Words by Max Simpson, Steps co-founder. Video and artwork by Tin Tin, a Steps trainee.


For many years, I never fully considered why we refer to a certain community as having special educational needs. It was just always the term that was used. Throughout learning support departments and specialist schools, to assessments, reports, and statements, this term ‘SEN’ continues to be the most frequently used.

Then I started to wonder, why did we decide that learning differently means your needs are ‘special’?

Is it possible we are creating segregation by labelling a group of people as ‘special’, suggesting they are not the same as ‘us’?

“Research points to a multisensory approach being good for all learners.”

At schools, the modern day classroom is supposed to be set up to accommodate all learners. We even teach children about different learning styles (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, read/write). Why is that considered ‘normal’, and other types of learning are ‘special’?

Research points to a multisensory approach being good for all learners, as is a total communication environment, with supports such as key word signing. However these supports mostly remained attached to the ‘special needs’ bracket.

As we know, what happens in the classroom transfers to the society we live in. If this community is perceived as different in the classroom, imagine what happens when they enter the workplace, want a relationship, or want something else? The label of ‘special’ remains and people base their attitudes, and the opportunities they offer, upon it.

When a runner with prosthetics is crowned a hero for completing a marathon they might not feel like a hero but others might decide they are based on their own perception.

What our trainees have to say about autism and labels

One of our talented trainees, Tin Tin, created this awesome video to help others understand autism more fully. He also made (and hand illustrated) a factsheet about it (PDF).


“It’s those things that make us individual”

We have entered into a time where we hear terms like ‘neurodiversity’ and there is considerably more awareness around different types of learning differences.

Differences, that’s all they are – the same as the learner that is great at maths, or the woman who is a fantastic long distance runner, or the man who finds doing his tax return difficult! They are all differences and it’s those things that make us individual. However, for the majority, these things are seen as deeming them ‘unique’.

I hope it makes a bit more sense now why here at Steps we aren’t keen on labelling our multitalented, diverse group of trainees. We’d rather just call them by their names. If we really have to, we use the term ‘learning differences’. We don’t know if this is the term that everyone likes, but the community we work with say they believe they just learn differently, they aren’t special. So we will keep listening to them and keep you updated 🙂

Max is a Founder at Steps . Read more about what we do and who we are here.

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