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[Xmca-l] Disability Studies and Education
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This article made public this week by TC Record seemed of potential
interest to the group.
It touches on many issues that recur here.
What “My Kind” Can Offer: The Pressing Need for (More) Disability Studies
and Disabled Scholars in Education Research
by Dorothy Bossman <http://www.tcrecord.org/AuthorDisplay.asp?aid=23409> —
November 13, 2015
*This piece is a reflection on my experiences with disability in education,
first as a student, then as a teacher, and ultimately, as someone who
became disabled, but it is also an argument for a significant change in the
manner in which most educational institutions treat, represent, and serve
individuals with disabilities. I suggest that including the perspectives of
more researchers and teachers who are disabled into the wider education
research community is one way to begin this transformation.*
*“How **do **you manage a class in a wheelchair?” the human resources
director asked me frankly.*
Over the last decade, multiple sclerosis has rendered me unable to walk
unaided and my increasing disability now often finds me in need of
assistance to do basic physical tasks. Because of this progression, I had
to leave my secondary teaching job, and by fiat, disability became the
focus of my dissertation and the center of a newly defined scholarly
career. My increasing marginalization demonstrated to me that disability is
the “last frontier of unquestioned inferiority,” a situation that “makes it
extremely difficult to embrace disabled people and to recognize their
unnecessary and violent exclusion from society” (Siebers, 2008, p. 6). When
I was able-bodied, I was oblivious to this abuse.
Nancy Mairs, another writer with multiple sclerosis, suggests that “if it
is both possible and pleasant for me and my kind to enter, the world will
become a livelier place” (1997, p. 106) and I think she is right. My
nuanced perspective has enriched my intellectual life, but it has also made
me aware of the misunderstandings of disability that are ubiquitous in
educational circles. The insight I have gained is not just that a better
understanding of disability will improve and enliven school for everyone;
“my kind” is not well represented here. As a teacher and as a scholar of
education who also became someone with disabilities, I believe that I must
share what I have learned from this transformation.
Chief Justice Earl Warren in the *Brown v. Board* decision (1954) declared
the school to be “a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural
values.” In their immediate surroundings, students may never have
encountered someone who speaks a different language, someone who practices
an unfamiliar religion, or someone with a disability. When students meet at
school, it often results in “a painful, critical, re-examination of their
active ignorance about difference” (Mayo, 2004) and teachers find
themselves engaged in mediation between individuals who are struggling to
relate to one another. All students, able and disabled, observe these
interactions and learn how to react to difference.
For many disabled individuals, their invisibility, exclusion, and inability
to fit in were first made most apparent at school. In my elementary years,
the physically and mentally disabled students were, for the most part, kept
away from the rest of us. If we saw these individuals at all, it was only
as they passed our classroom or left the cafeteria when we arrived. One
afternoon in second grade, I remember looking out into the hall at the
sound of squeaking walkers, buzzing wheelchairs, and inarticulate speech
only to be reminded that I was “not to stare.” In secondary school, the
visibility of disabled students increased slightly when a few would join us
for assemblies and occasional gym and music classes. Still, these events
were irregular, and the inclusion of this group was treated as something
special, a coming together that was carefully facilitated by adults. What
cultural values did this treatment of disability awaken in us?
This systematic division of students demonstrated that those who have
disabilities were different, fragile, dangerous, and generally
unapproachable. What if my teachers had treated those with disabilities as
something other than distant, helpless cases that one is not to look at or
insult? What if I had known a disabled student—or teacher—to be competent,
thoughtful, or at least multidimensional? I did not. Instead, my
experiences with disability at school were governed by a tacit “ideology of
ability” (Siebers, 2008) that takes for granted that those with
disabilities should be kept at a distance, that they are best served when
they are isolated, and that they need to be protected from the fray of
When I trained to be a teacher, I had one class that surveyed different
disabilities and offered an understanding of the legal rights of students
who receive special education. Beyond that requirement, my experiences
matched the observation that “the study of disability is isolated in the
specialized applied fields (e.g., special education, rehabilitation
psychology, physical therapy), and that information is usually available
only to majors in those fields” (Linton, 1998, p. 80). When I worked in
schools, I found that students with disabilities were still often separated
from those without this identification. Even when such students were
enrolled in my “regular” English classes, each came with an individual
educational plan—with specific accommodations he or she required. However,
when a student with disabilities joined a general education class, this
inclusion was contingent on his or her ability to fit in, to act enough
like the non-disabled students that instruction did not have to change
If a student with a disability needed more than this accommodation, he or
she would be moved to a “co-taught” section, which meant that for a period,
my class included a special education teacher who brought with him or her a
group of students, the same young people this person chaperoned to other
classes. While I did my best to include all students equally, those with
disabilities generally arrived together and acted as a social unit. Their
separation was also frequently made apparent when the special education
teacher removed only some of the class for remediation or to read materials
aloud. If this situation was unsuccessful—usually meaning that a student
frequently disrupted class—the problematic individual was moved to a more
isolated setting. Once this move occurred, the student was no longer mine.
I had done my best, but I had learned that *this s*tudent was better left
to the specialists.
