The term the Dilemma of Difference has often been used to describe the quandary that young people with a Special Educational Need or Disability (SEND) and their families face as they go through school. The dilemma is in whether we give that young person a diagnosis or label so that they can benefit from a particular support or resource, or whether we treat them just like other people so that they do not feel ‘different’ but are included in society like everyone else. In some cases this may feel like a ridiculous discussion when the hearing impaired student needs a signer, or the child with a physical impairment needs a wheelchair. Indeed, the very idea of a ‘dilemma’ sounds like something an ableist society has constructed in a paradigm that sees difference as ‘other’, something to be pitied or causing stigma. Don’t we just have to get over that way of thinking?
Or maybe it could also be argued that in some cases our desire as teachers to pathologise a child’s behaviour or learning differences has created a very medicalised model of viewing disability – a model where the teacher is the expert and the child has a problem that needs fixing. A model where the child is viewed as a victim of personal tragedy, waiting to be saved by the professionals.
The new SEND Legislation under the Children and Families Act 2014 is trying to move us away from having these arguments and get us to focus on where it is each individual child or young person wants to be. Rather than arguing about labels, mainstream or special school, or how much time a teaching assistant spends with you, the legislation is urging us to look at what it is the young person and their family want to see in their lives and how the professionals can help them to achieve it. What job can they see themselves doing in the future? Where do they want to live? Who do they want to hang out with? It is no longer the job of the teacher or psychologist to set the goals for each young person; these need to be set by the young person themselves with the support of their family. As section 9 of the new Code of Practice tells us, children and parents are now ‘at the heart of the process’. Of course this is quite a culture change for families too. Now they have to make decisions about the future, and think about what they want the support to achieve rather than being an end in itself.
This won’t happen over night and a lot of planning, support and training for both professionals and families has been going on for the past few years across England. But it has to be a step in the right direction. At last we aren’t just worrying about what the ‘problem’ is but focusing on the solution and how we’re going to get there.