Practicing Disability Studies in Education

Acting Toward Social Change

by David J. Connor (Volume editor) Jan W. Valle (Volume editor) Chris Hale (Volume editor)
©2015 Textbook XVI, 247 Pages
Series: Disability Studies in Education, Volume 17


Practicing Disability Studies in Education: Acting Toward Social Change celebrates the diversity of contemporary work being developed by a range of scholars working within the field of Disability Studies in Education (DSE). The central idea of this volume is to share ways in which educators practice DSE in creative and eclectic ways in order to rethink, reframe, and reshape the current educational response to disability. Largely confined to the limitations of traditional educational discourse, this collective (and growing) group continues to push limits, break molds, assert the need for plurality, explore possibilities, move into the unknown, take chances, strategize to destabilize, and co-create new visions for what can be, instead of settling for what is. Much like jazz musicians who rely upon one another on stage to create music collectively, these featured scholars have been – and continue to – riff with one another in creating the growing body of DSE literature. In sum, this volume is DSE «at work.»

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • A Note on the Cover Art
  • Foreword: Disability Studies in Education and the Sociological Imagination
  • Early Intervention
  • The Audacity of Cripples
  • Engaging Our Sociological Imagination
  • References
  • Introduction: A Brief Account of How Disability Studies in Education Evolved
  • The Critical Beginnings of DSE
  • DSE Annual Inter/National Conference
  • Growth in Publications
  • Opportunities to Share Ideas
  • The Strength of Community
  • The Purpose of the Book
  • The Format of the Book
  • References
  • Section I: Theory
  • 1. Exploring Some Moral Dimensions of the Social Model of Disability
  • The Social Model and Disability as a Moral Category
  • Three Schools of Moral Philosophy: An Overview
  • Utilitarianism
  • Libertarianism
  • Communitarianism
  • Disability, the Social Model, and Theories of the Self
  • Implications for Disability Studies in Education
  • References
  • 2. “As a cripple, I swagger”: The Situated Body and Disability Studies in Education
  • Reluctant Writers and Writing as an Ethic of Care
  • Body Talk: Embodied Rhetorics of the Self
  • Body as Situation and Point of View
  • Expanding the Conversation
  • Notes
  • References
  • 3. BEyon|ce|D inclusion: Wud mite[ymouse] be nexterated
  • References
  • Section II: Research
  • 4. Enacting Research: Disability Studies in Education and Performative Inquiry
  • The Case for Integrating DSE and Arts-Based Research
  • The Educational Theatre Context
  • Arts-Based Research Meets Disability Studies in Education
  • The M.O.M. Project: Staging Narrative Research
  • Teaching Artists at Work: Applying DSE to Practice and Research
  • Why disability?
  • Rethinking the research question
  • Presuming competence
  • Negotiating representation
  • The Next Act
  • References
  • 5. “It was just like a piece of gum”: Using an Intersectional Approach to Understand Criminalizing Young Women of Color With Disabilities in the School-to-Prison Pipeline
  • Intersections and the Pipeline
  • An Intersectional Theoretical Framework
  • Exploring Constructions of Criminal
  • Research Context and Methodology
  • Findings
  • Labeling
  • Surveillance
  • Punishment
  • Participant response to labeling, surveillance, and punishment
  • Discussion
  • Implications for Transformative Schooling
  • Critical pedagogy
  • Restorative and transformative justice principles
  • Transformative schools
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • References
  • 6. An “In-Betweener” Ethnographer: From Anxiety to Fieldwork Methods in a Cross-Cultural Study of Bilingual Deaf Kindergartners
  • Shifting From Anxiety to Method in Fieldwork
  • The Role of Emotional Response and Anxiety in Fieldwork
  • Contesting Deaf Childhoods, Bilingualism, and Ideologies of In(Ex)clusion
  • Overview of the Kindergartens for the Deaf in Three Countries Project
  • Cultural Politics of Difference and Schooling: A Disability Studies in Education Perspective
  • Voice-Off Episode Revisited
  • Notes
  • References
  • Section III: Practice
