Written by:
Michelle Daley

Structural injustices

Read time:
7 minutes

Structural injustices 

The Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) campaigns for the right of all disabled people to access and be supported in mainstream education. Funded by the Runnymede Trust, its latest report explores disabled young people’s experiences of racism and ableism in mainstream education. The research highlights the injustice they face and the urgent need for change, writes ALLFIE’s director, Michelle Daley.

Launched in April, the Lived Experiences of Black/Global Majority Disabled Pupils and their Families in Mainstream Education report identified gaps in the understanding of the intersecting oppression faced by Black and Global Majority disabled people in the education system. A resource for campaigning, advocacy, and informing policies and decisions, it centres a commitment to the social model of disability, disability justice, social justice and human rights. 

‘We envision this research as a powerful tool to drive the campaign for inclusive education forward, ensuring that no one is left behind,’ said ALLFIE’s chair, Dr Navin Kikabhai. ‘Our collective social justice efforts must confront intersectional erasure head-on.’

The report was born out of a critical moment during the pandemic, when the government decided to cancel GCSEs and A-levels in January 2021. At the time, ALLFIE was disappointed that a letter from the Coalition of Race Equality Organisations (CORE) to the education minister had ignored the experiences of Black and Global Majority disabled pupils. This gap in recognition spurred us to initiate a cross-movement collaboration aimed at developing a research tool.

Pooling our resources – time, skills, knowledge, expertise, staff and money – our work was grounded in mutual respect for our differences and a commitment to avoiding the replication of harmful practices. Central to our approach was the cultivation of a relationship built on recognition, representation, mutual respect, care and love. ALLFIE established a steering group composed of Black and Global Majority disabled people with diverse experiences to guide the development of the research.

‘We centred our approach using principles of social justice’

At the start of the journey, it was crucial to establish a shared understanding of intersectionality, particularly with how we framed the concepts of race and disability as social constructs. However, we encountered disparities in the conceptualisation of ‘disability’, which often leaned towards a medical framing of disability. This perspective views individuals as ‘problems’, with people’s names regularly replaced with medical labels. Such perspectives reinforce exclusion and segregation (often for life) rather than addressing systemic barriers, negative attitudes, inaccessible structures and discriminatory practices. 

To avoid perpetuating harmful practices, we centred our approach using principles of social justice. This approach was crucial in ensuring our processes and outcomes did not unintentionally replicate systemic injustices. Centring Black and Global Majority disabled people enabled us to gather their authentic intersectional experiences of the education system.

At ALLFIE we are very aware of the potential harm that can arise from research practices. We were committed to ensuring that our practices did not replicate harmful patterns. This involved actively seeking feedback from individuals to understand their motivations for contributing to the project, and it became clear their participation was driven by a desire to reclaim narratives that have often been colonised, erased or misrepresented. They sought meaningful change, to speak truth to power, and to actively shape and influence systemic change.

‘Disciplinary procedures and surveillance are disproportionately applied’

The input of pupils and parents directly shaped the themes and recommendations of our report, which highlights the trauma and harm they experienced across five key areas: school placement, Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCP), teacher attitudes, disciplinary procedures and surveillance, and social participation.

The report reveals the challenging process families go through when choosing schools for their disabled child. While it was clear that parents did not intend to negate their child's race and gender during their school search, it was troubling to find that decisions were often based on SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) services that primarily privileged white disabled pupils.

The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, highlighted the need for decolonising the school curriculum to promote racial justice and include the works of Black scholars, activists, writers, and so on. But our report emphasises ‘the one-dimensional nature of representation and diversity’, which results in the intersectional erasure of Black and Global Majority disabled pupils and parents, impacting their sense of belonging and acceptance. It is important to stress the importance of curriculum diversity in fostering friendships and meaningful social participation.

Another significant concern was the separation between disabled and non-disabled pupils within schools, denying them the opportunity to develop relationships and reinforcing social divisions. Noeline, one of the participants, describes this experience: ‘[There’s] a place where wheelchair and Disabled pupils go… and nobody's allowed there, it’s locked... The teacher has to get the card [for the door].’ 

Such practices create ‘territorialized boundaries’ that maintain social order and control, leading to ‘internalised oppression’ and ‘reinforces the marginalisation of racialised and non-racialised Disabled people’, the report states.

Disciplinary procedures and surveillance are disproportionately applied to disabled pupils and Black boys. The nuances of pupils’ impairments, such as differences in communication styles or movement habits, are often overlooked or misinterpreted as misbehaviour. This leads to disciplinary measures and increased surveillance, which in turn causes significant misunderstandings and frustrations. 

‘It is crucial to name and challenge the harm and trauma’

The report highlights systemic and structural injustices in the education system. Its recommendations include phasing out segregated schools, alternative provisions and units; guide policy and decision-making on inclusive education; and addressing intersectional erasure within advocacy services. 

The report also emphasises that in order to achieve systemic change, it is crucial to name and challenge the harm and trauma experienced by Black and Global Majority disabled pupils and parents caused by intersectional erasure in education. 

The Lived Experiences of Black/Global Majority Disabled Pupils and their Families in Mainstream Education report is available on the ALFFIE website. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.

Join the fight for racial justice: support the Runnymede Trust’s work by making a donation.

Photo: The front cover of the report © ALLFIE 2024/Pen Mendonca

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