Models of Disability and Special Educational Needs

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Historical Overview and Key Guidance

Key Research Findings

Video Resources

Implications for Practice

Key Resources










According to the Disability Discrimination Act (1995) and the Special Educational Needs (SEN) and Disability Act (2001) "a person has a disability if he or she has a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term adverse effect on his or her ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities". According to these Acts physical or mental impairments can include sensory and learning difficulties whilst also covering medical conditions when they have long-term and substantial effects on pupils' everyday lives.

Models of disability and SEN have been subject to extensive discussion and debate as their proponents have attempted to provide a framework for understanding the way in which people experience disability (Low, 2006; Mitra, 2006). Furthermore they also provide a reference point for society in relation to how laws, regulations and structures are developed and how they impact on the lives of disabled people (Cole 2008, Mitz, 2007). There are two main models that have influenced modern thinking about disability and these are the medical model and the social model.(See Ainscow and Tweddle, 1979, Booth and Ainscow , 2002)

In the classic medical model, disabled people are seen as the problem and the expectation is that they need to change and adapt to circumstances that are presented to them with no acknowledgement that society needs to change. This medical model reflects the World Health Organisation (2009) definition of disability which also focuses upon how a disabled individual's medical condition limits their ability to access a range of services. In contrast the social model has been developed by disabled people for whom disability is caused by the barriers that exist within society and the way society is organised. Thus the social model of disability acknowledges how society discriminates against people with impairments and excludes them from involvement and participation. This model also reflects the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS, 2009) definition of disability which argues that the greatest limiting factor is not individual disabilities but rather the limitations and barriers presented by society.

In addition to the two models of disability described above (medical and social) there are others that have been proposed. For example, the ‘administrative model' focuses upon disability as an assessment process for identifying needs whilst the ‘charity model' looks at disability as a personal tragedy. It is therefore important to recognise that defining disability and focusing upon a particular model may be problematic in fully appreciating the complexities of interpretation. Furthermore, presently a ‘bio-psychosocial model' of disability is being articulated that embraces aspects of social, biological and psychological factors thus recognising the complexities of simplistic interpretation and definition. What is central in any model of disability though is valuing each disabled individual as a unique human being in which there rights and our responsibilities should work in partnership to maximise potential within society.

Meeting the diverse needs of children with SEN is a fundamental goal for teachers in ensuring they develop an inclusive curriculum in which all pupils gain full access and entitlement to education (Lloyd, 2000; Norwich 2002). In addressing the full continuum of children's needs the social model requires teachers to work flexibly and creatively to adapt learning environments that are conducive to learning for all. In other words children who potentially may be marginalised and/or experience barriers to learning have the same rights to  challenge and progress in education.

Whilst the term SEN provides a legal definition of disability within education (Teachernet, 2009) there are a plethora of ‘models of SEN' that have been debated in relation to the focus of support and causation of disability within school contexts. Authors such as Fredrickson and Cline (2002), Farrell (2000) and Lloyd (2000) have suggested varying models of SEN based upon a combination of individual differences; environmental demands and interactional analyses which have contributed to differing models of SEN. In relation to individual models of SEN these consider barriers to learning as being owned by the individual child, whilst in contrast Burchardt (2004) suggests environmental models of SEN adopt a situation, rather than person centred focus.

Thus, Cole (2008) suggests models of learning and access to high quality inclusive teaching and learning for children with SEN can only be defined in terms of relationships between what a child can do, and what a teacher must do to enable success in any given environment. Thus the limiting factor for a child with SEN being included effectively rests with the teacher and school to adopt flexible approaches to learning, teaching and assessment (social models) rather than the child being expected to fit into pre-existing structures. Thus, barriers to learning, teaching and assessment are considered to be created by teachers and schools lack of flexibility rather than any ‘deficit' (medical model) the child may bring to the activity.

In conclusion it has been suggested that the medical and social models are rather reductionist in their interpretation of disability and SEN (Terzia, 2005). Thus a biopsychosocial (interactional) model has been proposed that suggests a combination of biological, psychological and social factors all play a significant role in human functioning. Thus, in order to support children with SEN in gaining their full access and entitlement to education this involves teachers noting the potential limiting factors of an individual's disability (medical model) whilst then using this to adopt flexible approaches to learning, teaching and assessment (social models) in order to maximise learning and participation.