  • 7. Practicing What We Teach: The Benefits of Using Disability Studies in an Inclusion Course
  • In the Beginning: Teaching Inclusively
  • A History of Teaching Inclusion Courses
  • The Course Architecture
  • Special Education With a Critical Eye: The First Third of the Course
  • Spotlight on Movie Analysis
  • Spotlight on 24-Hour Cultural Awareness
  • Some Implications for Schools, Classrooms, and Teaching
  • The Other Two-Thirds of the Course
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • 8. Why We Do What We (Think We) Do: Creating a Campus Coalition From the Perspective of Disability Studies in Education
  • About the Campus Coalition
  • Our Coalition and Co-Teaching
  • Our Coalition and an Educational Philosophy
  • Our Coalition and a Scientific Strategy—From Je pense, donc je suis (I think, therefore I am) to We Learn/Work, so We Are
  • Our Coalition and a Political Perspective
  • Our Coalition and a Dialogue Among Cultures
  • Why We Do What We (Think We) Do
  • Concluding Thoughts
  • Notes
  • References
  • 9. Madness and (Higher Education) Administration: Ethical Implications of Pedagogy Using Disability Studies Scholarship
  • Terror at the University: Reasoned Responses to Madness?
  • Mad at School: A Critical Disability Studies Perspective
  • Enabling Ethical Discussions of Administrative Praxis
  • Enabling Ethical Possibilities
  • Deconstructing the rhetoric of normal/rational in the academy
  • Alienation and colonialism in the academy: against the medical model
  • Caring for (mental) difference in ethical contexts
  • Student reflections of pedagogical possibilities in mad at school
  • Conclusion: Towards a Pedagogy of Vulnerability
  • Notes
  • References
  • Section IV: Policy
  • 10. Critiquing Policy: Limitations and Possibilities
  • Introduction
  • Critical Limitations
  • Becoming Critical?
  • The Consequences of Doing Without Critique
  • Missing or Making the Critical Point?
  • U.K. research: Resolving theory
  • Education science silence in Sweden
  • An Exceptional (U.S.) Response: To Intervention
  • Assembling Critique
  • Contrapuntal Critique
  • Demos-stration
  • Conclusion: Disability Studies in Education at Work on Policy
  • References
  • 11. Using Disability Studies in Education to Recognize, Resist, and Reshape Policy and Practices in Aotearoa New Zealand
  • Introduction
  • The Aotearoa New Zealand Policy Context
  • Aims, Implementation and Impacts of Neoliberal Reforms
  • Pushing Back and Moving Forward
  • Putting DSE to Work in Aotearoa New Zealand
  • Recognizing and Resisting Deficit Discourses
  • How Do We Recognize, Celebrate and Build on Competence?
  • Collaborative Learning: Learning Together to Support Learning and Being Together
  • Finally, a Relatively Simple Message
  • References
  • 12. A Disability Studies in Education Analysis of Corporate-Based Educational Reform: Lessons From New Orleans
  • Disability Studies in Education (DSE)
  • DSE Influences on Questions, Design, and Method
  • Public Education in Post-Katrina New Orleans
  • Learning From the Experiences of the “Leftover” Children” and Their Families
  • The New Orleans Charter School Experiment: Legislating Educational Inequity
  • Notes
  • References
  • Conclusion: All That Jazz: Using Disability Studies in Education to (Re)Envision the Applied Field of (Special) Education
  • The Work of the Ensemble
  • The Influence of DSE Upon Theory
  • The Influence of DSE Upon Research
  • The Influence of DSE Upon Practice
  • The Influence of DSE Upon Policy
  • Coda
  • Note
  • Reference
  • Contributors

| ix →

A Note on the Cover Art

As with many academic projects, the concept of this book changed from its inception toward its completion. At the onset, we chose Practicing Disability Studies in Education: Acting Toward Social Change as our working title. It was strong, solid, and simply stated. Those of us who work within a disability studies in education (DSE) framework, grounded in ideals of social justice, seek to change how we “do business” in education. The impetus for this book emerged from a desire to share examples of DSE “at work” for teachers, teacher educators, professors, researchers, and policymakers. Our intent was not to provide a “how-to manual,” but rather to showcase examples that foreground ways in which DSE scholars have moved forward in rethinking education and disability and how a DSE framework (re)shapes practice.

