How Teaching Shapes Our Thinking About Disabilities

Stories from the Field

by David J. Connor (Volume editor) Beth A. Ferri (Volume editor)
©2021 Textbook XIV, 330 Pages
Series: Disability Studies in Education, Volume 26


This book purposefully connects practice to research, and vice versa, through the use of deeply personal stories in the form of autoethnographic memoirs. In this collection, twenty contributors share selected tales of teaching students with dis/abilities in K-12 settings across the USA, including tentative triumphs, frustrating failures, and a deep desire to understand the dynamics of teaching and learning. The authors also share an early awareness of significant dissonance between academic knowledge taught to them in teacher education programs and their own experiential knowledge in schools. Coming to question established practices within the field of special education in relation to the children they taught, each author grew increasingly critical of deficit-models of disability that emphasized commonplace practices of physical and social exclusion, dysfunction and disorders, repetitive remediation and punitive punishments. The authors describe how their interactions with children and youth, parents, and administrators, in the context of their classrooms and schools, influenced a shift away from the limiting discourse of special education and toward become critical special educators and/or engage with disability studies as a way to reclaim, reframe, and reimagine disability as a natural part of human diversity. Furthermore, the authors document how these early experiences in the everydayness of schooling helped ground them as teachers and later, teacher educators, who galvanized their research trajectories around studying issues of access and equality throughout educational structures and systems, while developing new theoretical models within Disability Studies in Education, aimed to impact practices and policies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • About the authors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Learning from Teachers’ Lives
  • Section 1: Historical Contexts
  • 1. How I Got Here from There: The Road to Disability Studies in Education
  • 2. To My Students, with Gratitude: A Retrospective Journey of Teaching [Special Education]
  • 3. Snapshots of School
  • 4. From Harmful to Helpful
  • Section 2: Classroom Spaces and School Structures
  • 5. “Why Is Lisa’s classroom in the basement?” Reflections on Noticing and Disrupting Exclusion
  • 6. Fictionalized Memories: The Making of a Research Identity in Four Seasons
  • 7. Paintings on Clear Plastic that Hang from the Ceiling
  • 8. The Promises We Keep
  • Section 3: Pedagogy and Practices
  • 9. Humanizing “Special” Educational Practices
  • 10. “Off to Another Glorious Day of Educational Opportunity”: But for Whom?
  • 11. How I Learned to Be a Teacher in Room 137
  • 12. Giving Points, Pathologizing Race, and Reading Harry Potter
  • Section 4: Families
  • 13. Surprising Home Visits
  • 14. Teaching as Oppression; Teaching as Liberation
  • 15. Searching for Competence: (T)reading the Spaces between Ways of Knowing
  • 16. No Bat Required
  • Section 5: Both Sides of the Desk
  • 17. Education Is Power: But Only if You Can Get into the Building
  • 18. Recovering the Spirit
  • 19. Journey as a Special Education Teacher of Color with Dis/abilities
  • 20. My Disabled Teacher Presence
  • Conclusion: Bridging Theory and Practice through Story
  • Matrix: Themes and Connections Among Authors
  • List of Contributors
  • Index


Our thanks go to Scot Danforth and Susan Gabel for their support and enthusiasm for the project. Also, to Patty Mulrane Clayton at Peter Lang for working with us for over 15 years.

Finally, our sincere thanks to all of the contributors of this book who shared their experiences while living through an extremely challenging time that included a global pandemic and political instability. We know they were juggling virtual teaching, handling numerous online administrative tasks, supporting students, coordinating childcare, taking care of extended families, working on other academic projects, and managing personal situations. Bringing their experiences together in this book was truly a labor of love.

←xii | 1→

Introduction: Learning
from Teachers’ Lives


Because we understand the world through stories, we have endeavored to make this book story-centered to engage the reader on a personal level. As long time colleagues, collaborators, and co-authors, we have often traded stories of our early experiences in education before we came to know each other. These memories are contextualized in classrooms and communities, featuring children and youth, their parents, former teaching colleagues, and school leaders. What they have in common is a mixture of funny incidents, serious happenings, and insightful observations about the living, breathing, organic nature of schooling. To state the obvious, much of what initially resonated within us during this era in our lives has stayed within us, constituting part of who we are to this day.

