Disability and illness

The Equality Act 2010 defines disability as ‘…a physical or mental impairment which has a long-term and substantial adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities’. 

Children and young people with significant mental health needs may fall within the definition of disability. In addition, children who have learning disabilities have a much greater chance of developing mental health needs, if the appropriate support is not put into place.

Having a disability might also place limits on learning and restrict what children and young people can do and how much they can join in activities. Sometimes, those with disabilities are seen as different by their classmates, and this can increase feelings of isolation and lead to exclusion from groups and friendships.

In this definition, ‘long term’ is defined as ‘a year or more’ and ‘substantial’ is defined as ‘more than minor or trivial’. Disability incorporates a wide range of conditions, including mental health needs, learning disabilities, sensory conditions, physical disabilities such as hearing and visual difficulties, and long-term illnesses.

However, it is important to remember that children who have a range of disabilities can cope well with life and there will be individual differences in their level of need, support and experiences.

Children and young people with learning disabilities

Learning disabilities affect a child or young person’s ability to learn, understand and do things compared to other children. Like any other child, children with learning disabilities can make progress – but they may need adjustments to help them achieve their potential and they may learn more slowly in comparison to other children or the expected milestones for their age and stage.

Children and young people who have a learning disability are also highly likely to meet the criteria for having additional learning needs (also known as SEND or ASN).

It is important to note that having a learning disability is not the same as having a mental health diagnosis. Mencap explains the difference well. However, children and young people with learning disabilities have a much higher chance of also developing mental health difficulties. Research from the NHS found that over a third of children and young people with a diagnosed mental health disorder were recognised as having additional learning needs.

Despite this, mental health concerns are often not identified and supported in children and young people with a learning disability, as symptoms are frequently mistaken for being part of their learning disability. 

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Children and young people with physical disabilities

Under the Equality Act, disability includes children and young people who have physical disabilities such as sensory impairments (e.g. affecting sight or hearing) and long-term health conditions such as asthma, diabetes, epilepsy and cancer.

Children and young people with such conditions do not necessarily have additional learning needs, but there is a significant overlap between these disabilities and additional learning needs.

What schools and further education settings can do

Education settings have a number of legal responsibilities towards disabled children including:

  • Advance equality and foster good relations between disabled children and young people, and their peers.
  • Adapt their teaching to respond to the strengths and needs of all pupils.
  • Not directly or indirectly discriminate against, harass or victimise children or young people with disabilities through school practice.
  • Make reasonable adjustments (e.g. extra support, aids and services) to make sure children and young people with disabilities are not at a substantial disadvantage compared with their peers.

Supporting children with disabilities

Supporting children with disabilities should involve: 

  • A whole-school respectful, inclusive and supportive environment – where all pupils feel included and that they belong; staff and pupils seeing the whole child, not just the disability or illness.
  • Ongoing assessment of the strengths and needs of each pupil; assessing, planning, adjusting, reviewing and re-adjusting activity and plans.
  • Class teachers being at the heart of this ongoing review supported by the advice of the additional learning needs (SEND/ASN) lead where necessary.
  • Good engagement and liaison with parents, carers and the pupil, exploring and reviewing strengths and needs.
  • Considering a wide range of learning approaches (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc.) when designing lessons. 
  • Having the highest expectations and aspiration for all children and young people – driven by leadership, clear planning and a shared vision.
  • Paying attention to children and young people with disabilities’ social and emotional skills, such as self-esteem, confidence, resilience, as well as their overall mental health; being alert for early signs of deterioration and mobilising protective factors.
  • Understanding that some children and young people will need a little extra help through support, focused learning groups, one-to-one support, specialist equipment, pastoral care/school counselling, school nurses or through referral to community-based support.

Find out more about learning and physical disabilities

MindEd is a free educational e-learning resource for professionals on children and young people’s mental health. Resources can be used for individual professional training as well as prompting wider staff discussion.

These sessions aim to help staff better understand learning disabilities:

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