Disability: Pedagogy and Identity in the Classroom

Disability is not taught as a topic on the United Kingdom’s national curriculum. Whilst there has been much improvement in recent years regarding disability rights for children throughout the UK, the exclusion of disability from the national curriculum contributes to a lack of understanding of lived experiences. It also reinforces disability stigma and its ‘abnormality’ and can have a long-lasting impact on the formation of a disabled identity. If teachers were to address disability in the classroom setting and bring it to the forefront of discussion, disability would be ‘normalised’, and therefore social exclusion, bullying, and negative self-identity perceptions would likely diminish.   

A young girl in foreground leaning against a school locker looking sad and isolated as she is excluded from a bigger group of 5 children talking with one another in the background.

The conception that disability is ‘abnormal’ results in overt hostility and social exclusion of people with disabilities. Colin Barnes argues that as a society, our ‘deep rooted psychological fears of the abnormal and the unknown’ have shaped, and continues to shape, our cultural perceptions of disability (Barnes 1992, 11-20). Dominant cultural perceptions and representations of disability heavily influences the formation of our individual understanding. These need to be challenged and reinterpreted to prevent further transmission of negative perceptions of disability. 

Negative and harmful conceptions of disability can manifest in children with disabilities experiencing bullying, social exclusion, and isolation in the school environment. This in turn can lead to low self-esteem and a lack of meaningful peer-relationships contributing to mental health concerns (Babik and Gardner 2021, 1-26). In the UK, 9% of children identify as disabled and the number of students in higher education with a known disability increased by 47% between 2014/15 to 2019/20. A collective of writings by members of the British Educational Research Association’s (BERA) Special Interest Group in Social Justice, highlighted that the identities of disabled peoples are formed within the education setting (Vincent 2003, 1). Therefore, it is imperative that the experiences of young disabled people are positive and encouraging, and that they have the opportunity to form a disabled identity in a safe, nurturing and supportive environment. 

Integrating disability into the national curriculum and educating school children about disabilities and disability rights could help schools to promote positive disability identities and provide disabled students with the knowledge and ability to advocate for themselves. As disability is not on the national curriculum, and therefore not mandatory as a topic of discussion within the school setting, it can be avoided altogether. This absence reinforces the abnormality of disability and as such, can result in students avoiding accessing support. 

The medical model of disability’s emphasis on cure perpetuates the misconception that disability is inherently negative and thus something to be ashamed of (Adams 2021, 8). Students who are aware of this perception are likely to adjust certain aspects of their identity to hide their disability for fear of being rejected. 

The Medical Model of Disability: Impairments and chronic illness often pose real difficulties but they are not the main problems. In this traditional view, disabilities are caused by physical, mental, and sensory impairments. The individual is impaired and is the problem. The focus of the medical profession is to cure and to alleviate the effect of the impairment. The social model of disability looks to social barriers. An environment is inaccessible due to its buildings, services, communication, and language. Other social barriers include attitudes: prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination. Organizations can also create social barriers through inflexibility in modifying procedures and practices.

Emily A. Nusbaum and Maya L. Steinborn have argued that teacher preparation programmes do not effectively engage issues of disability in order to properly prepare educators to address these issues with their students (Nusbaum and Steinborn 2019, 24-35). The silence in education about disability, within the curriculum and in wider discussions, contributes to ‘dysconscious ableism’, where most teachers are unable to provide an impartial and just education experience for all students (Broderick and Lalvani 2017, 894-905). As a key primary agent of socialisation, schools are a prime place to begin the process of deconstructing and reinterpreting our approach to disability, encouraging positive discussions within the school environment amongst both peers and educators. Teachers should encourage discourse around the social model of disability as an alternative approach to disability. This would ensure an inclusive education and the ability to scaffold positive interactions between disabled and non-disabled students.

Most children with special educational needs attend mainstream schools, with less than 10% attending specialist schools in the UK, according to research conducted by the UK charity Mencap in 2019/20. With such a high proportion of children who have a range of additional support needs attending mainstream schools, the responsibility of increasing visibility and accessibility no longer relies solely on specialist schools. Increasing awareness of disability in teacher training programmes, teachers will have a deeper understanding of the importance of making their classroom more accessible for disabled students. This would create a more accepting, nurturing and supportive environment where children with disabilities can feel safe to explore their disabled identity.  

Young boy in wheelchair in classroom. Three rows of students ahead of the young boy are raising hands and looking to the teacher. The young boy in the wheelchair also looks engaged.

It is only by transforming perspectives of disability that we can overcome indifference, reduce disability discrimination and create an inclusive community. This cannot happen whilst the education system and other ‘institutions of normalisation’ follow a framework of mainstream society that does not incorporate people with disabilities (Bauman and Murray 2017, 243). The stigma surrounding disability that remains inherent within the education system and school environment can only be challenged through a reinvention of the national curriculum and teaching training programmes. 


Adams, Ellen. 2021. “Disability Studies and the Classical Body: The Forgotten Other.” In Disability Studies and the Classical Body, edited by Ellen Adams ch. 1. London: Routledge.

Babik, Iryna, and Elena, Gardner. 2021. “Factors Affecting the Perception of Disability: A Developmental Perspective.” Frontiers in Psychology 12 (June): 1-26. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.702166.

Barnes, Colin. 1992. Disabled People in Britain and Discrimination: A Case for Anti-Discrimination Legislation. London: C. Hurst & Co.

Bauman, H.D.L. and Joseph J. Murray, 2017. “Deaf Studies in the 21st Century: ‘Deaf Gain’ and the Future of Human Diversity.” In The Disability Studies Reader, edited by Lennard J. Davis, 5th edition, 242-255 New York, Routledge.

Broderick, Alicia and Priya Lalvani. 2017. “Dysconscious Ableism: Toward a Liberatory Praxis in Teacher Education.” International Journal of Inclusive Education  21, no. 9: 894-905.

Nussbaum, Emily and Maya Steinborn. 2019. “A ‘Visibilizing Project:’ ‘Seeing’ the Ontological Erasure of Disability in Teacher Education and Social Studies Curricula.” Journal of Curriculum Theorizing 34, no. 1: 24-35.

Vincent, Carol. 2003. Social Justice, Education and Identity London: Routledge.


National Curriculum: A set of subjects and standards used by primary and secondary schools in the United Kingdom, so children learn the same things across schools. It covers what subjects are taught and the standards that children are expected to reach in each subject.

Normalised: Making something conform to what is deemed a norm or reducing something to a set standard. 

Disability identity: A sense of self that includes one’s disability and feelings of connection to, or solidarity with, the disabled community.

Socialisation: The process of learning to behave in a way that is acceptable to society.

Agent of Socialisation: A social group or social institution that provides the first experiences of socialisation.

Jemma Lakmaker is a current PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her interest is in Disability History, predominantly focusing on hearing loss and the Deaf community. Jemma has received the Arts and Humanities Research Council, North West Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership’s scholarship for three years full time study. Jemma is Level 3 proficient in British Sign Language. 

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