Revamping a Graduate Course to (In)Fuse Disability Studies: The Politics of Representation in “The Study of Learning Disabilities in Children and Adolescents” Program
By David J. Connor, Ph.D.
City University of New York Hunter College & Graduate Center
Since being introduced to Disability Studies (DS) during my doctoral program in the early 2000s, I immediately saw its value and began to infuse the discipline into my work as a professional development specialist working with teachers and school administrators (Connor, 2004). Back then, I optimistically used the word infusion as it represented tentative steps toward using DS as a fresh perspective to view familiar issues such as inclusive education. The aim of infusing was to permeate an existing entity, with the intent of bringing a quality that served to improve that entity. For this article, I purposefully shift the verb from infusing to fusing, to signify a stronger action, akin to blending or melding of two entities, for that was my intention in reimagining and rewriting a core course of a special education degree that focuses on learning disabilities (LD).
Many of us who teach, research, and write in Disability Studies in Education (DSE) are also critical special educators in our professional careers of teacher education. We usually began as teachers of students with disabilities in all kinds of settings—segregated classrooms, special schools, or juvenile justice facilities (Connor & Ferri, 2021). Our initial experiences made us quickly recognize the deficit-based understandings of disability and the constellation of disorders and dysfunctions used in special education as limited and oppressive. To this day, we have also grappled with the irony of remaining in a professional field with whose foundations and some practices we profoundly disagree. However, it was DS that gave us words, concepts, and theories that, in turn, prompted us to establish and cultivate a subfield of DSE. This subfield offers different ways to conceptualize disability, reframe inclusive education as a civil right, and advocate for disability to sit alongside other markers of identity at the table of equity such as gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so on.
Why Revamp the Course?
Unlike many programs across the country that have changed in name from special education to inclusive education, my own university has held firm to maintaining a separate department of special education. Senior faculty members in particular have fought against becoming blended within other departments, fearing the loss of a distinct identity. Research has shown it is common for traditional special educators to be limited by the foundations of our field, including its ontological, epistemological, and methodological groundings in both research and the practice of teaching and learning (Gallagher et al., 2004). Please note, I capitalize the term Special Education when referring to the academic field, not when referring to programs. For example, as a field, Special Education shuns interdisciplinarity (Kauffman et al., 2017), resists a plurality of perspectives (Connor et al., 2011), undervalues intersectional knowledge (Garcia & Ortiz, 2013), and is race evasive (Annamma et al., 2017)—all unhealthy signs of a highly circumscribed discipline. Such traits have molded, and continue to shape, traditional special educators’ thinking about disability, as well as race. I have witnessed first-hand the “white innocence” (Annamma, 2015) of special education, namely, the negation of race in self-evaluating our discipline’s practices. This innocence is manifest at different levels, including (a) the academic field, (b) the university department, and (c) the curriculum taught to aspiring teachers. To briefly expand upon each example:
In the case of the academic field of special education, research that critiques the practices of segregation according to disability often furthers limiting the life experiences of students of color with disabilities. For example, an article of mine on disability, race, and social class was rejected by Learning Disability Quarterly after I completed significant rewrites based on requests from two rounds of peer reviews. Thankfully, the piece was published elsewhere with minimum changes (Connor, 2009), but such rejections allow the field to side step engaging with difficult issues deemed unpalatable. This form of gatekeeping, I came to learn from some peers, was actually typical within Special Education (Gallagher et al., 2014).
The instance of the university department revealing white innocence arose when, as the then chairperson, I informed faculty we would be dedicating part of our required monthly departmental meetings to contemplating the paired concepts of race and disability. The faculty of twenty professors, ninety percent White, were largely uncomfortable, and quite divided. A small, pro-active group had agreed to facilitate conversations. Resistance was palpable, with several faculty withdrawing their engagement, shutting down, one accusing me of “ramming it down our throats.” Other faculty members were somewhere “in the middle,” open and willing to struggle with the issues being presented—and others were onboard from the start. Why did I seek to place race and disability at the center of our conversations? I have always thought special education to be race evasive. Our department was no different. We had one Latinx professor and no African American professors in the department in a city whose school system is comprised of over ninety-percent students of color, with a disproportionate number in special education. The teaching profession has historically been White and female, approximately eighty percent nationwide (Boser, 2014)—a demographic reflected in our institution’s teacher education programs.
