Education for all: how to meet the learning needs of children with disabilities

Education for all: how to meet the learning needs of children with disabilities

Disabled people are twice as likely as non-disabled people to have no educational qualifications. Special needs education involves additional support and changes to the learning environment to make sure that nobody is left behind. We take a closer look.

How disability affects education

“Over the past two decades, remarkable progress has been made in expanding access to education, but evidence suggests many children with disabilities are still being left behind,” says a 2021 Unicef report on children with disabilities.

Education is a basic right for all, as set out in the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights. There are several international declarations and conventions which specifically highlight the importance of education for people with disabilities, including a UN Convention adopted in 2006. But the fact remains that having a disability still puts a person at an educational disadvantage.

A UNESCO Institute of Statistics report from 2017 revealed that many children with disabilities are never enrolled in school and that the number of children with disabilities who are out of school is rising. Only 56% of children with disabilities finish primary education in Cambodia, Colombia, Gambia, Maldives and  Uganda,  as  compared  to  73%  of  children  without  disabilities. Completion rates in secondary school are also much smaller for children with disabilities when compared to children without disabilities, and the gap in literacy between the two groups has grown over time.

While the gap is less extreme than in poorer parts of the world, there are also big disparities in the UK. According to 2019 data from the Office for National Statistics:

  • Disabled people in their early 60s were almost two and a half times more likely to have no qualifications than non-disabled people.
  • Disabled men were three times less likely to attain qualifications than non-disabled men, (18.1% compared with 6.3%).
  • People with severe or specific learning difficulties were the disabled group least likely to have a degree (7.0%), a difference of 14.8 percentage points in comparison with the disabled population, on average.
  • Disabled people with the most limited lives were more likely to have no qualifications than non-disabled people; however, mildly limited disabled people were only slightly less likely than non-disabled people to have no qualifications.

Types of disabilities

In the UK (with the exception of Northern Ireland) you are considered disabled if you have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term (lasting a year or more) negative effect on your ability to carry out normal daily activities, as defined by the Equalities Act 2010. There are four main categories which define disabilities: 

  1. Behavioural or emotional: these types of disorders can be disruptive to everyday life, and they can affect a person’s ability to hold down a job and/or their social development - their relationships with others. Examples include anxiety disorders and disruptive or impulsive behaviours.
  2. Sensory impaired disorders: This type of disability means that your sense of hearing, smell, taste, touch and sight are not at the usual levels that others experience. For example, if you are visually impaired you’ll need to wear glasses to improve your vision, or if you have difficulties in hearing you may need to use a hearing aid. Issues with touch can mean that a person might, for example, struggle to fasten buttons.
  3. Physical:  Conditions that impact a person’s physical abilities, stamina, mobility and their ability to move and use their hands. There are many obvious physical disabilities, from brain injury to respiratory disorders, but there are other less obvious ones too such as epilepsy, in which seizures can incapacitate the person to the extent that it places limitations on daily life.
  4. Developmental: These are disabilities that occur during early childhood to early adult years and which affect a person’s typical development. They can alter people’s ability to look after themselves, learn, move around, speak or express themselves as others do, and can prevent them from living independently or being able to financially support themselves. The five developmental disorders are Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Cerebral palsy, autism/Autistic spectrum disorder (ASD), intellectual disability and learning disabilities.

Special educational needs

Children and young people who have special educational needs will not necessarily have a disability, and some disabled children and young people don’t have any special educational needs. However, there’s a lot of overlap between the two groups.

Special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) can affect a child or young person’s ability to learn. SEND can affect a child’s behaviour or ability to socialise - for example they might struggle to make friends. They may struggle with reading and writing, for example because they have dyslexia, find it difficult to understand things, or have problems with concentration (eg if they have ADHD).

So how do these needs affect the education of students with disabilities? For most children with SEND, the challenges laid out above can be overcome with support from home and teachers in mainstream schools/general education. However, children with SEND are likely to need extra, or different, support services from the education system to make sure they are able to learn.

Accommodations for students with disabilities

Once a child has been formally identified as having a learning disability, the child or their parent can request accommodations for their specific needs. Education programs must of course provide equal opportunities to all students, but any adjustments to be made should give students with learning disabilities the chance to show what they know without giving them an unfair advantage.

Reasonable adjustments that teachers can consider for inclusive education of learners with disabilities and special needs range from altering how information is presented to the student; how the student can respond; the timing of tests and lessons; and the learning environment itself.

Reading Rockets, an organisation which offers evidence-based classroom strategies to help young children become skilled readers, suggests the following adaptations in schools to provide additional support and an inclusive learning environment for children with learning difficulties:

  • Give alternative formats of presentation – such as audio tape, large print, reducing the number of items on a page or line and giving spoken instructions instead of written ones.
  • Give plenty of opportunities for responses, such as verbal responses, answers dictated to a scribe or given via a computer or an audio recording
  • Allow more time – through frequent breaks and allotted time for a test.
  • Make suitable alterations to the setting to account for the needs of students, whether that’s preferential seating, special lighting or acoustics, providing a space with fewer distractions or testing in a smaller group setting or private room elsewhere in the school buildings.
  • Modify the scheduling of tests, eg give a test in several timed sessions over a number of days, allow subtests to be taken in a different order.

When it comes to disabled young people in high school/secondary education and higher education, there are some different considerations. Stanford University’s Office of Accessible Education, for example, provides many special education services accommodations, such as books on tape, material in Braille and large print documents. The office also suggests a number of other ways that teachers can support their students learning in the University setting, including: 

  • Providing digital versions of documents so that they can be used in alternate formats, and doing so as early as possible so that students have time to order specialist formats for their course.
  • Wherever possible, try to select textbooks that already have alternative formats such as a sound recording for blind and dyslexic, or video materials that include sign language for those with impaired hearing.
  • Ensure scanned PDF files are screen-reader compatible (also known as OCR-compatible)
  • Practise instructing students in different modes such as verbal, visual and spatial;  some students may learn better in different kinds of learning environments than others, and flexibly adopting a range of approaches in regular classes will create a more inclusive learning space.
  • Build in opportunities for a break or even multiple small breaks during class.
  • Make accommodations for wheelchair users who might need to meet their instructors or lecturers somewhere accessible.

Educators who leave no one behind

For professionals working with those with complex learning needs who want greater depth of knowledge of inclusive education and its role in society, the MA Special and Inclusive Education programme at Queen Margaret University is the perfect fit. Through an interdisciplinary lens, students will explore inclusive education and the role it plays in emancipation, liberation, and true democracy. MA students will learn about the structural inequalities in both society and education, and their impact on educational outcomes. Through this process, the course teaches ways to address these inequalities in different contexts to make education inclusive and ensure that best practice is followed.

You’ll have the freedom and flexibility to study from anywhere, at any time as the master’s programmes are 100% online and designed to fit around your life.

Find out more