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Historical Overview and Key Guidance

The Warnock Report in 1978 radically changed the conceptualisation of SEN introducing ‘statements' of SEN, and an ‘integrative' approach, based on common educational goals for all children regardless of their abilities or disabilities. Recently though, Baroness Mary Warnock (2005, pg 16)  caused great consternation with the quote that "one of the major disasters of the original (Warnock, 1978) report was that we introduced the concept of special educational needs to try and show that disabled children were not a race apart and many of them should be educated in the mainstream... But the unforeseen consequence is that SEN has come to be the name of a single category, and the government uses it as if it is the same problem to include a child in a wheelchair and a child with Asperger's, and that is conspicuously untrue."

Thus Warnock argued that there is an underlying problem, in that the premise on which models of SEN provision have progessed to in recent times is premised upon a ‘single category' of children with SEN which she argues is fundamentally flawed. Warnock (2005) went on to suggest that children exist on a broad continuum of needs and learning styles but do not fit into neat categories of different sorts of children - ‘those with and those without SEN'. As such Warnock advocates that the categorisation of SEN is an arbitrary distinction that leads to false classifications and, it can be argued that, this is what is causing the high levels of conflict and frustration with all those involved in relation to modelling who should/should not be included in mainstream schooling and what strategies and models to adopt to support children with SEN.


Key guidance materials

Clapton, J; Fitzgerald, J, (2004), The History of Disability: A History of ‘Otherness'

This document examines how disabled people have been marginalised through the ages whilst noting their present struggle for human rights. The document will be of particular interest to those wishing to chart historical changes in models and interpretations of disability. The resource is available at:


Definitions of SEN and disability

This web resource produced by ‘Direct Gov' parents centre provides a range of interpretations of disability and SEN. The resource is available at:


Department for Children, Schools and Families, (2009), Special Educational Needs: A Guide for Parents and Carers

This guide focuses upon key issues concerned with: What special educational needs are; what you can do if you are worried that your child may be having difficulties at, or before, they go to school; how you can help your child; what early education settings and schools can do to help your child; what local authorities and other services can do to help your child; and your rights and your child's rights. The resource is available at:[4].pdf [See attachments]


Disability Rights Commission (2006), Disability Discrimination Act

This document provides guidance on matters to be taken into account in determining questions relating to the definition and interpretation of disability and SEN. This guidance examines varying models of disability within the context of legislation and implications for schools policies and practice. The resource is available at: [See attachments]


House of Commons Education and Skills Committee Special Educational Needs

Third Report of Session 2005-06: This publication documents a range of evidence provided to the House of Commons Education select Committee and examines a range of models and interpretations of disability and SEN. The resource is available at:


The History of SEN

This web site provides a comprehensive review of key points in time in the models and interpretations of SEN and disability. The resource is available at:


Key events

Hodkinson and Vickerman, (2009) have identified key events in time that have charted the history of developments in SEN legislation, policies and practices. In doing so they note how models of disability and SEN have changed from one of benevolence, charity and pity through to one of ‘inclusive' and personalised learning.

Benevolent humanitarianism from the 1700's to 1890's

1760       First school for children with visual impairments opened

1851       First church school for children with physical impairments opened

1870       Forster Education Act -introduced compulsory state schooling

1874       London School Board establish a class for children with hearing impairments which   

              is attached to a state school

1899       Egerton Commission reports upon the provision for children with sensory


1890       Education of Blind and Deaf Mute Act compelled school boards to provide education for children with
              sensory impairments in Scotland

1893       Elementary Education (Blind and Deaf children) Act - provides education in

              England & Wales for children with sensory impairments

1899       Education (Defective and Epileptic Children) Act -requires school boards to provide

              education for children who have disabilities other than sensory impairments


1902 - 1945 The Zenith of categorisation:

1902       Education Act creates local education authorities 

1921       Education Act constitutes five categories for the assessment of children with 

              special educational needs and disabilities

1913       Cyril Burt appointed as London's first educational psychologist

1923       Hadow Report accepts intelligence testing as a legitimate method of diagnosing

              mental deficiency. This brought the onset of Intelligent Quotient (IQ) testing as a 

              means of identifying and assessing learning difficulties

1944       Butler Education Act requires all local education to meet the needs of 

              ‘handicapped' children

1945       The Handicapped Pupils and School Health Service Regulations establishes 

               eleven categories for the assessment of disabilities


Post War 1945 challenging the orthodoxy of segregation:

1970       Education (Handicapped Children) Act - all children become subject of local

              education authorities

1978       Warnock Report -introduces the term special educational needs

1981       Education Act - introduces the Statement of Special Educational needs and an

              integrative educational approach to the placement of children with special  

              educational needs

1988       The 1988 Education Act established the National Curriculum and a system of 

              league tables where schools competed based on academic attainment.

1997       Green Paper Excellence for All Children Meeting Special Educational 

              Needs developed by the new Labour Government gave public support to the United 

              Nations statement on Special Needs Education 1994 which "calls on governments 

              to adopt the principle of inclusive education" and "implies a progressive extension of

              the capacity of mainstream schools to provide for children with a wide range of


2000:      National Curriculum established the Statutory Inclusion Statement prmised upon 

              three aims of Setting suitable learning challenges, responding to pupils diverse

              needs, and overcoming potential barriers to learning and assessment for individuals

              and groups of pupils.

2001       Introduction of the SEN and Disability Act (SENDA) made further provision against 

              discrimination on grounds of disability, in schools and other educational


2001       Introduction of the Code of Practice on the Identification and Assessment of Children

              with Special Educational Needs advocating a stronger right for children with SEN to

              be educated at a mainstream school

2004       Removing Barriers to Achievement published which set out the Government vision for

              children with SEN and disability related to early intervention and support

2008:      Introduction of a new National Curriculum that reinforced the Statutory Inclusion

              Statement and a greater focus upon personalisation of the curriculum

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Key Research Findings

Boddy, J; Potts, P; Statham, J, (2006), Models of good practice in joined-up assessment: working for children with ‘significant and complex needs', Thomas Coram Research Unit Institute of Education, University of London


Since the implementation of the Children Act (1989), this paper argues that increased attention has been paid by policy makers and practitioners to developing effective systems for assessing need among children who require additional support. The authors propose an ‘Integrated Children's System' should be devised for all children ‘in need', including those with disabilities. This resource can be accessed at:  [See attachments]

Danforth, S, (2001) A Pragmatic Evaluation of Three Models of Disability in Special Education, Journal of Developmental and Physical disabilitities, 13, 4

This paper examines the philosophy of pragmatism in the evaluation of three models of disability used in disability research and services. The three models are: functional limitations model, the minority group model, and the social construction model. The paper suggest that Pragmatism emphasises the moral and political utility of ideas, the ways that a person, group, or culture can use a concept or belief to guide action in service to a democracy that values diversity, individuality, and equality.


Dedwsbury, G; Clarke, K; Randall, D; Rouncefiled, M; Somerville, I, (2004), The anti-social Model of Disability, Disability and Society, 19, 2, pg 145-156


This article critiques some of the core sociological assumptions of the social model of disability and questions what ‘work' this kind of theory does in informing a set of practical concerns around the design of assistive technologies. The paper suggests an alternative framework of analysis, supported by extensive ethnomethodologically informed ethnographic research.


Shakespeare, T, Watson, N, (2002), The Social Model of Disability: An Outdated Ideology? Research in Social Science and Disability Volume 2, pg 9-28

The papers explore the background to British academic and political debates over the social model arguing the time has come to move beyond this position. The research paper suggests an embodied ontology offers the best starting point for disability studies in which a spectrum of positions of belonging in which disabled peoples interactions with the world are complex and not necessarily reductionist in nature.

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Video Resources

Making your Teaching Inclusive, Open University

The CARS (creating accessible resources for staff) was funded by the Hefce related to improving disability provision. Making your teaching inclusive, was developed specifically to support teaching staff in understanding the needs of disabled students and teaching them effectively.

