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"I'm sorry, she's special needs": explaining learning disabilities in public encounters

Sara Ryan, School of Social Studies, University of Warwick

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The difficult and problematic experiences of disabled people in public encounters have been well documented in social science literature (Keith 1996; Lenny and Sercombe 2002). However, such research has not usually extended to individuals, and in particular children, with learning disabilities (Todd 2000). Whilst visible, physical disability has a level of (limited) public understanding learning disabilities are less well understood or recognised. This is particularly the case with children where confusion between expected and unexpected behaviour can cause tension in public encounters. Voysey suggests that mothers, in particular, can take on the responsibility of managing such encounters and, as a result, develop a special competence (Voysey 1975).

This paper will focus upon the use of explanations in public encounters and discuss whether or not mothers explain to others in public encounters that their children have learning disabilities and, if they do, what kind of explanation they provide. The paper explores the extent to which explanations are based on competing models and understandings of disability (medical and social) and analysis what the mothers are trying to achieve by providing an explanation.

Early findings from this study demonstrate that participants and their children regularly experience negative interactions in public encounters and these experiences have significant consequences for themselves, their children and other family members. Participants use a variety of explanatory tools in order to smooth over interactions and these include apologising for their children's behaviour which is presented as a direct outcome of impairment, explaining to educate people, explaining to defend the humanity of their children, explaining as therapy and explaining to restore their maternal competence. Some participants, however, demonstrate resistance and refuse to account for their children's behaviour in public.

Responses highlight the complex layers surrounding the relationship participant's perceive between their children as individuals, their children's impairment and the way that they feel others perceive their children. They also underline the tension between impairment and disability that is inherent within the social model of disability as it demonstrates the fine line that exists between letting people know that they may be judging learning disabled children by inappropriate rules and saying "I'm sorry, she's special needs."

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