Research groups

Scientific research at the department of Special Needs Education is concentrated around four lines of research, which can be clearly distinguished but, also share many similarities and common elements.

Disability Studies

Disability Studies is an interdisciplinary field of science that investigates the dynamic interplay between "disability" and environment, social structures and society. Disability Studies unites critical research and political advocacy by drawing on scholarly approaches from the humanities, the (post)humanistic social sciences and the arts.

In this growing tradition, "disability" is defined as a fundamental social, cultural, political, historical, and relational phenomenon (Barton, 1996; Davis 2002; Taylor, 2003; Devlieger, Pfeiffer, & Rusch, 2003; Danforth & Gabel, 2007).

In addition to clinical, medical, and/or therapeutic perspectives on people with labels, Disability Studies focuses on how "disability" is defined and produced in everyday living together.

Photo Jonathan Wannyn - Irakli in the film Inclusive
Photo Jonathan Wannyn - Irakli in the film Inclusive

- From this perspective, disability is not a characteristic that exists IN the person, but a construct that finds its meaning in social and cultural contexts (Taylor, 2003). Disability becomes a relational concept in a pedagogical context.

- We are vigilant against pathologizing difference and approaching difference as something that needs to be fixed in order to fit back into the 'norm'. Assumptions about 'normality' and the reproduction of structural difference are scrutinized and brought to life in people's stories and the relationships we form with them.

- We always try to start from people's potential and talents. How can these be strengthened? For years there has been a focus on what people -especially people who deviate from a norm- are not good at, on what people are not allowed and not able to do, ... Disability Studies wants to explicitly explore talents, dreams, desires and plans. 

- We are interested in the openings and barriers that people encounter and that, respectively, prevent or support them from participating. Disability Studies makes us listen very carefully to what people want and how we can work towards it.

Photo Jonathan Wannyn - Nathan at the piano with fellow student in the film Inclusive
Photo Jonathan Wannyn - Nathan at the piano with fellow student in the film Inclusive

- We are aware that adaptations are needed in the spaces where people live. People with disabilities can also use tools and support to participate at home, at school, at work....

- We bring attention to unequal starting positions and work with this inequality. We want to be aware of the label(s) people carry and the power structures we live in: categories people are constantly placed in have an impact on their lives. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities ratified by Belgium in 2009 is an important guide to how we support and encourage people to shape their lives.

Disability Studies is deeply rooted in people's lived experiences. We look for ways to make the voices of people with disabilities themselves audible and visible. Emancipatory work implies collaboration with people with disabilities. People's experiential expertise is immensely valuable, which needs to be recognized and validated. This gives them a privileged position in care and research.

Disability Studies goes hand in hand with action. We need to work with people with disabilities and their families. We cannot stand aside with our hands in our pockets and wait. We strive to take each other's expertise seriously and, in doing so, bring about movement and change society (think about employment, education, poverty, being seen in the media, etc.). For achieving this, we work closely together with interest groups: Our New Future vzw ( and Parents for Inclusion ( They have been our devoted partners for years. 

Here are some of the studies that are currently underway to make things more concrete, without aiming for completeness:

  • Photo Jonathan Wannyn - Rosi with her mother in the film Inclusive
    Photo Jonathan Wannyn - Rosi with her mother in the film Inclusive
    Marieke is, together with brothers/sisters of someone with a disability, looking into how a disability is dealt with within a family. They are artists who have also addressed disability in their work.
  • Hanne works with young people who look back on their path within inclusive education. She tries to unravel what belonging means to them and how they can find their place in relationships.
  • Jentel reflects on the constructions of blindness and how this can play a role in people's lived experiences. How does this matter and who/what can influence it?
  • Silke dives into educational contexts with children. She explores what the 'voice' of children can tell us and how we as researchers can be touched by this.
  • Inge is working with people with non-normative bodies. She investigates how we work with our bodies through dance and movement and how this work can strengthen people in their relationship with their bodies.

