Racialized Notions of Ability in Special Education
Race and disability are assumed to be fixed and relatively obvious but rather are categories that are socially constructed and constantly contested and redefined. Historically, both have operated to define, oppress, and segregate. In 1972, legislation was introduced to Congress regarding the education of children with disabilities and in 1975, Congress enacted Public Law 94-142, then called The Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. The passage of this act, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), guaranteed students with disabilities a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment (Ferri and Connor 454). Despite this, many students with disabilities are placed in educational settings that distance them from their non-disabled peers. This is further confounded by the overrepresentation of minority students in special education, with Black students being overrepresented in nine of thirteen disability categories. Furthermore, Black students are more likely than their white peers to be placed in exceedingly restrictive and exclusionary education settings (Ferri and Connor 454). In education as a whole, but particularly the field of “special” education, which has frequently been recognized as a multifaceted and fraught area, race and class influences can significantly shape students’ experiences (Gillborn). Special education allows the larger educational system and broader society to function in the ways they do, in addition to upholding and reinforcing the social and cultural norms of said society. Special education has traditionally escaped critical scrutiny because it is understood to be synonymous with “benevolent humanitarianism” (Tomlinson, 2014: 16)—one that conceals and normalizes practices that impact different social groups in dissimilar ways. In this paper, I argue that, since the establishment of special education, the discourses of ableism and racism have become conflated with one another, thereby permitting forms of racial segregation under the façade of “disability.”
Until the implementation of IDEA in the mid-1970s, many students with disabilities were barred from any education based on the discretion of schools that could claim an inability to accommodate such students (Ferri and Connor 457). Prior to this, the first half of the 20th century saw the increasing number of separate facilities for children deemed as “slow” or “r*******,” with it being no coincidence that the U.S. eugenics movement was occurring simultaneously (Ferri and Connor 457). During the 1950s, there was a marked rise in standardized testing that operated to help institute a set of inflexible norms surrounding academic ability based largely on white, middle-class American understandings, expectations, and principles. This designated students as “normal” or “average,” while those who deviated from those labels were separated (Ferri and Connor, 457). Furthermore, the process of labeling students progressively increased during the 1960s with the advent of the term learning disability (LD), as well as the escalation of the usage of the term emotional disturbance (ED) in the field of education (Ferri and Connor 458). According to Christine Sleeter (2010), the category “learning disabilities” arose as a calculated move to shelter the children of white middle-class families from possible downward mobility through poor school achievement. In this way, this category can be seen as part of overt attempts to protect the scholastic privilege of white middle-class America who were unable to meet boosted academic expectancies of post-Sputnik era curriculum alteration. Additionally, this allowed families of white, middle-class children an alternate and less stigmatizing avenue to justify their children’s difficulties and to gain access to special services (Ferri and Connor 458).
Throughout history, the perception of disability continues to be elucidated as the “natural site of abnormality and fearsome difference—the ‘abject’” (Erevelles 83). Many scholars and theorists have traditionally thought of disability as a biological category, one that is founded in the “medical language of symptoms and diagnostic categories” (Linton 8). However, disability studies scholars have imagined disability as a socially constructed category, one that “derives meaning and social (in)significance from the historical, cultural, political, and economic structures that frame social life” (Erevelles 85). The social model of disability also considers that even the most marked so-called “impairments” only become disabling when encountered with socially constructed problems and postulations (Gillborn). As such, disability brings to light the intricacies and assumptions that are intertwined in our social hierarchy and social categories—thus, lending to the idea that disability “can be theorized as constitutive of most social differences, including race” (Erevelles 85). Implicit in the construction of disability is the compulsory able-bodiedness that asserts that what is both desirable and moral is essentially heteronormative and non-disabled (McRuer 2). As Erevelles argues, “In these contexts disability is required to be simultaneously hypervisible and yet invisible in the medicolegal measurement of social and moral worth, serving as the yardstick that resurrects social difference only to hasten its instantaneous disappearance” (82). Thusly, compulsory able-bodiedness is often employed to separate conventional society from those who are considered threatening outcasts (Erevelles, 89).
In conjunction with compulsory able-bodiedness, it is necessary to understand the implications of Foucault’s theory of bio-power. Bio-power is thought of as the “explosion of numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugations of bodies and the control of populations” (Erevelles 84). One of these techniques is the use of the medical model of disability to vindicate the continued segregation and removal of disabled people to alternative schools, special education classrooms, and segregated residential institutions (Erevelles 84). This exemplifies how disabled people are constructed to be unworthy, undesirable, and needing to be removed from the gaze of society. The construction of inferiority and mental deficiency contains entrenched and entangled histories of ableism and racism that function to place Black and minority students in segregated special education classrooms, as they are perceived as dangers to the “normal” practices of schooling and to the general education population (Erevelles 92).
In order to fully comprehend the confluence of race and disability in special education, first one must consider the status of both race and disability as socially constructed concepts by a society that values and aggrandizes whiteness. As Erevelles argues, “both disability/impairment and race are neither merely biological nor wholly discursive but rather are historical materialist constructs imbricated within the exploitative conditions of transnational capitalism” (87). This elucidates the concept that race and disability should be understood principally as interactive social constructs, not distinct biological markers as they are often thought to be. The U.S. rhetoric of race and disability are intertwined and interdependent and are employed to validate both exclusion and marginalization (Ferri and Connor 455).