Toward the end of the project, we sought to change the book’s title to Syncopation, Improvisation, and Collaboration: Disability Studies in Education Within Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy. Alas! We were too late, as production had already began. That said, the sentiment of the not-to-be title reflected our experience as book editors–reading and analyzing chapters, providing feedback to our contributors—that, in turn, shaped all contributions to varying degrees. What struck a chord for us, so to speak, is the role that “co-creation” played not only in the writing of this book, but also in the myriad ways DSE scholars have collaborated to rethink, reframe, and reshape the current educational response to disability. Largely confined to the limitations of traditional educational discourse, this collective (and growing) group has—and continues to—push limits, break molds, assert the need for plurality, explore possibilities, move into the unknown, take chances, strategize to destabilize, and co-create new visions for what can be, instead of settling for what is. Jazz seemed to us an apt analogy for the synergistic work of DSE scholars. ← ix | x →

Much like jazz musicians who rely upon one another on stage to create music collectively, DSE scholars have been—and continue to—“riff” with one another in creating the growing body of DSE literature. In the way that syncopation, improvisation, and collaboration disrupt traditional musical frames, we contend these jazz elements likewise describe the work of DSE scholars that contravenes tightly bound rules, regulations, categorization, operations, and technical approaches within special education. Syncopation is the practice of emphasizing the “weak beats,” foregrounding what is usually backgrounded. Improvisation is the act of creation “in the moment,” an open-mindedness in the form of understanding within a specific context and time. Collaboration is participation within a group of individuals working together toward a common goal, yet creating a synergy that produces something greater than the sum of its parts. Consider jazz elements—weaving, tripping, riffing, bouncing, and stretching through DSE, sometimes smooth, and at other times dissonant, played within and circulated by a quartet of theory, research, practice, and policy.

We invite you to listen.

| xi →


Disability Studies in Education and the Sociological Imagination


This volume of outstanding essays continues a critical scholarly tradition in the growing field of disability studies in education (DSE) of examining, exploring, and interrogating cultural and professional portrayals of disability and issues of human difference in the schools. To the reader familiar with disability studies (DS) scholarship, these essays will chime familiar tones while searching the terrains of childhood and schooling for insight and possibility. For readers more accustomed to reading research in American special education, this book may bring new and unusual notions to the frontal lobe while flipping standard assumptions and discourses upside down.

Understanding how DSE and the American field of special education overlap and diverge, coalesce, and conflict is not a simple matter. Undoubtedly, both deal with the education of young persons with disabilities in the public schools. Further, some special education researchers and the vast majority of DSE scholars have an investment in the development of successful programs of inclusive education. But beyond those bare simplicities, how are the two related … or not?

I will begin this volume of DSE essays by pointing to two historical moments in the early twentieth century, two events that display many of the political and conceptual emphases of special education and DSE, allowing us to envision each in contrast to the other. I will offer a historical scene from the biography of noted American special educator Samuel A. Kirk as illustrative of the primary theoretical features of the field of special education. Then I will supply a story of disabled persons protesting federal government hiring practices as a portrait ← xi | xii → offering insight into the theoretical emphases of the field of DSE. The result is a contrast in political priorities, professional purposes, and discursive styles.

Early Intervention

The first historical moment is a scene involving a young Samuel A. Kirk, the man who by the end of his storied career would be called the “father of special education” (Mather, 1998, p. 35; Minskoff, 1998, p. 20). He developed many of the essential elements of contemporary special education thought and practice, including “the basic format of the IEP” (Minskoff, 1998, p. 16), the standard scheme of psychoeducational assessment (Minskoff, 1998), the federal definition of learning disabilities (Danforth, 2009; Bos & Vaughn, 1998), and the common framework and content of the university special-education textbook (Brantlinger, 2006; Kirk, 1962). Additionally, Kirk was a prominent political advisor and advocate in the development and passage of the Education of Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (Danforth, 2009; Gallagher, 1998).

