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The difference between SEN and disabilities

Children and young people who have special educational needs (SEN) do not necessarily have a disability. Some disabled children and young people do not have special educational needs. There is a lot of overlap between the two groups though.

What are special educational needs?

  • A child or young person has SEN if they have a learning difficulty or disability, which calls for special educational provision to be made for him or her
  • A child or a young person has a learning difficulty or disability if he or she has a significantly greater difficulty in learning than the majority of others of the same age. Or they have a disability which prevents or hinders him or her from making use of educational facilities of a kind generally provided for others of the same age in mainstream schools/post-16 institutions 

(Read the legislation Children and Families Act 2014. Chapter 6, Part 3 (20-21))

Examples of special educational needs include:

  • Speech, language and communication needs
  • Behavioural, emotional and social difficulties
  • Autistic spectrum conditions
  • Specific learning difficulties, such as dyslexia and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Moderate learning difficulties
  • Profound and multiple learning difficulties
  • Multi-sensory impairment

What do we mean by disability?

A child or young person has a disability if they have a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial or long-term effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities. Research suggests that about six to seven percent of children are disabled.

Children and young people with the most complex needs will require specialist services. They will require support with their health, education or physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development, due to disabilities.

Disabilities include:

  • Multiple and complex health needs or chronic illness
  • Sensory impairment such as hearing loss, visual impairment or deaf-blindness
  • A significant and long term learning difficulty
  • A physical disability
  • Autistic spectrum disorder
  • A severe communication disorder
  • A significant preschool developmental delay 

There is support available for children and young people who have disabilities which do not affect their ability to learn.

Is having English as a second language a special educational need?

No. Children do not have SEN just because the language used at home is different from the language used at school. 

The English Language Support Service works with local schools to support pupils who are new to English and those who are more advanced bilingual learners. They also work with refugees and asylum seekers. Please note, parents cannot access this service directly and it is not available in all schools. Ask your child’s school for more information.

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