Having experienced racial dissonance when I began my career as a white teacher in segregated special education classes of Black and Latinx students, I recognized different levels of consciousness among my colleagues about race. It struck me that the historical and systemic racism in society was willed away by most White teachers as they did their job. But as the old phrase says, “as kids will be kids,” it was they who would often bring race to classroom conversations (Connor, 2018). As a profession, I do not think we sufficiently prepare White teachers to be mindful of, and humble toward, the differences of lived realities experienced by their students—including the profession’s deficit lens that is the default of White, middle-class values and practices. This non (or surface-only) acknowledgment of race, and its implications in all of our lives, is a disservice to both teachers and students.
In the case of curriculum within special education teacher education programs, like the field of Special Education itself, race is seen as something largely detached from disability. Having reviewed curricula from different programs within a special education department, I have seen this first hand. Or, when race is integrated, it is often in the form of statistics or monolithic assumptions—rarely from an intersectional lens or featuring actual voices of disabled people of color. I often wish I had the influence to forge an entire teacher education program with a foundation in DS like progressive examples in Syracuse University, Montclair University, and the Early Childhood Special Education Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. However, as academics without a critical mass of like-minded colleagues, most of us in more traditional programs focus upon what we can change within our institutions. For example, I made sure a course required by all teachers in the School of Education seeking certification, Inclusion of Students with Disabilities in General Education, had an explicit DSE lens and that disability-related courses in the Urban Education Doctoral Program at the Graduate Center were largely DSE oriented (Connor, 2018). Like other DSE scholars, I have attempted to bring our discipline to where I can. It was for this reason I sought to craft a DSE-informed revamp to a key course in the LD program, The Study of Learning Disabilities in Children and Adolescents.
The Significance of the Course
The course is important because it focuses on Learning Disabilities for teachers who have committed to specializing in this area. It covers the who, what, why, when, where, and how(s) of LD. It also is intended to help provide knowledge to prepare teacher candidates for required state certification exams. Despite working in this program for almost twenty years, I had never been assigned this course, but was always curious about teaching it. I knew it featured a solid amount of traditional special education ideas and sources. I also knew it had not engaged sufficiently in diversifying the LD experience, that is, contemplating LD as it intersected with race, gender, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, and so on. Nor had the course engaged sufficiently with a plurality of perspectives about disability, something that DS allows us to do, complicating the field’s foundational knowledge based on science, medicine, and psychology.
As I write this article, I am in the middle of teaching the revamped version for the third time in three years (second time fully online). In the balance of this paper, I first describe why I made some of the original changes. Second, I share some of the main resources, justifying my choices. Third, I present a selective outline of the course, describing the contents of several sessions, foregrounding resources and activities, thereby allowing the reader to gain a sense of particular topics and issues. Fourth, in the discussion section, I reflect upon the rationale for my choices and process of (in)fusing DSE into a traditional special education course. Finally, I end with several thoughts designed to keep a conversation going about DS-revamps to existing courses.
A major goal of the revamp was to show a plurality of perspectives about LD. Perspectives are largely grounded in two main realms: (a) the traditional medical model of special education that casts disability in need of fixing, curing, or restoration as close to normalcy as possible (Kauffman et al., 2017) and, (b) the social models of DS that encompass civil rights, neurodiversity, intersectionality, and the actual voices of people with LD (Gabel & Danforth, 2008). I tend to think of these paradigms as more like poles on a continuum that has a sliding scale we must recognize in order to give our best thinking when analyzing a situation in a specific context. At the same time, I am mindful of the risks of reductionism and binary thinking, seeking to show the limitations, potential problematics, and ramifications raised by any one viewpoint (or both, for that matter). As a teacher, it is my belief that an individual’s understanding can be informed by multiple, competing discourses, that can be in alignment or in opposition. Essential questions that guide the course are:
- What is the history of learning disabilities?
