Learning Disability Week 2024

Do you see me?

17-23 2024 June is Learning Disability Awareness Week, promoted by Mencap, a charity for people with learning disabilities. The theme this year is ‘Do you see me?’, which is about being seen, heard and valued and challenging the barriers people with a learning disability face. However, it is also about celebrating the things that people with a learning disability bring to society. Mencap suggest a number of topics to talk about each day. These start with ‘Do you see me?’, followed by ‘Do you understand me?’, ‘Will you work with me?’, ‘Do you hear me?’, ‘Do you include me?’, and ‘Will you support me?’

What is a learning disability?

Before exploring the different questions, it is worth asking the question, ‘What is a learning disability?’.

From a Mencap perspective, learning disability is not the same as learning difficulty and refers to a ‘reduced intellectual ability and difficulty with everyday activities,’ such as household tasks, socialising or managing money. Mencap see this as affecting someone for the whole of their life and it means that people with a learning disability will, in their view, tend to take longer to learn and may need ‘support to develop new skills, understand complicated information and interact with other people’. They describe the degrees of difficulty as mild, moderate, severe or profound. Such difficulties may be caused by pre-natal factors such as maternal accident or illness or by genetic factors. They may also be caused by a lack of oxygen during birth or premature birth. After birth, accidents, illnesses and seizures may result in a learning difficulty.

Mencap is an abbreviation for ‘mentally handicapped’ and in the 1940s when it was formed, was originally ‘The National Association of Parents of Backward Children.’ The association has been particularly active over the last 80 years in campaigning for the rights of children with a learning disability to services to meet their needs. In the 1950s, 60s and 70s, many children with a learning disability lived in a hospital or institutional setting. So, no one saw them, and they were definitely not heard or included. These children were gradually moved into a more home-like setting, where they showed a considerable improvement in their social, emotional and verbal skills. Services were also developed for adults, including for leisure and employment. It was only the 1970 Education (Handicapped Children) Act that made education universal for all children, including those who historically had been judged to be ineducable. This meant that for the first time, children with severe, multiple and profound learning difficulties had a right to go to school, although this did not happen overnight, and many children remained in hospitals or other institutional settings well into the mid-1970s.

In the view of Mencap, those with other learning difficulties are not considered to have learning disabilities. This is in line with the view of other UK organisations, such as the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and the UK Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC). However, definitions from the USA, for example, from The Learning Disabilities Association of America are much wider and include seven learning disabilities of dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, auditory processing disorder, language processing disorder, non-verbal learning disabilities and visual perceptual/visual motor deficit. Autistic spectrum conditions (ASC) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are not in themselves recognised as learning disabilities but may co-exist with difficulties in learning. Whichever is, or is not, included within a definition, they all have implications for schooling and education, so are included in consideration here under the banner of special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Do you see me?

If children have visible signs that suggest a disability, it is crucial to see beyond this and to not make assumptions about what they might be able to do or to achieve. We need to see the person and not their disability. There was a time when children with Down Syndrome were not thought to be able to learn to read, but we now know that this was a false assumption. There is also the feeling experienced by many disabled people that they are not visible in the wider society and that wider society looks past them and does not see them as having the same feelings and rights that others have.

There are also invisible disabilities which may mean that a child does not respond as we might expect in a classroom situation. This does not mean that they are being disrespectful or naughty, but that they may be having difficulty in interpreting what is going on in the classroom or what is expected of them. So, in the classroom setting, do we make sure that we read the background information about the pupils and get to know them, so that we gain an understanding beyond initial visual impressions?

Do you understand me?

This is a very challenging question, because how much does anybody understand anyone else and their motivation and interpretation of the world? However, we need to be informed about others’ needs and about how their disabilities may have an impact on our perceptions of their aspirations, intentions, and interests. We are then more likely to be in a better place to understand them. It is likely though that they have the same aspirations, intentions and interests as anyone else but may face all sorts of physical and socially created barriers in achieving them.

Will you work with me?

