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SEND• 4 Min read

9th February 2023

4 areas of SEND: Sensory

Sensory & Physical Needs

When a child is born, we expect them to grow up to be able to move in certain ways and communicate in specific ways. However, this is not always the case. Some children may be born with unexpected characteristics, they may move or respond in ways we do not anticipate. Sometimes people develop differently as they get older, and sometimes an illness or accident has a profound impact on a child or young person’s independence. When this occurs, we usually call it a ‘disability’. In this blog, we will talk about ‘disability’ and how you can make changes to enable students rather than disable them. 

What is a disability?

A disability is often considered to be an impairment (mental or physical) that restricts how a person lives their life.  So not being able to hear or see properly, missing limbs or not being able to speak clearly are considered disabilities because to move around in our world you are expected to be able to see, hear, move and speak. However, what happens if you give a blind person a book in braille, or read it out loud to them? What happens if you ensure you are facing a deaf person when you speak and say the words clearly to them? What happens if you ensure the pathway is kept clear of obstacles, so a person in a wheelchair can navigate the room? What happens if you take the time to listen and watch someone’s body language so you better understand them? Then are these people disabled or have you just enabled them through simple changes to your behaviour?  

Changing the physical environment. Changes in attitude and approach make a massive difference in how people are enabled to do things. Physical changes may also be needed and can benefit everyone. For example, a bumpy road may stop a wheelchair user from reaching their destination. However, once that road is smoothly paved, the person in a wheelchair is no longer disabled by the surface and can travel like anyone else. Even better, a smoother surface is also good for cyclists, people pushing buggies or carts and people who just don’t want to trip over! As a teacher or teaching assistant, you are unlikely to be able to repave a road, but you can make smaller physical changes like hanging curtains to reduce echoes in a space, reviewing the layout of a classroom to allow better movement around the space, or simply changing the seating plan so pupils who are struggling can sit closer to the front. 

Not every disability is identified. 

The World Bank states that one billion people globally experience some form of disability. That is around a fifth of the world’s population. However, numbers are difficult to pin down. Countries around the world measure disability in different ways. Most have different definitions of disability and different ways of viewing different conditions; for example, some cultures do not have words for depression, and others do not recognise autism as a diagnosis. 

In addition, many people do not consider themselves disabled; someone with a broken arm just has a temporary impairment, a dodgy knee is just something you live with, hearing loss is just a part of getting older, a child who can’t sit still is just a fidget, but these people still have impairments that can hinder their access to the world around them. So, any changes you make to improve life for one person are likely to make life a lot easier for others. 

Show understanding

You may be reading this blog because you have pupils with specific needs in your class. You may also have some parents who have disabilities or additional access needs themselves and this can impact on their interactions with you. It is impossible to be an expert in every disability and no one expects you to be. However, making an effort to understand an access issue someone is facing, whether they are a pupil or a parent, immediately shows them you want to build a positive relationship. 

Types of sensory and physical needs

The bullet points below show the types of physical and sensory needs people can have, and it gives ideas of how each need could impact on their ability to do schoolwork and participate in class and how you can support them if they may face these issues. 

  • What can you add to the ‘potential issues’? 
  • Have you ever experienced any of these issues?
  • Do any of the parents you work with experience any of these issues?

Physical needs that people can have impacting: 

  • Mobility
  • Dexterity
  • Stamina
  • Fatigue

Potential issues –

  • Students may not be physically able to do a task.
  • Students may get over-exerted or tired easily. 
  • Students might not be able to make notes in class as you are speaking

How you can support students with physical needs:

  • Review tasks to ensure they are appropriate and achievable for student 
  • Provide work in short sections, and allow frequent short breaks.
  • Provide students with notes before class or provide students with a scribe or record classes so students can listen again.   

Sensory needs that people can have impacting:

  • Vision
  • Hearing
  • Touch
  • Taste
  • Smell

Potential issues – 

  • Noisy or busy environments can be confusing and stressful for sight or hearing-impaired students. 
  • Pupils might not be able to read the smaller text in books or on the board. 
  • Deaf pupils may simply not have heard your instructions
  • Pupils might not want to sit near others to avoid touch
  • Strong smells from the canteen may distract pupils

How you can support students with sensory needs:

  • Create quiet spaces and calming décor.
  • Provide a buddy to help guide students or install guide rails around the school.
  • Provide large print resources or a magnifying tool (could be an app on a school tablet or a plastic magnifying sheet). Repeat the text on a board and check to ensure the student understands.
  • Ask hearing and sight-impaired students to repeat back what you have said to ensure they understand properly. Note: if you just ask if students have understood, they will probably say ‘yes’ as they don’t want to be embarrassed.

You can use the checklist above to consider how individual learners in your class might need additional support at school. Create a table and write down the issues you think a particular learner or set of learners in the school might face. 

Going through this process helps you to anticipate students’ needs and provide the best support you are able. The important thing is to find ways to ENABLE your students. You can also use this for parents too. 

You can learn more about how to make the learning environment more inclusive here: 

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