Bullying, exclusion, low expectations and isolation – the barriers facing disabled young people

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The barriers facing disabled children have been spelt out in a report that highlights just how many of their basic rights are not being met. Pete Henshaw takes a look.

Disabled children and young people are being denied many of their rights, including access to education, effective careers guidance and employment.

An investigation led by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner suggests that as many as 13 of the rights contained within the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities are not being met for many disabled young people across the country.

The report is a snapshot based on in-depth interviews and research involving 34 disabled children and young people.

Headline among the findings, the interviewees reported generally experiencing “unhelpful, negative stereotypes” of disability and said that people often underestimated their ability and held limited expectations and aspirations for them.

Bullying was also a key theme, with the interviewees not only experiencing it because of their disabilities, but also encountering problems being listened to when they tried to report it to police outside of school or to staff within school.

The research also points out that although disabled children are more than three times more likely to be victims of child sexual abuse than non-disabled children, they are less likely to have child protection plans.

When it comes to education, the interviewees reported “feeling unsupported to achieve and pursue academic qualifications and often having little autonomy over subject choice when reaching GCSEs or A levels”.

The importance of properly trained teaching assistants was also stressed by the young people, who said they were “empowered” when teaching assistants understood their needs.

The report also highlights that children or young people with a disability or SEN are eight times more likely to be excluded both informally and formally than their non-disabled peers.

This comes after research from the charity Contact a Family last year found that a lack of resources was leading some schools to deny disabled children access to activities or to illegally exclude them by sending them home.

This week’s report states: “Children and young people wanted more support to reach their full potential in education as this is linked to ability to access meaningful employment. Young people thought that schools and colleges did not give them enough support to access employment.”

Indeed, employment was another area where the 34 interviewees reported encountering significant barriers. The report adds: “Disabled children and young people reported that they faced significant difficulties in accessing paid employment and suitable meaningful unpaid work experience, leaving them to feel isolated and concerned about their futures.

“They wanted more education for employers so they can recognise the potential of disabled young people.”

The young people also said that they often felt excluded from mainstream play and leisure provision and wanted more opportunities.

Among its recommendations, the report calls for a renewed focus on tackling disability-related hate crime and abuse, including the creation of a national strategy to be led by government. 

It also identifies a role for teacher training that would see a mandatory focus on delivering an inclusive education. It adds: “A statutory requirement for all annual reviews for disabled young people with Education, Health and Care Plans or in receipt of SEN support from year 9 onwards should have a strong focus on qualifications and the implications for future career aspirations. 

“This should include a requirement for young disabled people to receive appropriate and relevant careers advice and guidance and assistance in brokering work experience placements.

“There should also be a duty for professionals to put in place the necessary support for young disabled people to access suitable work experience.”

Elsewhere, it says the Department for Education should provide “clear and more explicit” guidance to schools to help with effective careers provision for young people with disabilities.

The children’s commissioner, Dr Maggie Atkinson, said: “For some time I have been seriously concerned about the inequalities faced by disabled children and young people in England. It is unacceptable that we still have to raise the issues in this report.

“It should not be the case that it is still necessary to tell our readers that these children’s lives are affected by the denial of their rights, both by those running some services and society at large. 

“We have legislation to ensure the fair treatment of disabled children and young people, and high expectations about what they deserve and should receive. As a nation and a society, we commit time and time again, through policies, debates, and public statements to ensuring they receive these entitlements.”

Responding to the report, Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive of National Children’s Bureau, said: “Disabled children and young people still have an uphill struggle before they enjoy equal rights with the rest of society.

“It is completely unacceptable that some live in fear of bullying and hate-crime attacks, and feel that when they do turn to those in authority for help, they are not listened to adequately.

“We need to ensure we listen to their concerns closely, and involve them effectively in designing and delivering the services they rely on.”


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