Just as we have shared our stories with one another, we also noticed that other seasoned educators do the same. At conferences and presentations, professionals who began their careers in K-12 schools and are now university-level teachers and researchers, often reminisce about the time they started their careers. Specific children from their classes are described in great detail, along with fellow teachers who “showed them the ropes,” administrators in both positive and negative light, and parents who advocated for the needs of their own children. Along with these character profiles, seasoned educators also describe their initial realizations about how education systems functioned through regulations, processes, and customs they were required to follow, and the overarching organizational structures they had to inhabit.

For many of us working in the field of Special Education, we observed a great divide between the content taught in the majority of our education classes and what actually occurred in our own classes and schools. The knowledge base about dis/abilities, we came to find out, was largely steeped ←1 | 2→in medicalized and pathologized understandings of human difference. In other words, the “party line” of the field of Special Education taught us that students labeled disabled were deficient in one or more ways, and their condition could be remediated or corrected with the right teaching methods and materials. In sum, there was a lot of information about how these deficits were inherent within students and a lot less information about natural human variation, and how school structures, systems, and practices could enable or disable children.

This deficit-based message about students labeled disabled that dominated professional literature was relentlessly drummed into special and general educators alike. In our schools we started to notice that in many cases, completed IEPs seemed more valuable to certain staff members for purposes of compliance than supporting actual kids. Labels seemed more important than students’ names, diagnoses more important than instruction. It often felt as though “business as usual,” meant that you were just a small voice within a huge system that always moved on its own terms and often not in progressive ways. At the high school level, I (David) watched as only half the students who entered into ninth grade “self-contained” (read: segregated) special education classes made it into twelfth grade. I also noticed how all of the students in my classrooms were Black and/or Latino, and the classes for students labeled Emotionally Disturbed (ED) were all males, except for the occasional female who had to somehow survive alone.

In my (Beth) first lesson in whiteness and ability as socially constructed, my first class of students, who were dominated by children of several of the very poorest families in the county held little claim to either status. Despite being labeled as intellectually disabled and very much seen as “other” in school, school-based labels held very little meaning outside that context. Later in graduate school we would come to attach theories to our lived experiences as teachers, but it was those early experiences that actually breathed life into the critical frameworks—rendering them more meaningful and powerful.

When the Inclusion Movement began, we both supported efforts in the schools where we worked. Realizing while they were less than ideal, at least they were a start to move in the right direction. To our surprise, we soon discovered there was often great resistance and even fear about including students with disabilities into general education classes. It seemed that the entire interlocking systems of law, public education, teacher certification requirements, and funding sources had created two separate and unequal systems of general and special education that had become reified in the minds of all those invested (Gardner & Lipsky, 1987). Attempts at merging systems, breaking parts of them down, and creating responsible inclusive classrooms were met ←2 | 3→with resistance (Fuchs & Fuchs, 1998). We found it hard to believe that a fair number of educators felt comfortable actively rejecting students they didn’t think belonged in their classes, while others were simply so invested in maintaining the status quo that they did not want to play any part in breaking down barriers and creating more inclusive classrooms. Furthermore, we found many leaders in the field of Special Education indignant about the inclusion movement, hostile to classes in which students labeled disabled and non-disabled were taught side by side (Kauffman & Hallahan, 1995).

The backlash against more progressive ways of envisioning the education of students with disabilities, including resistance to helpful knowledge about Universal Design for Learning, team teaching, multiple intelligences, and differentiated instruction bothered us immensely. We knew that business as usual was not enough, shared a faith that things could and should be done differently, and recognized students with disabilities should not have to earn the right to be with non-disabled peers, but rather possessed that right. It struck us that traditional teacher education had told special and general educators what their classrooms should be like and who belonged in them. This phenomenon had to be undone and rethought to benefit everyone.

To be frank, it felt overwhelming and, in all honesty, at times depressing. It seemed like we were frequently being told what couldn’t be done to include students with disabilities and why our students didn’t belong—by other teachers, administrators, union leaders, and researchers in the field of special education. On the other side, we found allies within each of the same groups, and took heart that others shared similar beliefs and sought to create change.

