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Special Needs & Disabilities; What does the future hold?

calendarApril 16 2020

We’re a long way from the end of the global epidemic of COVID-19. But now, more than ever, we need to take time to reflect on the quality of education that we provide for children with special needs and disabilities (SEND).

The Covid-19 virus is hitting countries hard. Governments globally have said that countries will have to pay back the money that is being spent, that there will be austerity measures. History shows us that, irrespective of the country people live in, cuts to services for people with SEND are inevitable. In fact, adults and children with SEND are the group most likely to be negatively impacted by austerity measures. 

The impact of companies closing down

So what is the potential impact of companies failing for people with special needs and disabilities?

Less tax being collected:

Employees and firms that would be paying tax are now not, resulting in less revenue for governments to collect. Then that raises the question, where will governments spend the money they do collect? Will programs that subsidise companies that hire people with SEND still be funded? Will there be cuts to support and training for staff who work with people with special needs and disabilities?

Fewer job opportunities and more competition:

With more businesses closing there will be more people competing for the same jobs. The companies that are still around will naturally have to filter out the applicants. How will they do this? Will firms use the same processes they did before the crisis? If they do, will the grades need be higher for the same jobs? Will more experience be needed, and will the aptitude test bar be raised?

Online payments

Online payments and transactions are a debt time bomb for people who do not understand money, with physical payments people can and do experience the transaction of exchanging something for something else. Due to the lock down, more people are people are paying for things digitally. Even children are learning how to do this, with in game payments and rewards, but the concept of value is not always fully understood.

So what can be done?  

With the local and national economies slowed down and extreme pressure placed on global health systems we MUST not forget the health and education needs of people with access issues and their families. We must take this time to reflect on the future we want for our most vulnerable people.

Education and a shift in approach

Education is often seen as reading, writing, Maths and language skills but there is so much more to it than that. Life skills, mental health and physical education are all absolutely essential components of a good educational curriculum.

Talk to companies and see what they need

Many higher education institutions are talking industries in order to provide courses and training for their prospective candidates therefore Governments, independent education institutions and award bodies need to look at what skill sets are needed and develop and education where people with special needs and disabilities and demonstrate their true ability and maximise their potential.Accommodating different needs is not difficult and improving accessibility for one student, usually improves the experience for all.

Life Skills

During the Covid-19 crisis, some schools are open, many are not. Parent and carers are looking after their children 24/7 with very little, if any, respite and learning life skills is vital to support the parents and carers.  

We must embed life skills within the education system and understand the invaluable nature of this learning. These life skills enable and empower individuals. A curriculum that ensures people with SEND are taught life skills is not only invaluable for the individual but it also helps the parents/carers and has the potential to improve a country’s GDP by creating opportunities for some degree of independent living and even contributing to the economy.  

Mental Health

In recent years, mental health has been a popular topic and there has been a push for improving people’s mental health. With this massive shift in how we live and relate to each other, mental health is now more important than ever. In particular, people with SEND must be taught how to identify patterns that lead to a drop in their mental health. They must then be taught what to do to prevent a decline and how to improve it. This not only benefits the individual and their families, but it also has implications for the wider health system. It is widely acknowledged that there will be more people needing support as a result of traumas linked to COVID-19. Teaching individuals how to manage their mental health will be key to reducing that load.

It doesn’t take much to change

It doesn’t take a huge effort to improve accessibility to a seminar, course or workplace and usually improving access for one person, improves access for all. For example, clearing a path for a wheelchair user will also benefit someone with visual impairment; it may also open up a room to feel more spacious, giving everyone more ‘breathing room’.

Making Physical Education (P.E.) accessible

One key example of where a shift in approach is vital is with physical education and exercise.  Covid 19 is not going away anytime soon. The forced curfews coupled with children and adults interacting more online, means the importance of how to stay physically fit must be understood. It is not just about keeping our bodies healthy but being physically healthy is also essential to our mental health.

There has been a boom in online exercise videos being shared as people are now housebound but the majority of these are aimed at the able-bodied. Most are not accessible to children or adults with physical limitations and many move too fast for people with cognitive impairments to keep up with.

We need to raise awareness and provide training to ensure that such resources take into account that people with a range of abilities are watching. We must show that making adjustments to include a few does not have to be difficult and will benefit everyone.

Testing Differently

Testing and assessment occurs not only in an educational setting but also when we apply for jobs. Standardised tests have long been criticised for not being appropriate for everyone. People with SEND are particularly disadvantaged by this both at exam time and when applying for jobs. Many applicants face impossible barriers before they even apply for a position. If you are deaf, you may not be able to request an application form over the phone. Is the online application process compatible with reader software used by the visually impaired? Can a dyslexic person complete the application form?

We must look at different ways of assessing and recording both children’s and adults’ skills, so they can compete on a level playing field.    

Technology and Automation

The pace at which technology is developing is breath-taking. New innovations are allowing wheelchairs users to stand and walk, providing braille keyboards, turning speech into text and text into spoken language. All these things offer greater independence – allowing people to work and reducing their dependence on the state or family. But using tech for automation can also reduce the pool of jobs available to many people with special needs and disabilities.

So, Society needs to be honest and find a balance between tech for good and tech that excludes people from the job market. There is so much good technology that helps people access education and jobs, and it is here that the emphasis on tech development should lie. To achieve this, technology needs to be developed, understood and used correctly.

Allowing more people into the jobs market broadens the skill pool and improves diversity of approach, creativity and innovation. Thereby improving the health of individuals, the health of the economy and society as a whole.

In Conclusion

While the COVID-19 epidemic is undoubtedly a global crisis, it may end up being a tragedy for the future of people with SEND and their families. Society needs to change historical patterns where cuts to services for people with SEND are inevitable. We need to take this opportunity to make a new and brighter future for the most vulnerable for generations to come.  

David Bara has years of experience as a SEN teacher and Senior Lecturer of Special Educational Needs, working with SENDCOs all over the world.

Emma Bara has a Masters Degree in International Development and over 20 years experience working the field of sustainability.

They created WeCanAccess.com to create a societal shift and ensure their children will be able to access the world on an equal footing when they grow up.

Image of a young boy and girl from behind walking hand in hand.
Big Brother with his little Sis after her appointment at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital

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