In 1929, when he was a graduate student in psychology at the University of Chicago, Kirk was working evenings caring for delinquent children in an Oak Forest, Illinois, institution. There he discovered a ten-year-old boy was unable to read. This was hardly surprising news to the hospital staff. It was widely understood that “mental defectives” did not have the intellectual capacity for reading. But Kirk began secretly tutoring the boy anyway, teaching him in the doorway of a bathroom after the other children had fallen asleep. The ambitious, perhaps unreasonable graduate student and the institutionalized boy sat beneath a small corridor light, whispering in soft tones so as not to be caught by the ward nurses.

Knowing that he needed help in dealing with this unusual teaching challenge, Kirk consulted with reading assessment and remediation specialist Marion Monroe. Monroe (1928, 1932) was working at the same time on her own research project, teaching children with “reading defects.” She validated and encouraged Kirk’s thinking about the ability of some “feebleminded” children to learn to read. Her approach relied on a complex set of assessments of intelligence and reading ability. She ignited Kirk’s lifelong interest in the use of systems of psychological measurement as a way of understanding the cognitive strengths and weaknesses of children with learning difficulties.

In this brief historical scene, the basic features of the purpose and the practices of the American field of special education are illustrated. First, Kirk believed that some children who were viewed by others as uneducable and lacking the physiological and psychological capacities necessary to benefit ← xii | xiii → from instruction, could indeed learn. Hidden, untapped learning talent resided among the population of disabled students. With proper measurement instruments and great pedagogical skill, this talent could be located, drawn forth, and cultivated. Second, those children could only learn if provided with highly specialized instruction by persons prepared to understand their unique learning needs. This was a form of teaching unlike any other. It required a specific professional foundation of knowledge and skill. By the 1960s, this belief would become Kirk’s clarion call for the national birth of the new field of special education (Danforth, Slocum, & Dunkle, 2010).

Third, when confronted with a need to understand more about his student, Kirk turned to psychometric measurements, early instruments in the historical development of the American field of psychological and educational measurement. Undoubtedly, this specialized instruction required a professional knowledge base. The best knowledge, in Kirk’s view, involved ranking his student in comparison to the abstract cognition and reading abilities of other children. Systems of mental measurement resulting in the hierarchical classification of young minds were the epistemic backbone of the new profession.

The Audacity of Cripples

The historical scene offering insight into the conceptual orientation of DSE is set in New York City, in May 1935. A group of six persons with physical disabilities—Florence Haskell, Sylvia Flexer, Hyman Abramowitz, and three other young adults—sat down on the floor of the office of Oswald W. Knauth, director of the Emergency Relief Bureau (ERB), a federal New Deal program agency. They refused to move, acting in protest of the agency’s policy of not hiring disabled persons. This scene may have been the first disability-rights protest in American history.

When the Roosevelt administration built a series of federal employment programs to offset the high unemployment during the Great Depression, some disabled adults hoped that the New Deal work programs would be less discriminatory than employers in the private sector. The work relief programs provided by progressive federal agencies such as the Public Works Administration, the Works Progress Administration (WPA), and the Civilian Conservation Corps were specifically designed to supply government jobs to unemployed workers. But the New Deal programs routinely snubbed disabled job applicants as “unemployable,” worthy only of low levels of charitable relief (Longmore & Goldberger, 2000, p. 898). In compliance with official WPA policy, the ERB of New York City refused to hire persons with disabilities ← xiii | xiv → (Longmore, 1998; Longmore & Goldberger, 2000). Within 24 hours, hundreds of supporters had gathered outside in support of the sit-in. The local and national news media, including the Daily News, New York Post, New York Herald Tribune, and the Washington Post, carried the story (Fleischer & Zames, 2011; Pelka, 1997; Longmore, 1998).

After five days, Director Knauth agreed to meet with the protest group leaders. They demanded that Knauth hire 50 disabled workers immediately and then add ten more each week. They demanded reasonable wages working side by side with nondisabled workers in integrated work settings.

“This is not an organization to give work to those who are permanently unemployable,” responded Director Knauth (Longmore, 1998, para. 10). He rejected the demands. On the ninth day of the protest, Knauth called in the police. They broke up the demonstration and arrested 11 people.