- What are learning disabilities, according to whom, and based upon what evidence?
- How can we complicate one dimensional understandings of a learning disability—by using an intersectional lens that considers race, social class, ethnicity, gender, nationality, and other markers of identity?
- What might be gained (and arguably lost) when looking at learning disabilities from multiple lenses?
- As educators, how can we provide academic, social, and emotional support to children, youth, and adults identified as learning disabilities?
- As educators, what are some ways in which we also provide support to students’ families?
It is my goal for teacher candidates to be critically reflective about all information presented, evaluating the value of each book, article, video, and document we study. By constantly comparing and contrasting multiple perspectives about LD from a wide variety of sources, I want them to question existing assumptions and be receptive to new knowledge about LD, particularly from people with LD. There is a risk of initial dissonance as teacher candidates wrestle with distinct viewpoints. However, I believe dissention about a topic helps stimulate thinking—causing us all to be explicit in what sources we are culling from to defend our belief, and therefore allowing that source of knowledge to be analyzed and critiqued.
The first text I chose was Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (2008). Wolf makes a compelling case for how reading is actually a recent phenomenon for our species and, while it is not natural, most brains have adapted to the demands of society. She asserts that there is nothing wrong with brains of dyslexic people—they are simply wired differently. The second text selected is Sally Shaywitz’s Overcoming dyslexia: The essential program for reading problems at any level (2020). I have several reservations about the book, including the word overcoming, a typical ableist trope. Based on what we know about dyslexia being permanent, meaning managing seems more accurate than overcoming. Another sticking point is the author’s adherence to dyslexic people having an increased chance of—another acritical construct—giftedness. It is clear that people with dyslexia are life-long problem solvers due a need to navigate a largely inaccessible society, giving rise to creativity, with many showing the traits of being unique, creative, innovative thinkers. However, Shaywitz’s insistence that the two constructs are inseparable, while well intended, bears closer scrutiny. Despite these, and other misgivings, the text is clear, accessible, and filled with extremely useful information for teachers.
I also cull selected chapters from another three books with the intent of balancing information sources. One is The Handbook of Learning Disabilities (Swanson et al., 2014), a very dense traditional special education text featuring may sub-topics of LD. Another is Learning Disabilities & Life Stories (Rodis et al., 2001) featuring essays by young adults about how LD impacted many aspects of their lives—from identities to educational experiences. The third is Creative Successful Dyslexic: 23 High Achievers Share their Stories (Rooke, 2016), a trade book revealing the complexities behind managing dyslexia. Taken together, these sources of information provide historic, scientific, medical, social, cultural, philosophical, psychological, institutional, academic, and deeply personal accounts of LD.
Similar to the rationale for selecting texts, articles also purposefully cast a wide net of perspectives, providing an opportunity for engaging with issues absent from previous versions of the course. Sample issues include: (a) the proposal to end special education’s deficit model (Harry & Klingner, 2007); (b) the need to embrace neurodiversity (Armstrong, 2017); (c) the debate of LD as a disability or natural difference among humans (Redford, 2017); (d) variations in experiences of students with LD based on race (Blanchett, 2010; Hale, 2010), class (Sleeter, 2010), and gender (Ferri & Connor, 2009); (e) teacher responses to student differences (Baglieri & Moses, 2010); (f) personal stories of individuals with LD (Lewis & Lynn, 2018); and (g) cultural humility in working with, and learning from, families (Valle, 2016).
I have always found that documentaries are some of the most informative texts, including a number made about dyslexia. Most of these tend to feature the experiences of people with dyslexia, illuminating their life stories. Teacher candidates are provided with a list of eight choices and asked to select one, responding to a series of questions crafted to provide an informed analysis:
- What were aspects of dyslexia that were confirmed for you in this documentary?
- What were some aspects of dyslexia that were new to you?
- Describe which part(s) of the documentary stood out for you and explain why.
- In what ways (if at all) did the documentary help you understand dyslexia from the point of view of person/people with dyslexia?