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Implications for Practice

a)    For teacher educators including mentors

It is important for teachers to be aware of a range of models of disability, although the Index for Inclusion (See booth and Ainscow, 2002) will be the most useful to refer to when supporting trainee teachers. Teacher educators should be confident in describing these models to trainee teachers and their relationship to pedagogical and subject practices. It is important that teacher educators demonstrate through best practice themselves a commitment to the social model of disability and exemplify flexible approaches to their learning, teaching and assessment (Rustemeir, 2002). As part of this approach teacher educators should be fully cognisant with the Statutory Inclusion Statement within the National Curriculum and how it relates to models and interpretations of SEN. Teacher educators should also be able to guide trainee teachers to best practice resource materials to assist in them undertaking self study and/or critiques of varying models of disability and SEN.

An awareness of the bio-psychosocial model would be useful for teacher educators to explain the complexity of meeting the needs of children with SEN to trainees. They should be able to articulate clearly the inter-relationship of medical and social models (Reindal, 2008) and how the bio-psychosocial model embraces a multiplicity of issues and dilemmas in SEN. They should also be able to identify and interpret how models of disability and SEN relate to policies and practices and statutory guidance in education (Thomas, 2008). As part of any discussion of these issues teacher educators should be able to articulate the history and development of models of disability and SEN from benevolent humanitarianism through to inclusivity. In adopting such approaches to varying models of disability teacher educators will develop a sense of criticality that will encourage creativity and flexibility amongst trainee teachers.


b)    For trainee teachers

Trainee teachers need to gain a sound knowledge and understanding of varying models of disability and SEN (Pearson, 2009). This will assist them in appreciating how the history of SEN provision has changed over the years and how this relates to the current personalisation agenda. As part of this developing appreciation trainee teachers should be able to examine how the medical and social models of disability link to learning, teaching and assessment strategies. Thus trainee teachers should consider how they can embrace the more progressive social model of disability in relation to how they can adopt flexible approaches to their learning and teaching that respond to children with SEN diverse needs.

Trainee teachers should as part of their Initial Teacher Education spend some time reviewing research papers related to models of disability and SEN and be able to apply these to their professional practice (Powell, 2009). Additionally trainees should review key websites such as the SEN section of the DCSF to further examine how varying models of SEN apply to government legislation, school policies and pedagogical and subject based practices.

Finally and most importantly trainee teachers would benefit significantly from spending time with children with SEN to gain an insight into their experiences of disability in order to learn firsthand how medical and social models apply to young people's personal experiences.


c)    For experienced teachers

Experienced teachers should be able to reflect upon changing educational philosophies and practices and apply these to the varying approaches and models of disability and SEN. Experienced teachers should act as role models to less experienced teaching colleagues and act as mentors in modelling good SEN practice. They should embrace progressive social models of disability and be able to actively consult children with SEN as part of any differentiated learning, teaching and assessment they deliver.

As an experienced teacher it is important that they demonstrate a sense of criticality in examining models of disability and can offer insight into both the theory and practice of successful models and interpretations of disability and SEN. Experienced teachers should be able to guide less experienced colleagues to various publications and guidance materials to support colleagues developing appreciation of disability and SEN.

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Key Resources

Teachernet Inclusive Schooling:

This document provides statutory guidance on the implementation of the framework for inclusion. There are useful examples towards the back of this document which may be of use as case studies in reviewing and reflecting upon your practices.

Available at:
[See attachments]

Competing agendas for SEN:

A review of research on SEN and inclusion has found competing agendas in schools for modelling SEN, inclusion, and standards rising which may create problems for teachers. This resource was commissioned by the National Union of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT). Care should be taken in using this as a research resource as the work was commissioned by the NASUWT to examine current tensions in SEN policy and practice.

Available at:


Department of Children, Schools and Families, (2008), Secretary of State Report on Progress Towards Disability Equality across the Children's and Education Sector - Easy Read:

This report charts progress by the DCSF in embracing the social model of disability and its drive towards equality of opportunity for children with SEN.

