There have been a couple of recent articles in The Conversation that have cautioned us against excluding students on the basis of those students having a disability (here and here). On first sight, this seems to be an argument that does not need to be made. Who would want to exclude students due to their disabilities?
Yes, there may be practical issues. I remember teaching science in a school that installed a lift up to the science labs so that a disabled student could take part. We realised that this wasn’t sufficient because the desks in the labs were still too high to complete practical work from a wheelchair and we also needed to ensure adequate protection was in place – students normally stand-up to complete practical work in order to avoid spilling anything in their laps. Nevertheless, we were all keen to work through any issues.
When you click through to the references in the Conversation articles, something odd seems to happen. To support points made about ‘disabilities’, these pieces often link to research on students with ‘special educational needs’ (e.g. here). Although a disability may cause a special educational need, these are not necessarily the same thing. Up to 20% of students in the UK have been classified as having a special educational need (although I understand this figure is now falling). It beggars belief to suggest that 20% of students have a disability.
It is also true that behavioural and emotional problems are often classified as a special education need. I can see how a disability might be linked to a behavioural problem. I can also see how a failure to learn to read (which could be due to a disability or could plausibly be a failure of teaching) might lead to a student feeling disengaged with school and misbehaving. But these things are all slightly different, aren’t they? A physical disability is something that a person has little agency over. To draw an equivalence between a physical disability and a behaviour problem implies that a student with such a problem has no control over his or her behaviour.
This might be the case for a particular individual but I think that most people would be incredulous at the idea that poor behaviour is generally a manifestation of a disability over which the individual has no control. If you believed this to be true then the notion of any form of punishment would be absurd because it simply would not work. Perhaps this is the claim?
Yet there is evidence that behaviour systems that include negative consequences can be effective. And how would you work with a student that exhibited behaviour problems? You would probably talk through scenarios and the choices that can be made in those situations or you might try to reframe thinking with cognitive-behaviour-therapy-type approach. All of which would be pointless in the absence of any internal control over behaviour.
If behavioural problems are to be included in our definition of a disability then it’s hardly surprising that students with ‘disabilities’ are disproportionately excluded from school. After all, what are they being excluded for?
None of this tells us anything about the rights and wrongs of exclusions. This is actually a moral argument about weighing the competing rights of individuals. I don’t think anyone would argue that students benefit from being excluded and I certainly think that any school exclusions should be minimised. We should try everything else first. However, I also think that there comes a point when a child’s behaviour is so damaging to the learning of their peers – or perhaps even puts the safety of others students at risk – that it is justifiable to exclude those students from a lesson or even from a school.
If there are those who disagree with my moral choice here then they should make a moral argument rather than confuse us with slippery categories.