- In what ways does the knowledge in the documentary confirm or differ from that of researchers—as reflected in many of your readings—in the field of special education?
- After watching the documentary, what questions were you left asking – and/or what things were you wondering about?
- In brief, what are some implications of what you learned for your teaching?
First Person Narratives
There is a similar assignment in which I ask teacher candidates to analyze a book that is either written by a person with LD (e.g., Abeel, 2005; Lee, 1992; Mooney, 2008; Schmitt, 1994). Or, if they prefer, a research-based text illustrating some of the complex issues in Special Education and LD. Examples include texts focused on: gender, race, and the school to prison pipeline (Annamma, 2016); competent versus deficit-based perceptions of students of color (Collins, 2003); alternative interpretations of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (Graham 2010) and LD (Danforth, 2009); or narratives of students with disabilities (Hehir & Schifter, 2015).
A third form of text, I believe, is video. I have therefore assembled relevant short clips from YouTube, such as Ted Talks given by people with different types of LD, including dyslexia and dyscalculia. Additionally, there are clips of scholars whose work focuses on LD and diversity, such as Beth Harry and Jeanette Klingner, along with family members’ perspectives.
To help understand their thoughts, ideas, and questions, teacher candidates respond to weekly prompts on Discussion Board (public, and open to exchange of ideas) and a journal entry (private, allowing individualized responses and conversations with me). These short, to-the-point assignments create a rhythm in which all of the materials used and concepts raised can be addressed, questioned, and explored. In addition to the two reviews analyzing a documentary and a book, teacher candidates must self-select a topic related to LD for a research paper, finding out what recent research has yielded. The focus of the research paper was previously limited to an aspect of practice. That option has been maintained, as it motivates teacher candidates to dig deep into a specific area they are curious about. The syllabus reads:
(A). Students will conduct research of scholarly articles about one of the broad topics related to such as (1) an aspect of reading (phonemic awareness, phonological awareness, fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, spelling), (2) writing, (3) listening and speaking, (4) mathematics, (5) attention, (6) social skills, with view to synthesizing findings of “what works” in terms of instructional recommendations that will be shared with classmates. Other topics possible pending approval of professor.
In the new version of the course, I added the following option that speaks to the history, culture,
and trends related to LD.
(B.) Alternatively, students can research a problematic phenomenon related to LD and the field of special education such as the Neurodiversity Movement, overrepresentation of students of color in special education, cultural considerations within LD and special education, and English Language Learners and LD (other topics possible pending approval).
Should teacher candidates choose this option they are motivated in becoming knowledgeable about important issues related to LD including critiques of practices, systems, and structures within special education. Writing a research paper is skill required for graduate students seeking teacher certification in New York State, and this is one of the classes in which it is expected. Findings from teacher candidates’ research papers are also transformed into VoiceThread PowerPoint presentations to be shared with peers.
Lastly, the final exam consists of viewing a set number of narrated peer presentations, reflecting upon, and responding to, that information. Additionally, students answer twenty questions based upon the expectations of knowledge and skills expected by both the Council for Exceptional Children (the professional body that generates national standards for teachers) and the expectations of New York State Education Department (the certifying body) encompassed in its mandated examination.
A Glimpse into Selected Class Sessions
In order to provide a deeper look into the course, I have selected several sessions to describe and discuss. In some ways, these can be seen as bookends, representing the initial sessions of the course (1 through 4), and a couple toward the end (11 and 12). These choices allow me to show how the course is set up with clear expectations and, as we progress toward the end, how teacher candidates should have a greater knowledge about, and comfort level of, addressing inequities that cut across people with LD.
Session 1: Introductions and Expectations
As most instructors already know, much of the first session is about reviewing the syllabus, going over expectations, and answering questions about assignments. At the same time, the instructional component of the first session sets the tone of what will follow. My objectives at this juncture are two-fold to: (a) identify where and how teacher candidates came to learn about LD, and (b) analyze information shared by people with LD to compare and contrast that knowledge with what teacher candidates already know.
