all too aware of the burden they can be to others. Often families, schools and even professionals shy away from helping young people to make sense of the impact which disability has on all aspects of their lives. Also they need to feel valued for their contributions and opportunities to make them, for example, through being given specific responsibilities in school, at home and in local community groups.

A is for Accomplishments. Positive psychologists strongly advise us to savour our daily accomplishments, no matter how small they may be. Growing children need our help to appreciate what they have accomplished, yet too often as teachers we stress their failures. It is a question of balance. Nor should it be empty praise. As pupils’ competence grows we should expect more from them. The old saying is true, ‘success breeds success.’ However, for disabled students a sense of achievement may come more readily through non-academic subjects such as sports. How well does your school applaud and celebrate students’ accomplishments?

P is for Positive Emotions. Disability is replete with negative connotations—despair, disappointment, distress—to name but three. But dwelling on negative emotions is a known trigger for mental ill-health. The antidote is expressed beautifully in the Disney song: you’ve got to accentuate the positive! So what helps you feel good about yourself and about life in general? Answering questions like these should help you recreate the conditions in which positive emotions (such as contentment, excitement and joy) outweigh the inevitable negative ones to which we are all prone. Equally, exercises like these can enlighten every school day and help students gain an insight into how they can experience more positive emotions.

RE-MAP is for everyone. Remember too that these five conditions will help us all to flourish so that we fully realise our full potential as creative teachers, as effective therapists, and as loving parents. And in so doing we stand to rejuvenate our schools and communities to everyone’s benefit.

A final thought: this RE-MAP for special needs education is as much a shift in attitude as it is a change in practice. The UN Convention is a reminder that disability does not make our fellow citizens any less human, yet it dramatically reduces their chances to live happy, fulfilled and self-determined lives. Of course, we must strive to reduce the impact of disabling conditions, but equally we cannot ignore the conditions that will enable these young people to flourish as contributing citizens.

Segilman, M. 2012 Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being. New York. Free Press.
United Nations Convention of Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Available at: conventionfull.shtml

Roy is Professor of Developmental Disabilities at the University of Ulster in Jordanstown. He is co-author of Shared lives: Building relationships and community for people with intellectual disabilities, published by Sense Publishers, Amsterdam (available through


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