Orthopedagogics of emotional and behavioral disorders


One of the most widely used definitions of “orthopedagogics” (“special needs education”), describes it as the science of acting in difficult educational- and/or living situations (Broekaert, 1997). Since its origins in the 1950s of the last century, this discipline has evolved from a science aimed at “correcting” or “healing” disabilities/disorders, to a discipline targeted at the improvement of living conditions, Quality of Life, and participation in the community of the person and his context (Department of Special Needs Education, 2016). The difficult educational- and living situations may, amongst others, relate to behavior labeled as “deviant”, for example delinquency and behavioral problems (Broekaert et al., 2004).

 This research track is aimed at studies about assessment, support and treatment of people with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD), (severe) behavioral problems and/or people and their network in situations in which judicial intervention is deemed to be necessary (Stams et al., 2014). The research is focused on the support of both children, adolescents, adults, and all those involved in these difficult educational- and living situations.

The research track is grounded in a holistic and strengths-based perspective in supporting children, adolescents and adults in socially vulnerable situations. Strengths-based approaches are underpinned by a positive perspective that involves opportunities for growth; the need to let a person take control over one’s own life; attention for the “therapeutic relation”; and the importance of the natural and social environment (Saleebey, 2006). In doing so, supporting individuals in pursuing goals and dreams, goes beyond simply dealing with and trying to reduce (behavioral) problems, delinquent behavior or other types of “deviant” behavior. Recent theoretical models clearly stress the need for an integrative perspective, taking into account risk factors, but also protective factors as well as strengths (both with regard to the individual and the broader environment), in order to capture the complex social situations in which people and their network find themselves (Vandevelde et al., 2017. To this end, an individual is always explicitly situated in and with his/her context. 

The research track originated  from the work with children with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) in OC Nieuwe Vaart, an orthopedagogical center that always has been (and still is) closely linked to the Department of Special Needs Education (Broekaert et al., 2015). Studies relate to orthopedagogical methods and interventions, including Life Space Crisis Intervention, that, developed into an internationally recognized evidence-based practice (D’Oosterlinck et al., 2009). Today, close attention is devoted to research with regard to the support of children with EBD and their networks in their own “ecology”. Motivated by the long-recognized importance of the (educational) environment in orthopedagogical practice, a great number of studies have addressed the context/”milieu” and the (peer)group. Studies include research on therapeutic communities for children, and therapeutic communities for persons with mental health problems and addiction (cf. research line Addiction and Recovery), and research on the living climate in residential facilities for special youth care. In addition, research is being conducted on the application and integration of forensic rehabilitation models (What Works and Good Lives Model) in youth detention centers (in association with the VUB). 

 Besides studies in children with EBD and their network, several studies also focus on the support of adolescents and adults within difficult living situations, with a special focus on forensic aspects. For example, studies in relation to strengths-based strategies for mentally ill offenders (in association with colleagues from the field of criminology, law and psychiatry), and their families/social network are being carried out. Other studies focus on how professionals can be coached in dealing with mental health problems in people with intellectual disabilities and various topics at the intersection of orthopedagogics, criminology, law, psychology, social work and psychiatry. 

 Orthopedagogical research is characterized by a close cooperation with various stakeholders, an integration of qualitative and quantitative research methods, an integrative view on modern and postmodern conceptions (Broekaert et al., 2011), and interdisciplinary and international cooperation.

Supporting children with disabilities and their network

This research line deals with the orthopedagogy of children and young people who grow up with a disability (e.g. physical, mental, auditory, social-emotional disability) and focuses on the question of how we can best support these children and young people, their parents, caregivers and their network. Research and practice emphasise the vulnerability of children who grow up with a disability: on average, they are twice as likely to develop behavioural and emotional disorders as their peers without a disability. However, there is a very large variation: while some children show extreme problem behaviour, others develop relatively smoothly and problem-free. The parents of these children also appear to be a vulnerable group. Research shows that these parents more often experience stress and a lower well-being and more often use inadequate parenting strategies. However, here too there appears to be a great deal of variation between parents with children with a disability.