To help teacher candidates individually reflect and organize their thoughts, I provide a graphic organizer to prompt contemplation of the following questions: (a) What do we know about learning disabilities? (b) Where does that knowledge come from? The organizer has two sections, the Personal Level and the Societal Level. The Personal Level features sub-sections of self, family members, friends, and students. The Societal Level features subsections of film, television, literature, history, famous people, organizations, research, memoir, etc. The first journal entry is linked to this exercise, asking: (a) What are the sources from where your main knowledge of learning disabilities has come from? (b) Which sources are the most influential? (c) Why do you think that is? (d) Which sources are the least influential? (e) Why do you think that is?
I have used versions of this activity early in different courses as it helps establish the basis of an ongoing dialogue I seek to cultivate for the semester’s duration. Teacher candidate responses reveal how highly different sources inform them in specific ways. Those with LD or who have a family member with LD (or another disability such as autism or intellectual disability) usually provide astute insights into how ableist the world is. Many teacher candidates, with and without LD, reflect upon their own schooling experiences, the former group usually sharing painful experiences, and the latter now recognizing how their peers were whisked away to special classes. What becomes apparent to almost all teacher candidates is the lack of fair and credible representations of LD in the media and how little they know from actual people with LD.
I try to harness this collective realization to our need, as largely nondisabled educators, to prioritize the voices of people with LD, to listen to their experiences and learn from them, and to value the knowledge they share. Different artifacts can be used to help make this transition. In this session I used a “Letter to Normal” (Valle & Connor, 2019) by Jonathan Mooney, writer/activist with LD and ADHD. It begins:
I know this might sound harsh, and I’m sorry/not sorry to be the one who has to break this to you, but it’s time that you heard the truth. You’ve misled so many people—teachers, children, all of us really—into thinking that there’s a “normal” mind and body that we all should have, and you have caused a lot of pain. I know this pain personally because you and I didn’t get along right off the bat. I was the kid in school who had such a hard time siting still that I spent most of the day chilling out with the janitor in the hallway; spent a lot of time hiding in the bathroom to escape reading out loud with tears streaming down my face; and eventually left school for a year in sixth grade. I was diagnosed with multiple language-based learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder. When the educational psychologist broke the news to my mom and me, it was like someone had died. Tissues on the table. Hushed tones. Mirrors covered. Sitting Shiva for the death of my normality. When we left the shrink’s office I asked my mom, “Am I normal?” I had crossed that invisible line between the normal and the not normal, the one we all know is there, but aren’t quite sure where, or who drew it, and how or why…. [letter continues] (Valle & Connor, 2019, pp. 57-58)
The letter format speaks directly to the reader. Mooney’s words center around the experience of an LD posterchild whose experiences led him to contemplate suicide as a child, revealing the emotional impact of it. This message is far from traditional special education textbooks in which children smile happily in classrooms with small clusters of peers, presenting a glossy image that all is well (Brantlinger, 2006). Mooney also directly Normalcy, the elephant in the room, and how damaging a concept it is for children when they are placed outside of its boundaries through no fault of their own. Once these issues are raised, I ask teacher candidates to view several short videos in which people with LD share part of their stories, making sure the speakers are diverse in terms of race, gender, age, and social class. Some examples are:
- Overcoming Dyslexia, Finding Passion (Otterbein, 2013).
- My Learning Disability: A Love Story (Kazi, 2018).
- How We Suppress Genius and Create Learning Disability (Sonnon, 2013)
After reading Mooney’s letter and watching the short videoclips, teacher candidates are asked to respond in their interactive journal to the following prompts: (a) Which speaker resonates with you the most and why? (b) In sharing their personal knowledge, what did one or more speakers have in common? Addressing these questions, students usually speak of how powerful the voices are of people with LD and the surprise by the profound emotional impact of managing LDs, including ways in which LD shapes a person’s identity.
