On being mischaracterised

Following my last post, I was at the centre of something approaching a Twitter storm. This seemed to be sparked by Nancy Gedge Tweeting:

gedge 1

I had not mentioned ‘the idea that there are good/bad sorts of disability’ in my post and so I took issue with this. Nancy could not support her tweet. Instead, she stated, “I know there is no direct claim there, Greg, however I do see your post as part of a wider school of thought – a wider narrative.”

So that’s OK then? It’s not what I wrote or what I meant but it can be characterised as part of a ‘wider narrative’? No, I don’t think that’s OK at all.

The problem for me was that I was now deluged with people in my timeline taking offence and calling me names. Some sought to educate me that there are neurological conditions that can cause behaviour problems. When I pointed out that I had written pretty much the same thing in my post, this was either ignored or the claim shifted to suggestions that I had been clumsy in how I had expressed myself. It seems that I touched a nerve by referring to a physical disability to illustrate my point. So let me make my position as clear as I can.

I did not seek to draw a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sorts of disability. Instead, I sought to draw a distinction between a special educational need and a disability, particularly because the articles that I was commenting upon appeared to be conflating the two. Special educational needs might be caused by a disability but they might not be. Or at least they might not be caused by something that would be widely recognised as a disability.

This is a complicated area, but let’s step away from obvious classroom issues for a moment and look at the interesting example of “Antisocial Personality Disorder”. According to the UK National Health Service website, Antisocial Personality Disorder is diagnosed in the following way:

“To be diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder, a person must have a history of conduct disorder before the age of 15.

Antisocial personality disorder is diagnosed after rigorous psychological assessment. A diagnosis can only be made if the person is aged 18 years or older and at least three of the following criteria apply:

  • repeatedly breaking the law
  • repeatedly being deceitful
  • being impulsive or incapable of planning ahead
  • being irritable and aggressive
  • having a reckless disregard for their safety or the safety of others
  • being consistently irresponsible
  • lack of remorse

These signs must not be part of a schizophrenic or manic episode – they must be part of the person’s everyday personality.”

In other words, the diagnosis is based upon the individual’s behaviour. Therefore, it logically cannot act as an explanation of this behaviour because this would be circular: Person A behaves in a certain way because he has an antisocial personality disorder. How do we know that he has an antisocial personality disorder? Because he behaves in a certain way.

The label acts as a description – perhaps a very useful one – but in the absence of anything else it cannot also serve as an explanation.

It seems perfectly feasible that we could construct some kind of disorder around any pattern of challenging or unusual behaviour that we might see in a child. But this would not explain this behaviour or shed any light on whether a child had agency over this behaviour. Furthermore, if we decide that this disorder classifies as a ‘disability’, we must then avoid discriminating against an individual on the basis of it because we have laws that say that we can’t. So a child who behaves in an antisocial way must be given the same opportunities as a child who does not because the antisocial behaviour is part of his disability.

We see something similar with dyslexia. Despite attempts to rigorously define the term, it does lend itself to circular reasoning: This child cannot read because she has dyslexia. How do we know that she has dyslexia? Because she cannot read.

If we then apply the logic of accommodating a disability to the example of dyslexia, we might conclude that the child should be given audio versions of written instructions so that she can access the same curriculum as her peers. However, it might be the case that this particular child needs a rigorous reading intervention and the opportunity to do more reading than her peers rather than less.

Similarly, if we simply try to accommodate all behavioural problems on the basis that they are caused by a disability then we might miss an opportunity to do something about it. It’s quite a pessimistic outlook. The child might have agency. He might have chosen to misbehave or he might be able to reframe his thinking in ways that lead to better behaviour, more academic success and ultimately a more fulfilling life.

Moreover, if we simply seek to avoid discrimination – we don’t want to exclude this child from activities on the basis of his disability – then we also risk damaging the prospects of his peers.



12 thoughts on “On being mischaracterised

  1. I think you’ve put your finger on the two major problems with disorders defined in terms of behaviour.

    The first is that technically, disorders defined in behavioural terms are simply descriptive labels. They are ‘disorders’ only at the behavioural level. What’s happened over time is that those labels have become reified. So what were once shorthand descriptive terms for difficulties with reading/social interaction/attention (dyslexia/autism/attention deficit) have turned into supposed medical conditions that cause those difficulties.

    The second problem is that all children who meet the criteria for a particular label are assumed to have the same underlying cause for their difficulties. Children with different reading difficulties are assumed to all have a variant of ‘dyslexia’, children with totally different difficulties with social interaction all have a variant of ‘autism’ and children with different attentional impairments all have a variant of ADHD.

    Responses to these reified, supposed disorders have tended to be one of the following:

    – parents determined to get to the bottom of the problem have ended up with children with a long string of ‘diagnoses’ of overlapping ‘conditions’ and teachers have been utterly perplexed by the number and apparent complexity of the conditions;

    – the ‘medical model’ has been entirely rejected and all difficulties assumed to originate in early trauma, inadequate attachment etc;

    – the problem has been assumed to be due to poor parenting or children choosing to behave badly.

