Editor’s Focus: Ann-Katrin Swärd

“In Sweden there are still some “old fashioned” perceptions about learning when students have intellectual disabilities. I hope this book will contribute to a more positive way of teaching these students- to increase student’s self-efficacy and to increase teacher’s competence but mostly to change the mental attitude and how it is today in many schools.” Ann-Katrin Swärd

This interview was conducted as an “Editor’s feature” for the book Positiv specialpedagogik”.

Interview with editor Ann-Katrin Swärd

THRIVE Nordics: How was the idea of this book conceptualized? 

Ann-Katrin: When Monica Reichenberg and I visited Swiss Cottage School some years ago, we were impressed by their work with functional and visual literacy. We asked some of the teachers and one principal if they could write some chapters about their work in a book that Monica and I would write and edit. After that we accepted a new assignment from our National Agency in Education. Before that we had created modules in “Läslyftet” and now our mission was to create a new module for students with intellectual disability (ID).

We visited Swiss Cottage again and also had a film team with us the last time we were there. Our idea was to write a book about positive possibilities and learning no matter how severe the ID. Five teachers at Swiss agreed to write something about their work and give didactic examples from lessons.

Back home we also visited Tistedalskolen in Halden, Norway. This school is a very good example how to create an environment that includes all children, no matter what sort or how severe a disability they have.

When we thought about “the backlash” we have in Sweden, it was obvious that we also needed their stories in our book. The idea we tried to conceptualize was to mix scientific basis with proven experiences. One of the authors is a young woman with lots of experiences about having a disability and her text about her life is “the crown of the work”. We asked researchers from Norway and Sweden (including us) and teachers from different schools and countries. We had the intention of providing an international perspective because sometimes our country has an image of itself as “the best in the world”. Our intention was to show more of a positive picture about students with ID, a group often forgotten by society.

THRIVE Nordics: What was your experience as an editor for this book? 

Ann-Katrin: To be an editor is very time consuming work and sometimes really hard. I have written other books earlier and I must say that it was interesting to have so many authors in this book. There was a lot of work in translating chapters from English and Norwegian to Swedish, but we split it up between us three editors. To edit and write is not our profession – so everything had to be done on our own free time.

THRIVE Nordics: What is your view on how this book can contribute to the landscape of special edcuation today? 

Ann-Katrin: Hopefully more researchers and teachers (and also staff for different courses at universities) will use this book. Teachers, parents and those responsible for courses in different program at universities may think students can’t learn because of their severe intellectual disability – but in our book we show the opposite. They can also learn to read due to how teachers work with functional and visual reading, and what competence they have. This must be discussed more, particularly with regard to self-efficacy and how teachers work with this.

In Sweden there are still some “old fashioned” perceptions about learning when students have intellectual disabilities. I hope this book will contribute to more positive ways of teaching these students- to increase student’s self-efficacy and to increase teacher’s competence but mostly to change the mental attitude and how it is today in many schools.

I have more than 30 years of teaching as ordinary teacher and teacher in special education with different students. I am very sad about many situations today in relation to individuals with intellectual disabilities. Now our book is finished and we are very pleased with the result. We hope many professionals will learn from it and change their attitudes.

THRIVE Nordics: What do you think is the importance of the contribution of this book to society at this specific moment in time?

Ann-Katrin: Today when many municipalities go back to segregated schools – building bigger schools and saving money- many schools don’t provide the support students have legal right to have. It is not only school but also older people with intellectual disabilities who are sitting in their apartments or rooms without stimulation or quite low quality of life and support.

The elderly are also a forgotten group and many of the staff caring for individuals in elderly homes have low competence or no competence at all. In school I see many personal assistants or school assistants without adequate competence. There is also a lack of teachers with teacher degrees which can have a strong impact on what sort of education students receive.

In Sweden we have strong laws against discrimination. We have curriculum and other governing document teachers and principals should follow but in reality, it doesn’t always work. For me, quite a lot of politics in my own country are “symbol politics”. We have laws, we know how it should be but still many students with intellectual disabilities are excluded. We still have an old form of school -“grundsärskolan”- and all students below IQ 70 can be placed there. Parents can choose but if the “grundskolan” doesn’t change their way of working, if they never work with respect and acceptance – what society do we then create? Our book is very important today.

THRIVE Nordics: What do you perceive as some the key issues and challenges within special education right now in the Nordics that are being addressed in the realm of research?   

Ann-Katrin: For me there are many contexts and issues still without adequate research. It is problematic to have funding to do research in different ways among students or adults with ID. This is a small population but the more we can do research, the more we can also change many “unprofessional” ways of talking and working with this small population. There is virtually no research about functional and visual literacy, for example. Grundsärskolan as one form of school also has inadeqaute research. There is a lack of research about preschool and many issues relating to younger children such as language support, mathematics, social collaboration, cooperation with the caregiver/parents etc.

We need more intervention and longitudinal studies in relation to individuals and their life in different contexts. For me it is strange that we have so little research in this field and that we still have program within special education named “utvecklingsstörning” instead of intellectual disability. This old approach seems impossible to change. How is this so in a country that has an image of itself as being very modern and standing on the forefront in relation to schools and education? Yes, we did in the 80s but due to my own international experiences and work, since that time many other countries has developed while Sweden has stood still. This is of course my own experience and opinion. Our book will give some positive influence and new ideas about what research is needed – I hope. 

Ann-Katrin Swärd


Ann-Katrin Swärd, PhD in special education, senior lecturer.

University of Gothenburg, Sweden.

Dr Swärd’s, research is in the field education and special education. Most focus and interest are in the field of literacy, language/speech development, neuropsychiatric disorder and ethics in teachers’ profession. She worked as a teacher in special/inclusive education for many years and she is also author of several books and articles. International collaboration in different project with other countries has always been important and still is. Dr. Swärd is an extern examiner for doctoral thesis at universities in South Africa and reviewer for international journals. From 2015 and ongoing she is responsible for courses for PhD and Master students at Hacettepe University in Ankara, Turkey. For many years has focus on research been about how to prevent reading and writing difficulties. 

This interview was conducted as an Editor’s focus for the book “Positive Specialpedagogik”. Read an interview with one of the other editors here.

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