Using the term SEN/D


Drake Music is moving away from using the term SEN/D due to its broad meaning – it doesn’t provide the information we need, or that Disabled people identify with.

We are responding to the discussion that the SEN/D label does not come from a place of ownership. It has been placed upon children and young people and denotes ‘other’ and ‘segregation’. We therefore prefer to say young disabled people rather than young people with SEN/D.

What’s in a name?

Why are we thinking about terminology? As an organisation with the Social Model at the heart of what we do, the term SEN has never sat comfortably with us. Over the years the team have debated the term and discussed whether it fits with the Social Model, which offers ways through which discrimination, exclusion and inequality can be challenged… including language.

The Social Model (in brief) says that being Disabled is caused by the way society is organised, rather than by a person’s impairment or difference. It looks at ways of removing barriers that restrict life choices for Disabled people.

What do we mean by barriers? The types of barriers recognised by the Social Model aren’t simply physical. As well as material barriers there are also institutional, ideological, attitudinal and structural barriers, including language.

How we define and discuss disability affects both our expectations and the ways we interact with Disabled people. Language is an important part of fighting for human rights and social justice.

Language is also a human construction and reflects our values; the language we use to discuss disability now is very different from language used in the past and probably also from how we will be talking in the future.

At Drake Music we began using the terms SEN and SEN/D as part of our work in education, where it is used to denote Special Educational Needs and/or Disability. The acronym is in regular use in education, along with the terminology of “special schools”.
However, this language did not originate from within the disability movement and isn’t owned by the people it is supposed to encompass. It is important to recognise that language can support or challenge disabling barriers.

Views from the sector

As part of our thinking on this topic we contacted Disabled people working in the sector to ask for their views.

First we heard from Dave Young. Dave uses eye gaze technology to communicate through a computer and drives a powerchair with head switches. He is known, professionally, as The Shouting Mute:

“For me the term SEN is patronizing and dumb-ing down disabled people. It sounds like it is an effort to include disabled people into the education system. The word special is implying that disability is a subject that you have to tip toe around. The umbrella term of disability is too wide ranging, and doesn’t cater to the needs of individual students which are all so very different. It implies that disabled people are still under-rated citizens of society, and not valued and integrated members in our community. Here is my provocation. Do we want our young disabled people sounding like an effort and a chore, burdening their community as they start life or do we want to welcome them into education, to learn as much as they can and to be happy, valued and successful members of society?”

Jodi-Alissa Bickerton, Creative Learning Director of Graeae Theatre Company added:

“The term SEN is not language I use in approaching schools around projects and practice, nor with parents of disabled children. However, I am aware it is a language deeply embedded in the education system to try and communicate learning needs of children and young people. It can be a way in for families to fight for services for their children, due to it being recognised so widely. The SEN term is broad in meaning, rarely functional, as it doesn’t provide the information I need or that I identify with as a disabled person… I acknowledge that change is about making steps and not rejecting the term when it is already so deeply embedded, but offering alternative language in the way we present our practice, our process and outcomes.”

Disabled people, and organisations led by Disabled people, create alternative, empowering ways of understanding and talking about disability which challenge assumptions and limiting perceptions. That is what the Social Model is. It allows discrimination, exclusion and inequality to be identified and confronted.

“In terms of education, I think it is significant that the term ‘SEN’ is only used up to the age of 18, when it shifts to ‘Disabled’. At what point do you stop having ‘special needs’ and become ‘Disabled’? We wouldn’t talk about an adult having ‘special needs’, so why is it ok for young people?” Daryl Beeton, Drake Music

While we are discussing ‘special needs’, this term locates the barriers to education within the young person, rather than in society/the education system. The terminology of ‘special needs’ labels young Disabled people as not ‘normal’, which is exclusionary in itself and also encourages exclusion in practice too.

True Inclusion

There is now a lot of commitment to the idea of inclusion across the music education sector. For us this must be underpinned by a full understanding of the Social Model of Disability.

It isn’t just about taking away the ‘special needs’ label and bringing young Disabled people into ‘mainstream’ classes. It is about fundamental changes to the education system to create true equality of opportunity for all learners, from creating physically accessible spaces to learning to redefining ideas about ‘success’, ‘failure’ and ‘ability’. It is about maximising the participation and learning opportunities of all young people.

So for Drake Music, this means that we are going to be moving away from using the terminology of SEN/D, taking away our support for a term which we believe both constructs and underpins disabling barriers for young people in music education.

We are committed to equality and inclusion in every aspect of what we do. From now on our language will reflect this more fully.
Interested in this discussion?

Explore further:

And don’t forget you can also explore hashtags on twitter for live discussions and debates, e.g. #ActuallyAutistic, #DisabledAfter5pm, #SayTheWord

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