Both Sides of the Table

Autoethnographies of Educators Learning and Teaching With/In [Dis]ability

by Philip Smith (Volume editor)
©2013 Monographs IX, 283 Pages
Series: Disability Studies in Education, Volume 12


Both Sides of the Table is a set of evocative, heartfelt, personal, and revealing stories, told by educators about how their experiences with disability, personally and in the lives of family members, has affected their understanding of disability. It uses disability studies and critical theory lenses to understand the autoethnographies of teachers and their personal relationships with disability. The book takes a beginning look at the meaning of autoethnography as a method of inquiry, as well as how it has been (and will be) applied to exploring disability and the role of education in creating and sustaining it. The title refers to the context in which educators find themselves in Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meetings for students with disabilities in schools. There, educators often sit on the other side of the table from people with disabilities, their families, and their allies. In these chapters, the authors assume roles that place them, literally, on both sides of IEP tables. They inscribe new meanings – of relationships, of disability, of schools, of what it means to be an educator and a learner. It is a proposal (or perhaps a gentle manifesto) for what research, education, disability, and a utopian revolutionary politics of social transformation could and should look like.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Section 1: Introducing Autoethnography
  • Introduction: What Dis Is, Why Itz Here, by Phil Smith
  • This Book Is Liz’s Fault
  • Questions and Theories and Subjectivities
  • What This Book Is About
  • References
  • Chapter 1: Why Autoethnography? by Phil Smith
  • Autoethnography as the Performative
  • Autoethnography: Making Meaning, Performing Culture
  • Disability and Autoethnography
  • Teaching and Autoethnography
  • Critiquing Autoethnography
  • Autoethnography as an Agent of Social Justice and Change
  • Autoethnography as Risk
  • References
  • Section 2: Living With Disability—Stories By Labeled People
  • Chapter 2: Who Knew School Could Be So Cruel? Tales of a Learning Disabled Student at an Institution of Higher Learning by dené granger
  • References
  • Chapter 3: The Bad Apple, by Michael Peacock
  • References
  • Chapter 4: Autistethnography, by Elizabeth Grace
  • Chapter 5: This Closet, by Phil Smith
  • References
  • Section 3: Living Alongside Disability—Stories From Family Members
  • Chapter 6: I Am Not of This World, and Yet I Am in It: A Daughter’s/Disability-Studies-in-Education Alien’s Log of a Journey Through Hell, by Alicia Broderick
  • Chapter 7: Listening: A Star Is Born!, by Bernadette Macartney
  • Chapter 8: Help Wanted, by Casey Harhold
  • Chapter 9: Picture This: Snapshots of My (A)typical Family, by David Connor
  • Focus
  • My Own Snapshot
  • Notes on Arranging the Data
  • Granny and Her Mother
  • Uncle Frank
  • Uncle Daniel
  • Cousin Allan
  • Cousin Peter
  • Cousin Janet
  • My Brother’s Nephew, Jonathan
  • Baby Duncan
  • My Mother
  • Portraits: Looking Back
  • Conclusion
  • Post-Script: Exposure
  • References
  • Chapter 10: An Open Letter to Wyatt, by Erin McCloskey
  • Me
  • You
  • Us
  • Me Again
  • References
  • Chapter 11: “That’s OK. They Are Beautiful Children,” by Kathleen Kotel
  • Ready to Teach
  • The Birth of My Daughter
  • Childhood, Teaching, and Mothering
  • References
  • Chapter 12: A New Chance to Matter, by Liz McCall
  • Chapter 13: Being an Albee, by Lynn Albee
  • Big Dave
  • Albee Parties
  • Big Lynn
  • Bill
  • Jim
  • A Typical Albee Endeavor
  • David
  • David’s Bike Accident
  • David and His Costumes
  • Me
  • Section 4: What’s It All Mean? Reading Lives, Creating Futures
  • Chapter 14: What Do These Stories Tell Us about Education and Autoethnography? by Phil Smith
  • References
  • Chapter 15: Looking to the Future, by Phil Smith
  • References
  • About the Contributors


My friend, colleague, collaborator, and co-conspirator, Dr. Jackie McGinnis, gave me the time and space to write over a long hot summer. Her work mattered a lot—and I know it wasn’t easy (oh, how I know). I think I still owe her a martini. Or eight. I know she’ll go to heaven. I’m headed the other way.