This small group of 1930s, disability-rights activists called themselves the League for the Physically Handicapped. Although they eventually took their protest to Washington, DC to confront top New Deal policymakers head on, they did not succeed in changing the prejudicial hiring policy. Their great achievement was a new kind of political association that defined disability in a new way, creating “a precursor of disability pride” (Pelka, 1997, p. 191).

Disability historian Paul Longmore commented:

Their audacity is surprising given that era’s attitudes toward cripples. To resist society’s prejudice, they had to engage in public acts of defiance at a time when the president of the United States found it necessary to keep his disability largely hidden. (Longmore & Goldberger, 2000, p. 904)

They were willing to think the unthinkable and imagine a society far more pluralistic, inclusive, and respectful than even the most progressive politicians of their time.

The actions of these early activists are emblematic of the thinking and strategies of the field of DSE in a number of ways. First, the League members viewed themselves as a group unified not by the incapable nature of their bodies but by the political circumstances that excluded and marginalized them. The problem was not their deficient physiology. The problem was the social conventions that casually and cruelly tossed them aside. Today, we often refer to this justice concept as the social model of disability, the broad theoretical basis of the fields of DS and DSE.

Second, the League members came together as coalition of persons with disabilities with a distinctly educational goal. They worked to shift the thinking of citizens and leaders away from disability as an individual failing and toward disability as the lived consequence of unjust policies and social practices. ← xiv | xv → They “fought job discrimination and contested the ideology of disability that dominated early-twentieth-century public policies, professional practices, and societal arrangements” (Longmore & Goldberger, 2000, p. 888).

Third, they cast the proper role of disabled persons as not merely the recipients of the assistance offered by non-disabled persons. They pushed the government leaders to jettison their conventional image of persons with disabilities as objects of charity, as persons who receive financial support because they are incapacitated. In its place, the League disseminated a new, progressive concept of disabled persons. They portrayed themselves as workers, as talented employees capable of making a substantial contribution. They also represented themselves as citizens, as highly engaged participants taking part in the democratic political process.

Finally, the knowledge base that supported and drove their actions was their own subjective knowledge, their own understandings and insights based on their experiences in the world. They did not turn to an objective science developed by non-disabled persons about disabled persons. They did not, per se, reject the validity or utility of scientific disciplines. What they did assert that lasts today in DS and DSE scholarship was the centrality of disabled persons’ experiential knowledge to any activity seeking the social and political improvement of their lives.

Engaging Our Sociological Imagination

Eminent scholar C. Wright Mills (1959) coined the term “sociological imagination” to describe how we might employ scholarship to help us view individual lives in relationship to the broader workings of society. What may appear to us to be taking place within an individual’s life narrative is, upon further investigation, also a function of the complex social and political dynamics of the larger culture. DSE scholars, while respecting Kirk’s deep desire to teach the supposedly unteachable, also seek broader opportunities for participation and equality.

This volume of essays engages our sociological imagination with a democratic vengeance, playing repeatedly on the dialectic of individual and society while asking us serious political and ethical questions about human differences, relationships, and community. The authors wield keyboards with a jagged edge. They echo the audacity of the League of the Physically Handicapped, pushing forward with the (un)realistic hope that schools and societies may become more hospitable, respectful, and participatory for all children and families. They each ask that we spend nine days sprawled uncomfortably on the floor of ERB director Oswald W. Knauth’s office, wondering what the future may bring, hoping for a more supportive and valuing democracy for all. ← xv | xvi →


XVI, 247
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2014 (December)
diversity plurality new visions
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 247 pp.

Biographical notes

David J. Connor (Volume editor) Jan W. Valle (Volume editor) Chris Hale (Volume editor)

David J. Connor received his doctorate in education from Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a professor at Hunter College, City University of New York. He has received several national awards and is the author/co-author of four other books. Jan W. Valle received her doctorate in education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She is an associate professor at The City College of New York, City University of New York. She is the author/co-author of numerous journal publications as well as two other books. Chris Hale received his doctorate at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and presently works as an assistant professor at the College of Staten Island. He is an advocate for ethical special education practice and writes and does research relevant to this issue.


Title: Practicing Disability Studies in Education
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