Lessons about disability are also found in the academic curriculum, which
often promotes problematic or distorted portrayals. In history, one
particular favorite tale is someone who can overcome the odds, “the
inspirational disabled person.” The person with polio who later won Olympic
medals for track, the one-armed pitcher who threw a no-hitter, or the blind
pianist “were all so good that no one knew or had to be aware of their
handicap, and therein lay part of their glory” (Zola, 1983, p. 201). The
rest of the world does not have to change; thus, true greatness for a
disabled person is succeeding without accommodation. This moral is harmful
for those individuals who do need help, but the portrayals of disability in
fiction often teach a more dangerous lesson.
A popular character in literature is the evil disabled person for whom
“physical handicaps are made the emblems of evil” (Longmore, 2003, p. 133).
For nefarious individuals—like the one-handed Captain Hook (Barrie, 1980)
or Count Rugen, the six-fingered man in *The Princess Bride *(Goldman,
1998)—their physical deformity is central in their characterization.
Another unflattering depiction is the disabled person as a social misfit,
which, like deformity “[expresses] to varying degrees the loss of an
essential part of one’s humanity” (Longmore, 2003, p. 135). For example,
Lenny in *Of Mice and Men *(Steinbeck, 1963) and Quasimodo from *The
Hunchback of Notre Dame *(Hugo, 2002)are characters that elicit sympathy,
but ultimately cannot be included in mainstream society.
Fiction and nonfiction stories often leave disability with tropes at
opposite ends of a spectrum—the tenaciously brave or the sad and gruesome:
a spectrum without a middle. Rather than portray these individuals as real
people who have conflicts, goals, failures, losses, and joys (like
everyone), many stories depict those with disabilities as exaggerated,
distant people who exist to remind the non-disabled that they should not
take for granted how great they have it. These examples of disability might
be fictional or historical, but by dividing the disabled students from the
able-bodied, the institutional arrangements of many schools support these
misconceptions. Educational leaders espouse respect for those with
disabilities, but “the hidden curriculum, the stronger message, is that
children in special education are different, incompetent, and unsavory,
and, because of their isolation, easily avoidable” (Linton, 1998, p. 63).
Once someone who is able-bodied becomes disabled or begins a path to
disability, the options for living narrow into the misrepresentations he or
she has acquired. As a result, the individual enters the new terrain of
disability “poorly prepared and with all the prejudices of the normal”
(Zola, 1983, p. 206), wondering whether he or she will be a hero or a
If the larger milieu of education included more voices of thinkers who are
themselves disabled, the chimera of inclusion could be replaced by
solutions that are applicable to general classrooms. Teachers would be
better prepared to disrupt and question the segregation of disabled
students if they had colleagues who were themselves disabled. Also, if more
teachers (and teachers of teachers) were disabled, the separation of
students based on a bifurcated system of abled or disabled would become
less obvious and less appealing. I was a good teacher when I was
able-bodied, but I know now my teaching was not good for all students.
Because my training did not include a focus on special education, I left
the education of “those students” to a different set of teachers. I did not
question the segregated cafeteria, the private hallways, the separate
buses, the isolated special education courses, or the systematic distancing
of disabled students from “regular” students. Now I do. What knowledge,
other than that I gained from my personal illness and disability, could
have brought me to this conclusion sooner?
If I had actually *known *individuals—peers or teachers—with disabilities
to be talented, successful, or content with their lives, I could have been
less afraid to lose my mobility. If I had been familiar with disability
scholars, their work could have introduced “contradiction into the
polarized categories of weak and strong, normal and abnormal, revered and
reviled, dependent and independent, expendable and essential” (Linton,
1998, p. 186). Even without becoming disabled, I could have been a part of
the necessary act of dismantling the consistent distortion,
marginalization, and segregation of disability. By including and
appreciating the uniqueness of those who have disabilities, schools could
tell better stories about disability and display a clearer picture of
reality. My kind—if one label can encompass all of us—could bring into
focus the problems these divisions create for all of us.
Barrie, J. M. (1980). *Peter Pan.* Charles Scribner's Sons: J. P. Piper.
Frank, A. (1995). *The wounded storyteller.* Chicago: University of Chicago.
Goldman, W. (1998). *The Princess Bride (25th Anniversary).* New York:
Ballantine Publishing Group.
Hugo, V. (2002). *The hunchback of Notre-Dame (modern library classics).* New
York: Modern Library.
Lee, H. (1960). *To kill a mockingbird.* New York: J. P. Lippincott.
Linton, S. (1998). *Claiming disability: Knowledge and identity.* New York:
New York University.
Linton, S. (2006). *My body politic.* Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan
Longmore, P. (2003). *Why I burned my book.* Philadelphia: Temple
Mairs, N. (1997). *Waist-high in the world: A life among the
Mayo, C. (2004). Relations are difficult. In C. Bingham, & A. M. Sidorkin, *No
education without relation* (pp. 121-135). New York: Peter Lang.
Shapiro, J. P. (1993). *No pity.* New York: Times Books.
Siebers, T. (2008). *Disability theory.* Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.
Steinbeck, J. (1963). *Of mice and men.* New York: Bantam Classics.
Zola, I. K. (1983). *Missing pieces: A chronicle of living with a
disability.* Philadelphia: Temple University.
It is the dilemma of psychology to deal as a natural science with an
object that creates history. Ernst Boesch