Publication 2911

Gash H., Romeu N. I. & Pina J. A. L. (2004) Spanish and Irish images of special needs: Perceptions of inclusion. In: Walsh P. N. & Gash H. (eds.) Lives and Times: Practice Policy and People with disability. Wordwell, Dublin: 180–223. Fulltext at
The aim of the present chapter is to examine attitudes and images relating to inclusive education programmes with a view to understanding more fully the socio-emotional context within which inclusion takes place. This paper views conceptions of others, as social conservations in the Piagetian sense or as social constructions in a constructivist framework. A number of elements are brought to bear on this issue. They include examination of variations in children’s representations of intellectual disability and Down Syndrome, attitudes towards inclusive education and the issue of the validity of this type of attitude measure. Children in middle childhood are building their self-representations (Harter 1998), and we believe that representations of self and other develop together as youngsters mature. Further, there is good evidence that difficulties with peers place children at risk for developing psychological problems (Harter 1998). In a series of classroom intervention studies the first author has investigated children’s representations of their peers with special needs. Gender and grade level differences have consistently been found in these studies (Gash 1993; Gash and Coffey 1995; Gash 1996). Girls have been found to be more sociable, more socially concerned and more positive towards children with an intellectual disability than boys (Gash 1993). Older children have been found to be more socially concerned, more sociable and more positive towards integration (Gash 1993). Further, girls in a school with a special class were more socially concerned and sociable than peers in a similar school without this facility (Gash and Coffey 1995). Two sets of linked studies are described in this chapter. The first set is based on the use of questionnaire techniques to examine children’s attitudes towards intellectual disability and Down Syndrome. There are four studies in the first set. The first compares attitudes of samples of Irish and Spanish primary school pupils towards integrated or included pupils with intellectual disability. The second re-examines these cross-cultural findings through use of data requiring a more focused or restricted representation of intellectual disability, specifying Down Syndrome. The third provides evidence for the contextual validity of this attitude measure, and the fourth is an evaluation of a programme of integration at second level. The second set of studies examines in more detail children’s and parents’ attitudes towards integration and Down Syndrome. The first of these is a qualitative assessment of Irish and Spanish primary school pupils’ thinking about aspects of Down Syndrome, in particular inclusion of Down Syndrome children in their classrooms, and how pupils feel about socialising with peers with Down Syndrome. The second is based on a nationwide sample of 501 Irish farmers to assess their attitudes towards integration and its management in the Irish educational system. This provides data on adults’ attitudes towards integration. It is important to note that these data were collected just prior to 1996 and so reflect the Irish primary system at that time. Subsequently there has been a dramatic increase in the educational services for children in difficulty in many Irish schools. In the broader cultural domain the process of social identification is known to be important in the integration of minority groups into society (e.g. Lalonde et al. 1992). Learning to make friends and to have an identity in a group of friends is one of the tasks of childhood. A key element in the glue cementing a social group together is an individual’s acceptance of the attitudes that this particular group considers important. If a child is different from other children this matching of attitudes may be more difficult. In the microcosm of classroom or school, attitudes play a central role in determining the success of integration and inclusion. Negative attitudes on the part of teachers or students towards a child with a disability may arise because of limited experience (e.g. Hegarty 1993). Whatever their origin, negative attitudes are likely to affect the quality of classroom and school life. Helen Keller is known to have said that the heaviest burdens of disability arise from difficulties in social relations and not from the disability itself. The present studies are concerned principally with two types of attitudes in children. The first is about sociable acceptance and concern, and the second is about acceptance of integration and inclusion. While these two are not identical, they are closely linked to the context in which friendships are formed in school. In turn, friendships support good outcomes across development in childhood (e.g. Hartup 1983; 1996). Relevance: This paper relies on the idea that children’s ideas about others who are different are constructed on the basis of their experiences. Here differences between children in Ireland and Spain are examined for children of different ages in primary school with a view to relating these differences to the varying social contexts of the samples who participated in the studies. The view taken is that the ideas expressed are social versions of Piaget’s conservations. The hope is that the variation demonstrated provides teachers with opportunities to think about ways to stimulate discussion and promote tolerance which may potentially be dampened by stereotypes.

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