The research within this research line aims to better understand the large variation in psychosocial development among children with disabilities and their parents. To this end, we study the impact of child characteristics (such as the child's unique temperament and/or the severity of core symptoms), parental characteristics (such as parenting experience and behaviour, parental stress, adaptation to the child with a disability), as well as context characteristics (such as experiencing social support, family quality of life) on the psychosocial development of children with disabilities and their immediate family members. In order to frame how parents raise their children and how parents experience their upbringing, we base ourselves on the Self-Determination Theory (Ryan & Deci, 2002). This theory states that every individual (including a person with a disability and his/her parents) needs freedom and choice (Autonomy), intimate and warm relationships with others (Relatedness), and the feeling to achieve goals (Competence). Within behavioural and emotional development, we study, among other things, problem behaviour, but also intra- and interpersonal strengths, quality of life and indicators of vitality.

Within this line of research, we explicitly apply a cross-disability perspective. After all, studying (behavioural) development across multiple disabilities provides insight into the possibly universal nature of certain protective and risk factors. At the same time, this cross-disability perspective can also map disability-specific sensitivities. This knowledge can then offer keys to a better upbringing guidance and support. In addition, our research is based on a transactional view of development: through sustainable, longitudinal research with families of children with disabilities, we want to get a better understanding of both the short-term and long-term development of these young people and of the moderators that promote or undermine this development. We also combine quantitative and qualitative research methods.

The target groups we are currently studying are children and young people who grow up with autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, Down syndrome (and broader: intellectual disability), cerebral palsy (and broader: motor disability) and deafness (and broader: hearing disability). The emphasis on mapping both positive and negative aspects of temperament, upbringing and psychosocial adjustment also ties in closely with both the strength-oriented and action-oriented vision of the Department of Special Needs Education to improve in a systematic and meaningful way the living situations, participation and quality of life of persons in vulnerable situations.

Recovery and addiction

This line of research focuses on research into methods and interventions to promote recovery in young people and adults with addiction and other mental health problems. Recovery is a relatively new concept in addiction and mental health research, illustrating a shift from the traditional medical model ('clinical recovery'/cure/abstinence) to a more holistic and dynamic interpretation of recovery as 'personal recovery'. Personal recovery focuses on the subjective experiences of individuals ('lived experiences'). Recovery is seen as an individual process of change that always takes place in a specific socio-cultural context and in which personal, environmental and social resources contribute to recovery (so-called recovery capital).

This new, broad interpretation of recovery is an important paradigm shift. First of all, the focus is no longer on interventions by professionals or 'evidence-based methods' as the main pathway to recovery. The attention for personal recovery offers room for expertise by experience, besides professional skills and theoretical-scientific knowledge. Secondly, recovery starts from the capacities, strengths and skills of individuals, rather than from their 'disorder' or limitations. Thirdly, the attention for personal recovery leaves room for people to determine goals and outcomes that are important for themselves and do not necessarily coincide with what social services or society puts first. With this line of research we want to contribute to the recognition of people with addiction and other mental health problems as full citizens and to the promotion of their quality of life. Treatment can support the recovery process, but it is not a necessary condition.

For a long time, research into the origins and functioning of drug-free therapeutic communities (TGs) was central to this line of research. Later, this was expanded to include specific methods and interventions that can promote retention and treatment outcomes, such as involving the social network, case management and motivational interventions. Within this line of research, much attention is paid to the support of vulnerable groups who experience – for various reasons – barriers to treatment, such as prisoners and mentally ill offenders, women and mothers with young children, people with psychological problems and/or intellectual disabilities and persons with a migrant background. Recent research has focused on recovery processes and factors that contribute to recovery and quality of life in people with an addiction problem.

For a historical overview and location of addiction research at the department, we refer to a previously published article in the journal Orthopedagogiek: Onderzoek & Praktijk.