Sessions 2 & 3: Histories and Definitions of LD
In these two related sessions, we focus on different histories and definitions of LD, exploring implications for both researchers and educators, of labels, placement, and types of instruction. In session 2, readings include—from a traditional perspective—A Brief History of the Field of LD (Hallahan et al., 2014) and Classification and Definition of Learning Disabilities (Fletcher et al., 2014). These readings provide what can be viewed as the official LD story, a rather orderly account of the field’s history, inception, growth, and expansion. Another assigned reading from the Handbook of LD is The Sociocultural Model as a Framework for Instructional Intervention Research (Englert & Mariage, 2014). What makes the inclusion of this chapter in the Handbook of LD interesting is the field’s breaking its own orthodoxy with a nod toward understanding LD as a sociocultural construct, albeit only in relation to interventions. In a separate reading, Armstrong (2017) posits: “Neurodiversity: The future of special education?” arguing for assets-based over deficit-based understandings of natural human diversity.
Against this backdrop of the field of LD’s traditional narrative, the recognition of dissention within the field of LD, and the more DS-simpatico neurodiversity movement, we begin to look at the various definitions of LD. The actual description of LD within federal law, encoded in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDIEA, 2004) is ripe for unpacking as it has changed over time, uses vague language in places, with a large portion of LD defined in the negative—what it is not. We also look at definitions used by organizations such as Learning Disabilities Association of America (n.d.) and the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD, 2022). Finally, teacher candidates consider individual definitions of LD by people who were given the label. Contemplating all of these sources, we see ways in which different discourses of LD are invoked all of time. For example, the legal definition of LD culls heavily from the field medicine, and personal accounts of LD often pull from the social model.
In Session 3, more perspectives are introduced to the mix, including the foregrounding issues of race and class in relation to LD. C. E. Sleeter’s seminal work, Why is there Learning Disabilities? A Critical Analysis of the Birth of the Field in its Social Context (1987), provides a compelling alternative history in which she asserts the jolt of the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in the late 1950s led to an unprecedented rise in curriculum standards, which also created a new group of children (the White middle class) who struggled and failed in school and did not fit any previously existing categories of disability. The mobilization of well-informed, politically connected parents pushed for the science of a new, distinct category, that would come to be known as LD. The cultural considerations around LD raised by Sleeter are echoed in the work of educational anthropologists McDermott and associates (2006) who argue against schooling practices that set children up for failure. Race, class, and culture are also taken up by Blanchett (2010) as she describes the very different material consequences for children from different racial and socioeconomic groups who are labeled LD. In the final article assigned, Redford asks the rhetorical question, Dyslexia: disability or difference? (2017), arguing for both progressive reconceptualizations while ultimately leaning on the side of labels to ensure legal benefits. All of these sources are intended to engage teacher candidates in contemplating multiple perspectives of LD while considering the implications for themselves as teachers.
Session 4: Families and LD
I always want to dedicate one or two sessions on families of students with LD. This is because I believe, as encoded within the law, that family members should be partners with teachers in supporting their children. However, despite progress, numerous parents have shared their dissatisfaction about their treatment by school personnel—teachers, administrators, and psychologists (Cavendish & Connor, 2017; Lalvani, 2019; Valle, 2009). Helping to reveal ways in which parents, who can be the greatest asset to a teacher’s knowledge about their child, are often misunderstood, underestimated, not recognized, or dismissed, is core to parent-centered work of DSE scholar Valle (2016) and critical special educators Harry and Klingner (2007). This session allows us to explore ways in which parental perceptions may differ from school personnel in terms of understanding and supporting their children identified as LD. Additionally, the session includes the process of an initial referral for evaluation for a potential disability and the relation of that process to the federal policy of Response to Intervention designed, in part, to reduce the number of children identified as LD. Focusing on parents also allows for a variety of topics to be raised, including cultural differences about disabilities (Sauer & Rosetti, 2020), along with state-declared standards of performance expected for every grade level (Common Core State Standards Initiatives, 2022), and the work of educators to negotiate these spaces (Wien, 2004).
Sessions 5 through 10 focus on subtopics within the field of LD, including: (a) dyslexia; (b) dysgraphia, dyscalculia; (c) language disabilities; (d) non-verbal disabilities; (e) all aspects of literacy (reading, writing, listening, speaking); (f) executive function; (g) cognition; and, (h) memory. I often apply a form of what/who/why/where/when/how approach to each topic, so teacher candidates can grasp what makes each one unique while seeing the overlaps and relationships with other aspects of LD.
