I can admit now that I was afraid of Adam. He wandered up, smiled
and asked me my name. And I froze, momentarily, because this conversational, social 15-year-old in the school reception room was not
acting how I had been taught autistic people would act. I had prepared
myself for something different. I was nervous because that difference
scared me. Meeting Adam shamed me, for he made it clear that I had
bought into a myth and then recycled it, propagated it and adjusted
my own actions to fit within it.
Adam was not the last pupil in a special school to make me feel this
way. Meeting him was not some miracle cure for the misconceptions
about special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) that I held.
Rather, every single time I meet a child with SEND, I reset my expectations and my ‘knowledge’. And every time I have the privilege of
talking with some of the excellent teachers in the specialist sector, the
same thing happens.
I was not a novice in SEND before joining Tes – my brother-in-law
has very complex learning difficulties; several friends teach in the specialist sector – but I was certainly ignorant. And now, six years on
and still being challenged every day, I ruminate often about why our
starting point with SEND is so negative. How even someone relatively
informed like me can buy into a narrative so baseless.
It comes, I have concluded, from a process of ‘othering’ those with
SEND. We do this as a society, not always consciously but certainly
conspicuously. Think hard about presentations of people with SEND
in the media, in film, even in conversations with friends. So often we
talk about the diagnosis, not the person. So often we rely on cardboard
cut-outs of that diagnosis. And so often we fall into what I might call
‘permitted’ feelings towards those with SEND.
The first of these feelings is pity. It seems we are comfortable with
SEND if pity is our reason for engagement. Whether it be the television
10 Normalising difference
Resetting perceptions of
SEND in the media
Resetting perceptions of SEND in the media 55
programme The UnDateables, the mainstream primary school inviting children from the local special school to their sports day or applauding an autistic person’s ‘special talent’ (so problematic in itself),
the power relationship is clear: we are looking at them, doing things
for them, seeing our involvement with them as an act of charity. We
box them into a space that is safe for us, but in doing so, we rob them
of their agency.
Another way we engage is through a feeling of curiosity. So often,
the person with SEND becomes their diagnosis, and the diagnosis becomes the basis for the whole interaction. We want to explore how ‘it’
makes them feel, what ‘it’ makes them do, what causes ‘it’. We attribute everything to the diagnosis. The person becomes an exhibit. We
tie them down to that diagnosis and do not let them escape it because
exploring beyond it scares us and requires us to engage differently.
And finally, there is obligation: we feel we should do something, so
we do enough to make us feel better, and then we tuck them away until
we next feel like we need to prove we are ‘OK’ with disability.
The media has to take some responsibility for this. In film, television and journalism, we are guilty of portraying people with SEND in
ways that invite pity and curiosity. Occasionally, coverage of SEND is
an obligation; a segment or an article is needed to ‘make up the numbers’. If someone with SEND is part of a story, the SEND becomes key
to that story, and it is brought to the fore. It is reductive, inaccurate,
irresponsible and inexcusable.
We also silence narratives. That power balance is alive and well in
the media’s limited and perpetual representations of SEND. We do not
give equal weight to the narrative of a person with SEND. We position
it, again, as charity, curiosity, obligation.
Our expectation of what inclusion was supposed to achieve has not
helped. Perhaps there is a version of inclusion that is less about every
child being educated in a mainstream school and centred more on
every child seeing every other child equally. In a dynamic where inclusion rests on the proviso that those with additional needs conform to
educational and social norms in (and beyond) school, how much room
is there to celebrate diversity?
Too often, I would say, difference is problematised. Talk to enough
parents of children with SEND, and you begin to build a picture of
the ‘othering’ that takes place: ‘This school is not right for your child’,
‘This type of learning is not right for your child’, ‘Your child would be
better off in a small group working with a teaching assistant’.
Underneath it all, lies this: ‘Your child is different, and we do not
know what to do with difference’. And that – whether we like it or not,
56 Jon Severs
whether we notice or not – is what us adults model to children. That
and fear. Because so often, marginalisation is not done through malice
but through a fear of difference and of our own helplessness.
So, how do we begin to fix this? Exposure is the first step. We need
to find ways to give everyone the kinds of experiences I have had at Tes
and, crucially, to do so in ways that do not invoke pity, obligation or
curiosity. We in the media can share examples of schools that accept
or celebrate difference and to do so authentically – not in ways that
We try to do this on Tes. Encouragingly, I see SEND becoming more
visible in the mainstream media through programming and articles.
Increasingly, we are hearing not just about people with SEND but from
people with SEND: their issues, their views and their achievements –
not their diagnoses.
It is about a process of demystification and assent to difference, too:
we accept deviations in behaviour which are not labelled with a diagnosis as being in the ‘normal’ range, but give someone a diagnosis and
we suddenly deem them to be on another scale altogether. Changing
that is about learning from the excellent practice of the many special
schools who work so hard to move away from labels and labelling, who
do not let challenges become excuses, who are acutely aware of the
effects of learned helplessness.
It is about seeing the whole of humanity as being on a spectrum, not
just those with autism, and responding to individual differences in all
of us, not just those that have a medical certificate. And most of all it
is about seeing these kids, like Adam, for who and what they are, and
accepting that, taking away pity and curiosity and obligation and fear.
True inclusion is an acceptance of difference rather than an obsession
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