A child in school who has a special educational need may experience stigma because other children may not want to engage and work with them in the classroom because they see them as different or less capable. A key role for us as educators is to develop the understanding of others and to foster an inclusive ethos. This includes within the curriculum and how it is taught in the classroom. What messages do our teaching methods and classroom organisation give?

Sometimes children and adults are desperate to ‘help’ the child with a special educational need. This may commonly be seen in the way in which they do things for such a pupil, rather than encouraging independence and gradually removing support. The child with SEND needs to be seen as an equal who is ‘differently abled’ not someone to do things for or to control.

Similarly, a disabled person may be discriminated against in the employment market or the workplace and may be stigmatised by employers who may offer no job, pay a low rate or issue tasks which no one else wants to do. Such an employer will overlook all the skills and qualities which the disabled person can bring to the workplace.

Do you hear me?

Central to all of this is ensuring that all children have a voice, so what can we do to make sure that their voices are heard? The Children’s Commissioner published the findings from the ‘Big Ambition Survey’ in March 2024. This was the second survey of its type following ‘The Big Ask’, a post-pandemic survey which took place in 2021. The findings of this survey are a depressing read, as while the survey gave 367,000 children a voice, it shows how unheard so many children feel. The commissioner states that ‘in terms of happiness with their lives, English schoolchildren are below the global average.’ The survey also notes that ‘only 56% of children with special educational needs (SEND) enjoy school.’ So, for us, the question has to be not only, do you hear me, but what are we going to do about it? If we undertake pupil voice surveys and discussions, to what extent are pupils and students with SEND included in this? If there is a school council, how many of its representatives have SEND? How do we act on what we find?

Do you include me?

A key step for schools to consider in relation to inclusion are its obligations to people with a disability (and the other protected characteristics) under the Equality Act 2010. This makes it unlawful to discriminate against, harass or victimise pupils in relation to some key areas. These include admissions, the way education is provided, the way in which pupils have access to any benefit, facility or service and how exclusions are used.

Key also is the duty of schools to carry out accessibility planning for disabled pupils. These duties were originally described in the Disability Discrimination Act and have been replicated in the Equality Act 2010. Plans must aim to increase the extent to which disabled pupils can participate in the curriculum, to improve the physical environment and to improve the availability of information to disabled pupils.

Having a plan is one thing, but acting on it is another and it is our words and actions that truly include someone. An inclusive plan is of no use unless it is understood and followed. We have to consider what is on the accessibility plan. What checks are there that it is implemented appropriately?

Will you support me?

The law on disability discrimination differs from the rest of the Equality Act and means that schools are allowed to treat disabled pupils more favourably than non-disabled pupils and in some cases are required to do so. Reasonable adjustments allow a disabled pupil to be put on a more level footing with pupils without disabilities.

The Big Ambition Survey quotes a girl with mental health needs as saying, ‘the care isn’t there, the support isn’t present and it’s really disappointing. I have anxiety and can’t even make it out of the door some days…’ and when ‘I notify them of my absence and my mum authorises it with them also, I’m still met with emails about my attendance and my teachers down my throat about how I need to try more and put more effort into college.’ It is true that good attendance is linked to good achievement and no doubt this girl’s teachers intended to be supportive of her. However, it may be that gaps in their information meant that she didn’t receive the right support. Support through a listening ear, hearing what is said and being alongside the young person emotionally would seem to be key here. This does not necessarily mean an extra body in a classroom for optimum support, but rather insight and knowledge resulting in an empathic response.


Pupils with SEND deserve to make the best possible progress, not only academically, but in their personal development and self-belief, in order to realise their aspirations.

If you think your education setting might benefit from an external review of its SEND provision, we are here to support. Request your free consultation today.




Education (Handicapped Children) Act 1970, www.legislation.gov.uk


Learning Disability Week 2024, Mencap,  www.mencap.org.uk


The Big Ambition – The Story of a Million Children, March 2024, www.children’scommissioner.gov.uk

The Equality Act 2010 and schools, www.assets.publishing.service.gov.uk, May 2014


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