Liz McCall had the idea for this book, and propelled me into making it happen. Scot Danforth and Susan Gabel gently and ably urged me on with their wonderful editing and leadership skills. The folks at Peter Lang have been SO patient with me.

Ibby Grace reminded me what was important. My gratitude is large.

Liat Ben-Moshe said some extraordinary things at just the right time. Her writing and thinking have informed mine in powerful ways, and will for a long time.

Folks think students hang out with teachers to learn from them. Wrong: teachers hang out with students to learn from them. Casey Harhold, Lori Harvard, Michael Peacock, and Christie Routel have taught me much over the course of years. Jessica Bradley, Kevin Dorn, Billy Milburn, Sarah Radu, and Ruth Salles are others that have taught me things in the last year or two that I needed to know (and didn’t always know that I needed to know).

Ruth Salles is also a great artist. What a cover! What a gift!

Corinne Glesne started me on this journey 15 years ago. I’ve spent my life since then paying it forward, learning how to give what I have received (undeservedly) to others.

Kim retaught me about living. For realz.

Marilla, of course. And Sara. For the reasons you know.

Section 1

Introducing Autoethnography

← 1 | 2 → ← 2 | 3 →


What Dis Is, Why Itz Here

Phil Smith

This Book Is Liz’s Fault

One fall afternoon, a couple of years ago, I was working on my computer at the university, responding to an email from a student with an advising question. I heard a knock at my office door, turned around, and found a tall woman with short red hair standing at the door. “Liz!” I said. “Come in!” I turned my desk chair around to face her, and pulled out a chair for her to sit down at the table.

Liz was one of my graduate students, taking a second class with me, this one about families with members with a disability. With a quick smile, ready laugh, and a keen, ironic sensibility, she had made an impression on me the previous fall when she had taken an introductory course in education and disability studies. She had great questions, good answers, and written a terrific paper a year ago. I was glad to have her back in class.

Liz and I exchanged pleasantries, and then she got down to business. “I have an idea for a final project in your class,” she said, and then smiled, almost sheepishly. “But it’s a paper, not one of those other kinds of projects.” I encouraged students to represent their learning and knowledge in creative ways, outside the boundaries of typical graduate course student papers. They could make a video, or sew a quilt, or make a painting. One student made a wooden bowl. Others created sculptures, performed music and dance, and took photographs.

“That’s OK,” I laughed. “If I were going to do something creative for one of my classes, I’d probably do something written, too. What do you have in mind?”

She leaned on the table. “Well, I have an idea—its about families, and disability—but I don’t know if its possible to write about—if its something you'd allow. I don’t know if its academic enough, you know? If it’s the kind ← 3 | 4 → of thing you’re looking for—if its what you want.”

“Why don’t you tell me what you have in mind, Liz,” I said. “You should know by now that I’m open to interesting ideas.”

“Well,” she said, looked up, and breathed out. “I write a lot, you know.” I knew that Liz had a blog in which she wrote about what was going on in her life. Pretty interesting stuff.

She went on, looking down. “Well, there’s this story that I’ve been trying to write. Its about—it started with my father-in-law. He committed suicide. And then a couple of years later, my father—he committed suicide too.”

I looked at her. “Wow,” was about all I could manage.

“Yeah,” she said, and chuckled. “Wow. And then my stepdad committed suicide too.” She rushed on. “So I’ve been trying to write about it—how it affected me, and the rest of my family. Do you think that would be something that I could write about—kind of a story—for your class?”

“Liz, I think that would be a great project. In fact,” I said, and turned to face the bookshelves over my desk. “In fact—now where is that?” I scanned the line of books that stretched across the room. “There it is!” I stood up, reached, pulled down a blue paperback, and turned back to Liz. “I just finished reading this book over the summer. It’s by Carolyn Ellis, called Final Negotiations: A Story of Love, Loss, and Chronic Illness.”