In the following sections titled Working in Classrooms, Working with Administrators, and Working in Local Policy, we illustrate examples of both what we observed and how we tried to support change in our school-level work by challenging the dual systems of special and general education, advocating for inclusive education, teaching ways to rethink the concept of disability, and recognizing the stigma students managed. We do this as prelude to connecting these issues to our subsequent research, demonstrating how some of our earliest experiences informed the entire trajectory of our professional careers and the research we came to carry out.

Working in Classrooms

For example, in working in our own classrooms, we both engaged with students about their labels, helping students know about their strengths, talents, and current challenges—rather than being solely defined by their deficits. ←3 | 4→It was important to try and dispel the notion that there was “something wrong” with them that primarily defined them in school. They understood how the demands of school systems were challenging for some students far more than others. It became important to provide flexible access to information and think of multiple ways to engage students. This challenges the primarily remedial (and in many cases remedial only) approach of special education which the field vigorously advocates.

As students could see their accomplishments for themselves and how they could contribute in different ways, I (David) found they became less defensive and, to be frank, less hostile toward learning in classes. Why were they sometimes defensive and hostile in the first place? It’s not a simple answer, but much of it stems from them not being provided with access to an interesting curriculum and culturally responsive teaching. Instead, they’d been subject to what Freire termed the banking model, in other words being perceived as empty vessels into which teachers had to deposit knowledge and skills (1970), often far from their current realities. Classroom learning seemed a boring chore or completely disconnected from their lives outside of school. In addition, it can’t be overlooked that many high schools in New York City were physically configured more like prisons than places valuing knowledge, with bars on the windows and metal detectors for students to pass through every morning (David)1 or completely segregated classrooms (Beth). We knew how much these spaces must have influenced how our students feel about being inside places that are designed only to control, contain, or constrain.

Add to this the stigma of being regarded different. Students in my (David’s) department, for instance, hid from general education peers, arriving late to class and sitting out of sight to avoid being seen as others passed by the door. While they were mostly friendly and cooperative when I had them in class, many students chose not to acknowledge me on the street when I exited school, because I was affiliated with the special education department.

I (Beth) had some of these experiences as well, but in my second teaching position, several teachers and I were able to pilot an inclusion program involving 5th grade social studies and science classes. A full partner in these classes, we team taught—each alternating a lead and support role every other class. We knew we had succeeded when parents started to call to ask if their child was being placed in special education because they came home and reported that I was their teacher. One of the lessons from this position was how important it is to try to be an integral part of your general education grade level teams—aligning curriculum projects to dovetail with theirs and just being present as a fully-participating member of the team. I also opened up my resource room to any student who wanted a different type of review ←4 | 5→session or who needed extra time on a test was a way to legitimize the space. I found that normalizing my own role in the school as just another teacher who was there to offer help and support helped to alleviate the stigma of receiving services. In our own ways, we each became very much aware of how stigma associated with being labeled disabled and placed in separate educational settings ran very deep, dominating the reality of student’s lives, but scarcely touched upon in the professional literature we had been exposed to in our teacher education programs.

Working with Administrators

We have always been intrigued by what seems to be a teacher-administrator divide, given that all administrators in public schools were once teachers. As a teacher, I (David) sometimes felt deep empathy for administrators as their jobs seemed thankless (other than a higher salary) overseeing and guiding a very disparate bunch of teachers and students in the department. Teachers occasionally felt resentment, too, when being told to do something we didn’t think was helpful or necessary do or being curtailed from doing what would have been beneficial for our students. Having been indoctrinated in special education ideology via their chosen degrees, some administrators thought inclusive education was primarily purely about cost cutting and were cynical about its implementation. Once tasked with the responsibility to create inclusive classrooms, many took a “hands off” approach to operationalization. Although I (David) was assigned to work with four general educators to team teach English as a Second Language classes for high school students and I (Beth) was involved in a pilot inclusion project, neither of us had much professional development and were basically told to figure it out. It wasn’t perfect, but we did the best we could with what we had and made our baby steps into creating and supporting inclusive classrooms.

During this phase of my career, I (David) came to see how administrators were often given directives and deadlines and instructed to act unquestioningly upon the party line. Yet oftentimes there was dissonance between administrators and teachers in terms of belief systems, abilities, people skills. Special education administrators now had to work with general education administrators in ways they hadn’t before (just as special education teachers had to work with their general education peers) on the other side of the artificial divide. This included adapting to colleagues when planning and problem solving around inclusive education, something many “on both sides” believed shouldn’t exist. I knew several special education administrators at the time who thought inclusive education would herald the end of special ←5 | 6→education as we all knew it, and the jobs it generated. To be fair, working in schools on a daily basis is tough enough, so it is understandable that a huge paradigm-change from exclusion to inclusion caused much misunderstanding and confusion. That said, we saw the possibilities in inclusive education being the right thing to do, and strove to support it or, if necessary, encourage/push administrators into making it work.

Working in Local Policy

I (David) came to see how educators can influence special education polices when I worked in the Office of the Superintendent of Manhattan High Schools for nine years. During that time the number of schools overseen by the office rose from thirty-three to forty-four high schools, with the new ones all beginning as inclusive schools. Of interest to me was how to assist school communities in the growing number of inclusive classrooms with adequate support. I worked with all kinds of stakeholders, including discrete groups of principals, assistant principals of general and special education, general and special education teachers, paraprofessionals, support staff (counselors, psychologists, educational evaluators), parents, and students. In addition, sometimes I worked with the whole faculty of some schools. This allowed me to gain insights into how people in each group of stakeholders or each site thought about students identified as disabled, where and how they were best educated, and by whom.

Like most ventures in education, there were some notable successes, some “in the middle” mixed results, and some failures among the schools with which we worked. On the positive side, some schools had inclusive policies driven by their faculty, and were fully supported by their principal. In the middle ground were schools who made steps toward changes, yet needed stronger leadership and more support. On the negative side, some sites were hostile, with teachers accosting me in the hallway about “The thing you preach that doesn’t work.” Following different paths, we both came to see the need for more than ideals and changes in the law, and to meet people wherever their thinking was, to engage—and respectfully challenge—them to view inclusion primarily not as a mandate from above, but as a civil right by those placed low on the hierarchy of educational worth.

Together with a group of like-minded colleagues, I (David) created an alliance with the Teachers Union and held monthly professional development sessions on their premises with small groups of teachers from each high school in Manhattan. The goal was to build a capacity for shared knowledge in going forward to create more accessible classrooms. In addition, booklets ←6 | 7→written in accessible language and teacher-friendly materials were created to be circulated around the city and state, to support the federal initiative of promoting and supporting inclusive education.

Working in Research

We have included the previous sections in order to trace a line through our trajectories as career long educators who, when entering the field of special education were struck by its very real limitations and flaws, which existed alongside good intentions and protections codified within the law. So many aspects of education that we inherited, such as the structure of schools into separate departments for non-disabled and disabled students, the overwhelming amount of paperwork irrelevant to teaching, the highly prized but seldom used Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), the limiting and/ or misleading disability labels, inflexible curricular standards and sorting mechanisms, and the enormous disconnect between most educational research and lived experience in actual classrooms. Almost all of the research in the professional literature at the time was positivistic and quantitative, reducing students to be numbers in relation to variables. Outside of required classes, we never knew any teacher who voluntarily read professional research journals, considered to be the knowledge base of our field. In essence, although we did everything we could to learn from our colleagues and other sources, and considered ourselves professionals and life-long learners, the professional literature we had been exposed to date simply did not speak to the real work of teaching.

Then something happened. It was not until commencing doctoral studies that we were introduced to different theories to conceptualize human differences and given the language to challenge the status quo that had troubled us deeply to the point of anger and at times, even despair. We discovered Disability Studies (DS) along with other critical fields of study and this changed us profoundly. Readings provided a radically different framework to question taken-for-granted ideas about the field special education and all of its underlying logics. For example, we were challenged to consider what constitutes the idea of a “normal” human being? Where did this idea originate and who/what does it serve? Who generates knowledge about disability and what knowledge counts? In what ways does society actively disable some of its members through physical and social barriers? And how do disabled people themselves construct knowledge, culture, community, and diverse forms of resistance? What is the relationship between other social differences (like race, class, sexuality, and gender) and disability?

←7 |

Then something else happened. Because DS is an interdisciplinary field containing sub-fields such as literature, arts, dance, sociology, history, science, anthropology, medicine, and so on, a small group of critical special educators gravitated to organizations such as the Society for Disability Studies (SDS). In culling from such an interdisciplinary field, critical special educators saw the value in developing a branch of DS in the field of education. Thus, several significant events played a significant role in establishing Disability Studies in Education (DSE) as a subfield.

The Emergence of Disability Studies in Education

Without wishing to be repetitive of previously published accounts of how DSE emerged, we recall several key events that triggered its formal establishment. In 1999 Linda Ware hosted a small international conference funded by the Spencer Foundation to challenge the ways that ideology explicitly and implicitly shaped inclusive education practice and to broaden the critical special education discursive community informed by international scholars of disability. Funding was targeted for graduate students’ travel to Rochester to join these well-respected scholars in close conversation as most were known only through their writing. Ware’s conference extended discussion of ideology and cases of non-recognition through critical examination of exclusion across multiple educational contexts (Ware, 2004). Some months later, Scot Danforth submitted a proposal for a panel to the national conference of TASH (The Association for Severely Handicapped) in Chicago under the name of Coalition for Open Inquiry in Special Education (COISE). The session was titled “Ways of Constructing Lives and Disabilities: The Case for Open Inquiry.” His co-presenters included Lous Heshusius, Ellen Brantlinger, Chris Kliewer, and Phil Ferguson. They asked questions such as: Why should a person with a disability, a teacher, or a parent care what academics say in their research and writings? Why should they care about the seemingly distant and esoteric writings in research journals and university textbooks? What is happening in these worlds that makes a difference? The panelists discussed the social and political value of current trends and developments in disability research and scholarship, emphasizing the importance of inquiry and writing for persons concerned with the social valuation and inclusion of persons with disabilities. Arguing for “open inquiry,” they urged for expansion and diversification of what was deemed legitimate and valuable writing within special education journals. Additionally, they were highly critical of special education’s unquestioned acceptance of positivism as the foundational paradigm of the field. In other words, they challenged the ←8 | 9→monopoly of social science imitating the belief system and practices of the natural sciences asserting detached objectivity and employing quantitative measurement as ways to find “The Truth.” However, as critical special educators were aware of, “the hard science of disability” contributed to a series of unfortunate assumptions in the field of special education, including:

  • disability is a primarily bio-physical phenomenon consisting of a deficit condition existing within an individual;
  • service professionals know better than persons with disabilities and family members what is best for a served individual;
  • diagnosed or labeled individuals should be separated from the mainstream population for purposes of treatment.

In contrast, the panel explored alternative ways of envisioning, talking about, and writing about the lives and possibilities of persons with disabilities including many traditions of scholarship (social science, humanities, arts, spiritual traditions, etc.) and the numerous voices that have something to say about disability issues—in particular international voices convened at Ware’s earlier conference. The moment seemed ripe for carving out institutional support and encouraging transgressive perspectives, methodologies, and research.


XIV, 330
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (April)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XIV, 330 pp., 2 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

David J. Connor (Volume editor) Beth A. Ferri (Volume editor)

David J. Connor (Ed.D., Teachers College, Columbia University) is Professor Emeritus of Hunter College (Learning Disabilities Program) and the Graduate Center (Urban Education Program), City University of New York. He is the author/editor of numerous books and articles, many in collaboration with Beth A. Ferri. Beth A. Ferri (Ph.D., University of Georgia) is Professor of Inclusive Education and Disability Studies at Syracuse University, where she also coordinates the doctoral program in Special Education. She, frequently in collaboration with David J. Connor, has published widely on the intersections of race, disability, and gender.


Title: How Teaching Shapes Our Thinking About Disabilities