When looking at the U.S. educational system, perhaps the most infamous ruling is Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954), determining that racial segregation in schools is unconstitutional. Brown paved the way for the passage of IDEA in 1975, establishing legal precedence and many of the same principles seen in IDEA. However, this ruling was implemented in a society “with a dominant ideology that racializes notions of ability and merit” (Ferri and Connor 455). As such, systems of power that rely on the maintenance of said dominant ideology shifted divisions of students based on racial “difference” to divisions according to “disability,” as it became more accepted. Disability has become a more socially accepted, perhaps even normalized, sort of marginalization of students of color. While IDEA requires that students be placed in the “least restrictive environment” (LRE), this can often not be the case. Though IDEA has been greatly successful in affording students with disabilities access to public and free education, many students, especially students of color, have been placed in more, rather than less, restrictive placements. As a result, some have called LRE a “loophole” that has aided in the establishment of two largely separate and unequal education systems—general education and special education (Ferri and Connor 456). There are disproportionate numbers of students of color, particularly Black and Latinx, who are identified as disabled and placed in highly segregated settings. For example, Black males are more than twice as likely as their white peers to be labeled mentally disabled in thirty-eight states, emotionally disturbed in twenty-nine states, and learning disabled in eight states (Parrish). When given these three labels, students of color are more likely to be removed from general education classrooms (Ferri and Connor 458). Parrish determined that white students generally are “only placed in more restrictive self-contained classes when they need intensive services. Students of color, however, may be more likely to be placed in the restrictive settings whether they require intensive services or not” (26). Furthermore, research suggests that the amount of time a disabled student is placed in their general education classroom is highly correlated to their race (Ferri and Connor 459). Above all, this exemplifies how intensely racialized notions of ability are engrained in our culture and society. They are so deeply entrenched that the segregation of disabled students has also meant segregating students of color. The label of “disabled” was and is employed to resegregate classrooms along class and race lines after the passage of Brown.
In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, advocates for disability rights began to lobby harder for more inclusive placements for all students with disabilities (Ferris and Connor 460). Their efforts resulted in the reauthorization of IDEA in 1997 to what it is today. They further argued that exclusionary schooling practices are indicative of larger societal patterns that continue to struggle against the increased inclusion of people with disabilities in schools and society (Ferris and Connor 460). The public reaction to inclusion for people and students with disabilities was somewhat similar to the reaction to school desegregation, as it was met with strong opposition. For instance, Albert Shanker, the former president of the American Federation of Teachers, declared that inclusion was “a recipe for educational disaster” (Ferris and Connor 460). As a result of pushback to inclusion in school and the widespread belief that implementing inclusion in schools across the country would be unwise, it was argued that a more gradual approach was required. This argument failed to take into account that twenty years had elapsed between the passage of IDEA and any serious attempts to facilitate full inclusion of students with disabilities (Ferris and Connor 466). The approach of gradualism, the same approach taken with racial integration in schools, has been shown, both with inclusion and integration, as possibly being more damaging in the long run, as they result in backlash, resegregation, and little to no real progress. The decision to proceed gradually with inclusion shows the lack of commitment to it and the little value placed on students with disabilities, as many school districts continue to exhibit apathy towards students with disabilities in general education classrooms (Ferri and Connor 467).
Special education, despite being created to meet the needs of diverse learners, has been used to produce and perpetuate the marginalization of individuals founded on the interrelated discourses of race and ability. Individuals who have been deemed undesirable as a function of their race or disability or confluence of both have been designated as the “abject,” as the “other.” These designations are maintained by the dominant groups or ideologies in our larger society which are at least white, able-bodied, heterosexual, and middle to upper class. The dominant group retains and establishes its power over disabled people and people of color (who are outside of the dominant group) by labeling them as unambiguously inferior. These perceptions are deeply entrenched in oppressive legislation, educational practices, and practically every system that has been built for and by the dominant group. Schools uphold and reinforce these dominant beliefs and, as such, are instances of racism and ableism in practice.
As is always the question: where can we go from here? Ferri and Connor conclude that “until the population becomes committed to sharing power on a more equal basis, true diversity within our democracy can only remain an ideal out of reach” (471). While this may be true, there are practices and strategies that can be implemented to help students already in the educational system and those that will enter before we have reached substantial change. Due to the conflation of disability with race and class indicators, some disability studies scholars question the practice of labeling students at all. They argue that it is not necessary to deliver remedial instructional services in segregated settings. In place of these harmful practices, they promote inclusive education that is grounded in constructivist and differentiated instruction, as well as universal design (Reid and Knight 21). In creating an educational system that values and respects each and every one of its students, we must commit to anti-racism, anti-oppression, and a better future for people with disabilities.
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McRuer, Robert. 2006. Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New York: New York University Press.
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Sleeter, Christine. “Why Is There Learning Disabilities? A Critical Analysis of the Birth of the Field in Its Social Context.” Disability Studies Quarterly, vol. 30, no. 2, 2010. Crossref, doi:10.18061/dsq.v30i2.1261.
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