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Dismantling the Disabling Environments of Education

Creating New Cultures and Contexts for Accommodating Difference


Edited By Peter Smagorinsky, Joseph Tobin and Kyunghwa Lee

Dismantling the Disabling Environments of Education: Creating New Cultures and Contexts for Accommodating Difference challenges assumptions that view people of difference to be "abnormal," that isolate attention to their difference solely in the individual, that treat areas of difference as matters of deficiency, and that separate youth of difference from the mainstream and treat them as pathologized. As outsiders to mainstream special education, the authors of this collection take a more social and cultural perspective that views the surrounding social environment as at least as problematic as any point of difference in any individual. Most of the scholars contributing to this volume work with preservice and inservice teachers and grapple with issues of curriculum and pedagogy. One of the primary audiences we hope to reach with this book is our colleagues and practitioners who have not made special education or disability studies the focus of their careers, but who, like we, are determined to engage with the full range of people who attend schools. Dismantling the Disabling Environments of Education: Creating New Cultures and Contexts for Accommodating Difference can be a valuable text for undergraduate and graduate courses in teacher education, as it addresses key issues of inclusion, diversity, equity, and differentiated approaches to educating the full range of students.

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Chapter One: Learning Disabilities: Theory Matters (Curt Dudley-Marling)


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Learning Disabilities

Theory Matters


The popular history of learning disabilities holds that the term “learning disability” was introduced by Samuel Kirk in 1963. Learning disabilities, as conceptualized by Kirk, captured significant numbers of otherwise bright children who, because of a neurologically-based learning disability, struggled academically but, to this point, were not seen as meriting any special consideration in school (Wiederholt, 1974). Kirk assumed—as others still do—that learning disabilities have always been present among school-age children, but the discovery of learning disabilities had awaited developments in the science of testing and evaluation (see Sleeter, 1986).

Animated in part by Kirk’s call to action, parents and educators pressed Congress to officially recognize learning disabilities as a special education category. By 1969 Congress passed the Specific Learning Disabilities Act, part of the Education of the Handicapped Act of 1970 (PL 91–230), which mandated support services for students with learning disabilities. By 1980 more than one million students were identified as having a specific learning disability. Currently, over 2.2 million students are diagnosed as learning disabled (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2016).

In the years following Kirk’s talk, considerable attention has been given to identifying the cause(s) of learning disabilities. Despite continued uncertainties about the precise nature and causes of learning disabilities, the dominant narrative in special education situates learning disabilities in the minds and bodies of ← 25 | 26...

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