Inclusive Education and the Cultural Representation of Disability and Disabled People: Recipe for Disaster or Catalyst of Change? an Examination of Non-Disabled Primary School Children's Attitudes to Children with Disabilities

Article excerpt

The election of New Labour in 1997, under the banner of 'Education, Education, Education', heralded an evolution of inclusive practices within schools and early years settings (Hodkinson, 2005). The beginning of the twenty-first century has witnessed the evolution of inclusive education being supported by a raft of governmental policies, initiatives and legislation, not least the Special Educational Needs (SEN) and Disability Act, which have ostensibly strived to make inclusion the norm within the English educational system (Hodkinson, 2006). Most recently, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) has outlined the government's strategy for special educational needs (DfES, 2004) and it is apparent that current policy is to be dominated by the principle of inclusion. This development of governmental inclusion policy has led to a wide-ranging debate, among professionals within the United Kingdom, as to the relative educational and social merit of 'mainstreaming' children with special educational needs and disabilities. However, it seems very apparent that current educational policy is to be dominated by the belief that 'All children wherever they are educated need to be able to learn, play and develop alongside each other, within their local community of schools' (DfES, 2004, p. 21).

It would seem that, unlike previous governmental policies of integration, the present government believes that inclusion relates not only to the location of children with special educational needs within the mainstream, but also to the 'quality of their experience and how far they are helped to learn, achieve and participate fully in the life of the school' (DfES, 2004, p. 12). For this government a key success target for inclusive education is that parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities will have the confi- dence that 'in choosing a local mainstream school, their child will receive a good education and be a valued member of the school community' (DfES, 2004, p. 13). Interestingly, whilst the government rightly outlines that it wants to improve teachers' skills and the multi-agency partnerships, with which to work with children with special educational needs and disabilities, its strategy seemingly fails to appreciate the important effect that the attitudes of non-disabled children within mainstream schools may have on the success, or otherwise, of inclusive education.

Problematic, I would suggest, is that the government's inclusion strategy document (DfES, 2004) seemingly indicates they believe that the simple placement of children with disabilities into mainstream schools, coupled with successful learning experiences, will lead to non-disabled children's attitudes to disability becoming more positive. This humanitarian premise, that including Disabled pupils in a mainstreamed educational setting will lead to greater acceptance of pupils with special needs, is one that has gained international support (Spaling, 2002). Paradoxically, however, it is also argued that the premise is based upon an 'idealistic assumption' and in reality it is undermined because pupils with disabilities are often 'socially ostracised' (Spaling, 2002, p. 91) within school communities. In terms of the development of effective inclusive education, therefore, it would seem important to examine extant disability attitudes within schools (Upton and Harper, 2000).

The purpose of this article, therefore, is to explore and critically analyse the attitudes of non-disabled children towards the inclusion of children with disabilities within the locality of their classrooms. The article argues that, if mainstream schools are to provide a fertile breeding ground for the embedding of inclusive practices, the cultural representation and attitudes of nondisabled children towards Disabled people and disability need to be carefully considered.

The formulation of societal attitudes towards disability

Oppenheim (1992, p. …