Available at: [See attachments]


Florian, L; McLaughlin, M, (2008), Disability Classificiation in Education: Issues and Perspectives, Sage, London
The identification of children with SEN has long been a topic of debate. Are students classified accurately? Do current classification systems produce adequate education services? Have systems designed to ensure equity instead resulted in discrimination. This book will be a useful text for critical examination of disability classifications.


Glossary item written by: Philip Vickerman

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  1. Ainscow, M; Tweddle, D, (1979) Preventing Classroom Failure: An objectives approach, Chichester, Wiley
  2. Booth, T; Ainscow, M, (2002), Index for Inclusion: Developing Learning and Participation in Schools, entre for Studies in Inclusive Education, Bristol
  3. Burchardt, T, (2004), Capabilities and Disability: The Capabilities Framework and the Social Model of Disability, Disability and Society, Vol. 19, 7, pg 735-751
  4. Cole, R, (2008), Educating Everybody's Children: Diverse Strategies for Diverse Learners, Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Google Books,
  5. Low, C, (2006), Some Ideologies of Disability, Journal of Research in Special Educational Needs, 6, 2, pg 108-111
  6. Farrell, P, (2000), The Impact of Research on Developments in Inclusive Education, International Journal of Inclusive Education, April 2000, pg 153-164
  7. Fredrickson, N; Cline, T, (2002), Special Educational Needs, Inclusion and Diversity, Birmingham, Open University Press
  8. Hodkinson, A; Vickerman, P, (2009), Key Issues in Special Educational Needs and Inclusion, Sage Publications, London
  9. Her Majesty's Stationery Office, (1978), The Warnock Report (1978): Special Educational Needs - Report of the Committee of Enquiry into the Education of Handicapped Children and Young People, HMSO, London
  10. Her Majesty's Stationery Office, (1995), The Disability Discrimination Act, HMSO, London
  11. Her Majesty's Stationery Office, (2001), The Special Educational Needs and Disability Act, HMSO, London
  12. Lloyd, C, (2000), Excellence for all Children - False Promises! The Failure of Current Policy for Inclusive education and Implications for Schooling in the 21st Century, International Journal of Inclusive Education, April 2000, 133-152
  13. Mitra, S, (2006), The Capability Approach and Disability, Journal of Disability Policy Studies, 16, 4, pg 236-247
  14. Mitz, J, (2007), Attitudes of Primary Initial Teacher Training Students to Special Educational Needs and inclusion, Support for Learning, 22, 1, pg 3-8
  15. Norwich, B, (2002), Education, Inclusion and Individual Differences: Recognising and Resolving Dilemmas, British Journal of Education Studies, Vol. 50(4), pg 482-502
  16. Pearson, S, (2009), Using Activity Theory to Understand Prospective Teachers' Attitudes to and Construction of Special Educational Needs and/or Disabilities, Teaching and Teacher Education, 25, 4, pg 559-568
  17. Powell, J, (2009), To Segregate or to Separate? Special Education Expansion and Divergence in the United States and Germany, Comparative Education Review, 53, 2
  18. Reindal, S, (2008), A Social Relational Model of Disability: A Theoretical Framework for Special Needs Education? European Journal of Special Needs Education, 23, 2, pg 135-146
  19. Rustemier, S, (2002), Social and Educational Justice - The Human Rights Framework for Inclusion, Centre for Studies in Inclusive Education, Bristol
  20. Teachernet, (2009), Special Educational Needs Policy,
  21. Terzia, L, (2005), A Capability Perspective on Impairment, Disability and Special Needs: Towards Social Justice in Education, Theory and Research in Education, 3, 2, pg 197-223
  22. Thomas, G, (2008), Dilemmas of Difference, Inclusion and Disability: International Perspectives and Future Directions, British Journal of Special Education, 35, 2, pg 122-123
  23. Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation, (2009),
  24. Warnock, M, (2005), Special Educational Needs: A New look, Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain, Impact Series No. 11, London
  25. World Health Organisation, Disability,



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Article published to :

About SEN

SEN & Disability

Type of Resource

Teaching & Learning Materials

Authors :

Philip Vickerman

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Date Posted: