Exceptional Children – how we named Abbey School

Abbey School for Exceptional Children

All children are exceptional in some aspect of their being – their character, who they are, and how they adapt to changing circumstances in their lives. This includes the children and young people attending our school, many of whom will have faced extraordinary challenges in their young lives so far.

Children are exceptional in different ways and we wanted to draw attention to this in the most positive and affirming way possible. We esteem our children. We want them to esteem themselves and for them to feel they are esteemed by others. We want our children to be respected, honoured, admired and acclaimed for who they are and what they aspire to be. That is why we chose to name our school ‘for exceptional children’.

We hope and expect that naming our school this way will challenge some of the negative stereotyping and labelling practices that are endemic in society today, and help strengthen a culture that embraces diversity and difference and recognises the many way society’s members can contribute to the common good.

In using the word ‘exceptional’ we are also recognising the extraordinary challenges many of our pupils face every day in aspects of life that most of the rest of us take for granted. Even learning how to learn can be a challenge, and many of our children come to engage in behaviour that is a challenge for themselves and to others. Behaviour that challenges places children at increased risk of injury, loss, exclusion, and rejection. We are here to help and we start by acknowledging the exceptional challenges our children face, and the exceptional resources they harness in adapting to a world that can seem alien, inconsistent, even hostile.

Exceptional children at Abbey School

Of course, simply adding a word to our name does not do any of these things on its own. What it does do, however, is declare publicly our deep commitment to bringing our ambitious values to life in the pursuit of excellence for everyone whose learning journey and developmental trajectory differs from the main.

We know that children with learning and developmental disabilities are among the most disadvantaged in society, and that this is not new. In the late 1960’s a well-known Scandinavian psychologist called Bengt Nirje described three inter-related aspects of disability that are instantly recognisable today. First is the factual or organic impairment, second is how society responds to disability, third is each person’s awareness of being different in ways that are negatively valued by others. Language and naming influence the way people see themselves and how they are seen by others. We want to avoid using words that have negative connotations.

Modern progressive societies strive for equity and justice in opportunity and the deployment of resources. Equitable does not mean equal, however, and justice can be framed according to rights and entitlements, according to need, or according to what is deserved. We subscribe to the principle of positive compensation for individuals and groups that have been disadvantaged for centuries by exclusion, abuse, and neglect. We believe in levelling up and distributing the benefits of modern life equitably (rather than equally) according to need. We believe that the way we think about and describe members of socially disadvantaged groups influences the way we approach equity in the distribution of resources.

Exceptional children at Abbey School

Throughout history children and adults with developmental disabilities have been cast unconsciously into a variety of deviant social roles fuelled by negative stereotypes and low expectations. An influential thinker and campaigner called Wolf Wolfensberger described in his writings how people with developmental disabilities have been regarded variously as non-human, waste, rubbish, objects of pity, eternal children, holy innocents, sick or diseased, a menace, objects of dread, trivium, a burden, and objects of ridicule or charity. These are not meaningless labels. They reinforce the fears prejudices that drive them, sustaining literal and symbolic distance between the labelled and those doing the labelling. Careful use of language offers us one way of reversing negative stereotypes and raising expectations.

Raising expectations is crucial for development and growth because low expectations impose arbitrary limits on what a person can do. Children and young people with developmental disabilities are among those whose potential is apt to be limited by low expectations. Often invisible and frequently overlooked, children with developmental disabilities are perpetually at risk of living down to low expectations – using the word ‘exceptional’ reminds us to raise our expectations to the fullest extent possible.

Children with developmental disabilities are known to be at high risk of bullying, name calling, and tormenting by age-related peers. The risks of injury, neglect and abuse increase with the degree of disability, alongside the risk of developing challenging behaviour. Children and young people need love and care from those close to them. Schools cannot love a child the way a parent can. They can, however, show respect and dignify every pupil in every aspect of his or her life. This begins with the language we use to describe the people we serve and who we think they are.

Exceptional children at Abbey School

Until relatively recently children and adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities were accommodated in large segregated institutions, separated physically and socially from life in community. Victorian places of asylum quickly became places of abuse and neglect. A penny was paid by the Victorian gentry to observe the ‘lunatics’ and ‘moral defectives’ for their amusement. Institutions endured for decades and it was not until 1959 that people with intellectual disabilities were differentiated from those with a psychiatric condition. A series of scandals at the end of the 1960s led to the 1971 White Paper Better Services for the Mentally Handicapped, but another twenty years passed before the institutions began to close. Prior to 1973, children with developmental disabilities were deemed ineducable and had no legal right or entitlement to an education. Until then children were accommodated in long-stay hospitals and did not go to school.

Irving Goffman documented the effects of institutional life on the lives of those accommodated. He observed and documented rigidity of routine, depersonalisation, social distancing, block treatment, and institutional neuroses as unwelcome features of institutional life that degraded personal identities and function. ‘Inmates’ would often share clothes and other personal items, and would be ‘washed’ and ‘fed’ in groups for the convenience of staff. Physical environments were barren, sparsely furnished, and very often broken, with few materials and no opportunities for independence. People slept in dormitories or wards with up to 60 beds in each. A lifetime of possessions could be stored in a single bedside locker.  Severely disabled people were called ‘low grades’ and were looked after by staff with help from ‘high grades’ acting as unpaid carers. There was no treatment, no teaching, and healthcare was poor or non-existent. Labels and forms of address included terms such as imbecile, idiot, and moron. These are examples of words that have morphed into everyday language and are used pejoratively without insight or regard to their origin. More recent examples of outmoded labels used to describe people with developmental disabilities are ‘mentally subnormal’, ‘mental handicap’, and ‘mental retardation’. Contractions such as ‘retard’ and ‘mong’ are also used pejoratively without reference to their original meaning.

Language and labels are important. They are the symbolic representation of individuals and groups in society. We use ‘exceptional’ purposefully to describe our children because we believe all children are exceptional, and we want to make clear that our children are included – the word says something about who we and they truly are.