I put the book on the table between us, and leafed through it. “In it, she described her experience caring for her partner, who was dying with a chronic illness. It’s a kind of research—autoethnography—in which the researcher writes about their own life as a way to understand the way that culture does certain things—in Ellis’s case, its about relationships, among other things. But the way she writes about it - ” I looked up at Liz. “It reads more like a novel than a traditional piece of research.”

I looked down at the book, and then back at Liz. I was getting excited by the idea. “I think you could do the same thing, Liz. You could write about your experiences with suicide in your family—write about it in the form of a short story, maybe—and draw connections to how the systems of services for families and people with psychiatric disabilities did—and maybe didn’t—meet their needs. Call it an autoethnography, and—shazam!—its research. You could get it published.”

I sat back, thinking. I’d had an idea for a paper I wanted to write for a couple of years, an autoethnography about my own experience living with ← 4 | 5 → disability, tying it to how it had changed my thinking about education. Maybe…

I sat up, leaned on the table, and looked at her with a goofy grin. “Liz, I am really glad you came in to see me this afternoon. How would you like to write a chapter for my next book?”

Questions and Theories and Subjectivities

We learn about and begin to make sense of the world through the tales that we tell—stories that we tell ourselves about the world, about ourselves; stories that others tell us; stories that we perform, create, and imagine. Ellis (2004) pointed out that ‘‘Stories are the way humans make sense of their worlds” (p. 32). We create stories in order to understand who we are, and what we are, and how we are, in the world.

As I’ve gone about my work over the past couple of decades—as an educator, critical ethnographer, support broker, teacher educator, writer, and disability studies scholar—I’ve had the opportunity to listen to the stories of other teachers and teacher educators who work with people with disabilities and their families. Many—the most interesting, to me—were stories of their own experiences with disability, or the disability of someone close to them. I began to wonder to myself: how has the experience of living with a disability, either personally or for someone close to them, made an impact on how teachers and teacher educators understand and create teaching and learning? This book is a beginning answer to that question. Or maybe its not so much an answer, as a way to open up a new set of questions, a new set of ideas, a new way of looking at this thing we call disability.

This book is founded in post, critical, and disability studies perspectives—ideas that I’ll take a (brief) stab at unpacking. By disability studies, I want to mean an interdisciplinary, bricolagic exploration of ways in which disability plays out in social and cultural contexts. Here, as elsewhere, I understand disability as a socially constructed enterprise, and the study of it as being intentionally, explicitly, and unabashedly interdisciplinary in approach (Smith, 2010).

This kind of disability studies is multiple, plural, poly—opposed to essentialism. It looks at disability through social model lenses—again, not a single way of understanding disability phenomenon. The social model of disability that I value is one placed in firm opposition to medical models, in which disability is essentialized. In medical models, people with disabilities ← 5 | 6 → are intentionally and explicitly Othered—through that process, they are “deprived of visibility, uniqueness, subjectivity, voice, and knowledge” (Krumer-Nevo, 2012). Othering occurs in such a way that what could be understood as difference is translated as being lesser, inferior, deficit (Krumer-Nevo, 2012). Formal Othering processes of labeling and sorting, developed by Eugenicist pseudo-science and extended through special education taxonomic procedures for creating difference, meet the needs of Eurocentric, ableist, racist culture and ideology (Smith, 2008a; 2012).

The process of Othering is an artifact of ableism, which I have defined elsewhere as


IX, 283
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2012 (June)
critical theory revolutionary politics social transformation
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2013. 283 pp.

Biographical notes

Philip Smith (Volume editor)

Phil Smith is Associate Professor of Education at Eastern Michigan University. His most recent book is Whatever Happened to Inclusion? The Place of Students with Intellectual Disabilities in Education (Peter Lang, 2010). He has published widely in the areas of qualitative research, education, and disability studies.


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