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"Some people think I am different, but I see myself as an equal person to everybody else": Exploring Identities of Young Disabled People at School

Berni Kelly, Queen's University of Belfast
Co-author(s): Dr Jude MacArthur & Michael Gaffney


This paper is based on an ethnographic study of the impact of school experiences on the identities of nine disabled young people (11-14 years) living in New Zealand. The research involved observations at school and semi-structured interviews with these young people, parents and school staff. The study draws on ideas from recent disability studies, geographies of youth identity and the sociology of childhood to further develop understanding of young disabled people's identities. This paper will present findings from the study on young disabled people's identity experiences at school, including their views on the salience of impairment and disability in their perceptions of self and others. Social relational aspects of the construction of identities will also be discussed, including consideration of the impact of complex and fluid peer and teacher relationships at school.

Findings reveal that young disabled people try hard to be included as equals alongside their peers in school, whilst also seeking to ensure their impairment-related needs are identified and met. These dual processes can require young disabled people to shift between multiple identities and representations of self depending on learning needs, social contexts and school practices. Within these changing and multiple identity experiences, young people utilise a range of approaches to negotiate and re-negotiate a positive sense of self, demonstrating agency and ability to resist various forms of oppression. However, persistent disabling experiences and exclusionary discourses at school can also have a detrimental psycho-emotional impact on young disabled people. Findings highlight the powerful impact of enabling or disabling school structures and cultures on how young disabled people see themselves and how they are perceived by others. It is suggested that there is a need to counteract imposed master identities and challenge disabling discourses at school that impact of self-identity and positive self-esteem. Such developments within schools will require more active engagement with diversity and disability issues, and provision of practical and psycho-emotional supports for young disabled people at school.

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