Normalising ‘special’: Covid, online learning and those with special educational needs

Covid Anniversary Blog

A year ago, I was wondering how some educational practices could be changed in category from ‘special’ to ‘normal’ as a result of socially distanced practices, and what that might mean for our relationship with normality.

Online access to education had previously been campaigned for by disabled students with limited success, and where it was provided it was a ‘special’ accommodation. In response to Coronavirus, online access had become a ‘normal’ practice. The change in status of such accommodations, based upon evolving social practices, removes the illusion that barriers to access are the unavoidable and unfortunate consequences of an individual’s special educational needs or disability (SEND).

Instead, in mobilising our resources to make the world accessible to the majority, it appears many of the barriers that previously, and still exist are socially constructed, reflecting the social model of disability.

But, what has happened in the case of children with SEND accessing learning in the pandemic?

For some, school closures and online access have been a source of intense difficulty. Evidence provided to the All-Party Parliamentary Group for SEND shows that aspects such as differentiation and communication were forgotten for many during home learning activities. Supports were reduced or removed, and in some cases children’s hours of schooling reduced. The report explains that many stakeholders felt that learning for children with SEND was an ‘afterthought’, both during and after the school closures.

For other children, the evidence provided suggests that home learning provided relief from an environment that they never quite felt comfortable in. Shepherd and colleagues’ analysis of the perceptions of parents and carers shows that the lack of requirement for uniform, opportunities for developing independence, reduction of stress, and the flexibility brought about by online access were seen as positive outcomes. My own child reports the benefits of lockdown learning for him in this order: “No shoes, no uniform, no people, no sitting still or upright.”

It appears, then, that despite the rapidly changing categorisation of accommodations such as online access, the categories of ‘normal’ and ‘special’ in accommodations remained salient.

What fits into those categories has changed and changed again. The move to online access enabled some children with SEND to thrive whilst others were significantly disadvantaged. Perhaps, where accommodations are considered surplus or additional (‘special’), it can be easier to deprioritise them during times of threat and rapid change.

It might be useful to suggest that universal design learning could be a key factor in preventing children with SEND from being left behind or forgotten in times of rapid social change. In this context, all accommodations are normal. Where we always consider all potential pupils in our planning, instead of applying supports as extra/other, we promote inclusive learning environments that recognise and value human variation.

As Shepherd and colleagues suggest, what we have learned in the last year suggests that there is a post-pandemic potential for much greater flexibility and responsivity in education.

Michelle Dunne is a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the Faculty of Education at Edge Hill University. This piece is written as a follow-up to a post originally published in the COVID-19 blog on 29th May 2020 by Michelle which can be found here.

Photo by SeventyFour

Returning to ‘normal’: Better or Worse for those with special need and/or disabilities?

In uncertain times, it is unsurprising that evoking the idea of ‘normal’ provides a source of comfort. ‘Normal’ implies a predictability and coherence that many of us crave. Both a return to the ‘old’ normal and a re-imagining of a ‘new’ normal are presented as potential reassurances of a more familiar and comprehensible future. It seems that the word ‘normal’ is more present in our communications than ever before. However, our craving for normality is not without issues.

I want to explore my own discomfort with the idolisation of normality, from the perspective of education. The school closure experiences and insights of children and young people who attract the term ‘special educational needs and/or disabilities’ (SEND) can offer some insight into our relationship with ideas about ‘normal’.

The very fact that the term ‘SEND’ includes the word ‘special’ indicates an interesting relationship with normality. For example, disabled advocates have long campaigned for the use of remote meetings as a way to make education, workplaces, and social opportunities more accessible. Their need for these provisions has been deemed special, and thus extra or other.

In our present situation, the use of remote meetings has become normal, and large numbers of people are educated, carry out their paid work, and engage in social activity online. Substantial efforts are made to ensure that all of this is possible. The change in the status of remote education – from special to normal – highlights significant issues in the way that we can equitably approach education, and the problematic nature of our yearning for normality.

If we consider Lennard Davis’ (2010) analysis of the construction of normalcy, which appears in history shortly after industrialisation and follows a eugenicist path, we see that ‘normal’ can be thought of as the idealisation of the statistically average, a notion tied closely to efficiency and economy. These statistical averages allow us to universally orient our practices toward the productivity of the statistically average human, and to measure ourselves in terms of deviations from that ‘ideal’. Our practices, then, might be considered to be a good fit for the extremely few people who fit in precisely the middle of all given measures. When we organise ourselves according to the average, variations are applied as extra or other.

The current yearning for normality provides an opportunity for the further idealisation of the normal. As schools reopen, will those practices which have become normal become special once again? I wonder what other barriers we could overcome if we were to deem difference as normal rather than special? If we orient ourselves toward a new version of normal that is accommodating only toward the average, are we reconstituting the same old disadvantages?

Michelle Dunne is a Graduate Teaching Assistant in the Faculty of Education at Edge Hill University.


Davis, L. J. (2010) ‘Constructing Normalcy: The Bell Curve, the Novel, and the Invention of the Disabled Body in the Nineteenth Century’, in Davis, L. J. (ed.) The Disability Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, pp. 3–16.

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