Who is capable?

Meant to protect children's rights - but not always easy to interpret.

Meant to protect children’s rights – but not always easy to interpret.

I spent a significant part of yesterday afternoon attempting, with somewhat limited success, to engage a group of undergraduate students in a debate about the capabilities of children. I say with limited success, though of course it is always difficult to know what individuals are thinking and I should not presume that a reluctance to actively participate on the part of some students meant that they were not contemplating the issues at hand. Nonetheless, I suspect that some of the concepts related to notions of capability were seen as quite challenging to a few of my young audience. This is not really surprising as it may be seen as a form of abstraction that has challenged academics and policy makers over many years.

The source of the intended debate was Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.  This important document, which first saw the light of day in 1989, has provided the foundation of much of the work conducted by activists and researchers, who have been concerned to work for improvements in the educational and social conditions of children in the years since its publication. In yesterday’s session with undergraduates I was particularly concerned to examine the ways in which the conditions of children from vulnerable groups have changed in recent years, and how their own potential roles as advocates for children could make a positive contribution in this area. I was also keen to stress the important role that children can play as self-advocates, particularly when supported by the kind of empathetic professionals that I hope this group of undergraduates might become.

Article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that:

Parties shall assure to the child who is capable if forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.

As with every article from the convention this clause is designed to afford protection to children and to ensure that due consideration is given to their opinions and desires. In that sense, it is hard to fault the intentions of the statement. However, it is the expression “who is capable” buried within the article that I wanted to discuss in more detail with yesterday’s group of students.

Whilst Article 12 undoubtedly has noble intentions, and it is quite right that the age and maturity of a child should be taken into consideration when involving children in decision making, I have concerns that in some instances the lack of a clear definition of “capability” could be the source of some difficulty. The questions that I raised in yesterday’s session, and indeed have discussed on many occasions with colleagues working in the area of inclusive education, were those such as; who assesses the capabilities of a child, and are there dangers that a child who has been given a label such as autistic spectrum disorder, may never be regarded as capable? Is there a possibility that the notion of capability could be used as a method of control, with assumptions that certain members of the population, who happen to have been given a specific diagnosis, could not possibly be capable of making their own choices or decisions?

Blanket misguided assessments have been made about groups of people throughout history, simply on the basis of their shared characteristics. At one time women were denied opportunities to vote because it was assumed that they were not able to understand the highbrow issues of politics, they were similarly denied opportunities to train as doctors or hold positions of high office in certain professions. These discriminatory views have, quite rightly been challenged and laws changed to ensure greater equality of opportunity. In the past, terms like “ineducable” were applied to many children who had learning difficulties and in some circumstances they were locked away from society, supposedly for their own good. In these examples it is apparent that those in positions of authority failed to recognise the competence of individuals and their capabilities in respect of making decisions affecting their lives.

It is certainly true that all of us are likely to have limited capabilities in respect of some aspects of our lives, and in such situations we may well be dependent upon the expertise of others when it comes to making decisions. But most of the time we are treated with respect, encouraged to assert our independence and to express our opinions in relation to matters that affect us. When we are not afforded this level of respect, we quite rightly feel affronted or patronised and may well rebel against those who we see as denying our rights.

It must therefore be of concern that in an effort to discuss the capabilities of children, as was the situation yesterday, we often find that in describing individuals it is easier to talk about what they can’t do rather than to emphasise what they can. Asked to consider how children might be encouraged to engage in making decisions about their education or care, the responses from yesterday’s participants often began with a description of the child’s difficulties or perceived deficits. It appears to be easier to see obstacles than to consider the ways in which these may be overcome.

I am a great supporter of UNICEF and in particular the campaigns that they have initiated to ensure that the rights of children are recognised and upheld. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has been in place now for twenty six years and has had a significant impact upon the development of both international initiatives and national policies. However, a failure to fully debate the nature of capability continues to provide a plausible exclusion clause for those who for a variety of reasons would prefer not to consult children about their needs and wishes. So long as this remains the case I appear destined to try to deconstruct notions of capability – even with the occasional group of recalcitrant students!

10 thoughts on “Who is capable?

  1. Hi Richard – these basic questions are fundamentally challenging not only to students, but also to many of us ‘experts’. Long may you keep asking them!

  2. As you know my learning over the last few years has taxed my thinking regarding the issue of ‘capability’ of children to express their desires and give information about their lives. It is often assumed that young children lack capacity. I am more and more opening my mind that it is not their capability that is lacking rather that of adults to ask and listen in a way that enables children to express their views.
    My latest research activity recently caused me to pause when the 4 year old boy with whom I was working gave a very detailed and analytical explanation of his understanding of speech in what I had considered a good listening environment. Not respecting his capacity could have led to misinterpretation as to his capability.

    • Hi Carmel,
      The creation of an environment and attitudes supportive of enabling a child to demonstrate capability is most certainly at the heart of this. As is our willingness to accept that the opinions of children are valuable.

  3. Hi Richard,
    I would also argue that in striving for the creation of an environment which is conducive to enabling children to express their views, there is then a greater onus of responsibility that is then taken on by the adults around the children. This is because they must not only ensure that children are freely able to express their views, but also that as adults, they are cognisant of the variations in children within similar “ability groups” (for want of a better phrase). In the context of say perhaps, children without an ASD diagnosis, for example, adults must be mindful not to associate a child’s perceived lack of expression with limitations upon their cognitive or linguistic abilities.

    • Well said Saneeya. There are many ways in which it is possible to express ideas – the greater challenge may be in our ability to interpret these.

  4. I have pondered a related issue for as long as I’ve been involved in education; the idea of ‘potential’. It seems to be regarded as a truism that the idea of education is to ensure the achievement of ‘full potential’. I have two problems with that notion. Firstly, I question whether potential can ever be reliably measured – and attempting to do so risks setting limits on an individual’s aspirations. Secondly, is it ever possible? Who in the World has ever achieved their full potential? True, the achievements of some have been spectacular, but had they made different choices, in different spheres, they might have achieved more. So can we agree that the aim of education is to ‘develop learners’ potential’ – and that we never cease to be learners?

    • Actually Phil, I find the very notion of achieving one’s potential alarming. If I achieve my potential, what else is there to do? Does life thereafter become meaningless.
      I think we should all believe that the aim is to do our best and to keep on doing better!

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