    All these responses locate the ‘problem’ in the child (as does your Venn diagram) rather than in an interaction between the child and their environment, as does youA minor ‘impairment’ can become significantly magnified in a non-supportive environment. As I’ve pointed out before, a population with a wide range of inherent variation will require variation in educational provision.

  2. Chester Draws says:

    You can’t beat the outragists Greg. They want to be outraged, and will not be led back to calmness with logic.

    The rest of us know what you meant.

  3. Mike says:

    Wonderful post, Greg. Should be required reading for, among others, every GP getting hassled by litigious parents around Special Provisions season here in NSW.

  4. Excellent post. I was dismayed by the reactions on Twitter, and in one of the comments on your previous post.

    Everyone attending University should be expected to learn about, and to make use of:

    1) the principle of charity, to be employed when reading other peoples’ arguments
    2) the importance of distrusting your immediate emotional reaction when reading (misreading)
    something in an area where you have a strong emotional investment

    The usefulness of Venn diagrams, as an aid to logical thought and working out the extent to which categories overlap, is also highly recommended!

  5. The Venn is a good way of looking at this issue. I suppose the difference between yourself and those who took umbridge over your original article is in the amount of overlap. I don’t think many, if any, would argue all anti-social behaviour is a result of disability, but most would argue the overlap is greater than your Venn suggests.

    I agree it is important to stress personal agency and that to deny students can have control over their behaviour is a depressing view. Schools, however, do not generally encourage agency, rather they impose compliance. In my view the vast amount of anti-social behaviour is caused by this suppression and a disregard of personal agency. A way forward, I would argue, is to develop agency through collaboration and dialogue with students.

  6. V. Nelson says:

    Again, ignorant of what goes on inside school buildings in the UK or Australia, when I saw “disability” and read about a person who needs a chair, it reminded me of an acquaintance who insisted that her school was “diverse” because some children liked to play basketball; others, football. Your post was fine as written.
    My complaint about the “learning disabled” label is when applied to children who are asked to sit still for five hours a day, listening to lessons in a language they do not understand, and their subsequent inability to perform on assessments is seen as a disability; their subsequent restlessness and inattentiveness, hyperactivity.

  7. Hi Greg

    This excerpt below from http://www.education.vic.gov.au/Documents/about/department/PSD-Review-Report.pdf might provide some clarity re: the overlap you describe. It explains the relationship between functioning and disability. Environmental factors can lead to a disability if a student is restricted in their participation e.g. children presenting with challenging behaviour can become disabled (unable to participate) as a result of the behaviour even if not initially considered to have a disability. So 20% in the UK isn’t outrageous. We’re not far off in Australia (based on the recent NCCD). I recall some estimates of around 13-17% of school aged children. 18%-20% of all Australian have a disability according to the ABS.

    “The International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) is the world
    standard for conceptualising and classifying functioning and disability, agreed by
    the World Health Assembly in 2001, and provides a framework for organising and
    documenting information on functioning and disability (WHO 2001).
    It conceptualises functioning as a ‘dynamic interaction between a person’s health
    condition, environmental factors and personal factors’. ICF provides a standard
    language and conceptual basis for the definition and measurement of disability, as well
    as classifications and codes. It integrates the major models of disability—the medical
    model and the social model—as a ‘bio-psycho-social synthesis’. It recognises the
    role of environmental factors in the creation of disability, as well as the role of health
    conditions (Üstün et al. 2003).

    In the ICF, functioning and disability are dual concepts in a broad framework.
    ‘Functioning’ is the umbrella term for any or all of body functions, body structures,
    activities and participation. ‘Disability’ is the umbrella term for any or all of an
    impairment of body structure or function, a limitation in activities, or a restriction in

    • Hi Claire

      “Environmental factors can lead to a disability if a student is restricted in their participation e.g. children presenting with challenging behaviour can become disabled (unable to participate) as a result of the behaviour even if not initially considered to have a disability.”

      This is exactly the kind of definition of a disability that concerns me. If a child is withdrawn from an activity due to poor or dangerous behaviour then, according to this definition, we might be discriminating against them on the basis of their disability.

      This is indeed circular because the fact that we have withdrawn the child defines their disability. And yet the child may have no underlying neurological or psychological problem – they may simply have chosen to misbehave. I don’t think choosing to misbehave is something that the general population would accept as a disability and I am interested in why we would adopt such a model.

      I wonder whether there is a school of thought that wants to remove *all* agency from children; that sees deficit at the root of all and any behaviour problems.

      This definition also makes clear why the original Conversation articles found a link between disability and exclusion because exclusion is part of the definition of a disability. It seems as if exclusion is being used to define disability so that the full force of antidiscrimination law may be levelled against any form of exclusion.

  8. Pingback: SEND IS Mainstream. But it’s complicated. | headguruteacher

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.