Session 11: Contemplating LD at the Intersections
This session, and the following, are intended to complicate the neat and tidy picture of Special Education’s depiction of disability by advocating an intersectional approach be used at all times. In sum, culling from the original work of Crenshaw (1991) focusing on race and gender, an intersectional approach requires us to contemplate the context of a person’s experiences, and how their identity is shaped by simultaneous markers such as race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, nationality, and so on. Readings for this session were chosen to challenge the white innocence of special education, including Hale’s Privilege and the avoidance of stigma (2010), Ferri & Connor’s “I was the special ed. girl: (En)gendering disability from the standpoint of urban working-class young women of color (2009), and Baglieri and Moses’ “My name is Jay”: On teachers’ roles in the overrepresentation of minorities in special education and what teacher education can do (2010). The latter article is accompanied by a spoken word rendition of a poem by Moses, “Dear Laura” (2008), written from the point of view of an African American child to his White teacher.
In addition, some clips showing prominent critical scholars within the field of Special Education are also shared. For example, Alfredo Artiles’ presentation (2016) to the American Educational Research Association (AERA), The Paradoxes of Equity, Disability, & Race Intersections speaks powerfully to inequities. In another example, see the video of Daniel Losen (2015) of the National Educational Policy Center as he addressed members of congress about the school-to-prison-pipeline, and its relationship to school suspensions. Both of these scholars reveal how race, class, and gender intersects with disability.
Session 12: Life Stories and Perspectives of People Labeled LD
We continue to engage with issues raised in the previous session, acknowledging the mixture of positive and negative associations with special education (and by extension, the field of LD). In terms of the positive: (a) students with disabilities are guaranteed a public education; (b) parent involvement is strongly encouraged; students with disabilities have rights; (c) there exists due process; (d) a right to a fair evaluation; (e) and to receive education in the least restrictive environment. I realize for DS scholars and educators, items in this list are questionable and subject to critique. Before I share the negative aspects of special education, teacher candidates are asked to contemplate the historical, social, and cultural considerations of LD and other disabilities. I remind them that we do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, we find ourselves in a particular time and place that has been and formed—and continues to be shaped by, among other things, interconnections among (a) histories before us, (b) our cultural beliefs, and (c) our social practices and commonplace habits. It is therefore valuable to consider Special Education (including LD) in the context of history, culture, and societal mores, including how it: (a) maintains racial segregation; (b) stigmatizes difference; (c) dilutes the curriculum; (d) segregates educationally impoverished migrant and indigenous children; (e) contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline; (f) uses labeling; (g) uses structuring; (h) deals with segregation by disability; (i) uses professionalization; (j) uses institutionalization; (k) treats overreliance on interventions aimed at deficits; (l) treats adherence to intelligence testing; (m) treats the medicalization of disability, and (n) maintains a race-evasiveness. It is because of these phenomena, I argue, that we need to operate with an intersectional lens—looking at LD as it relates to other markers of identity. Bearing these points in mind, teacher candidates then share their analysis of the first-person accounts or critical scholars’ books they have read. The remainder of the semester is dedicated to student presentations, an overview of coursework, and preparation for the final exam.
Like every course, this one is a work in progress, subject to rethinking and tweaking its content, texts, activities, and assignments every time it is taught. I encourage teacher candidates’ feedback once all grades have been entered, so as not to coerce or compromise their freedom of speech. To date, although they have admitted that it is a lot of work, they only recommended I reduced the 23 Successful Dyslexics (Rooke, 2016) as a text requirement to one of the featured chapters.
In crafting this revamped edition of The Study of Learning Disabilities in Children and Adolescents program, I had my own concerns. To begin with, it is a delicate balance to work within a special education teacher education program with a DSE disposition. In some ways, we “insider-outsiders” (Connor, 2013) have known no other, and that has made our situation manageable. That said, for reasons previously outlined in this paper, I believe there is a moral obligation to engage with issues of disability and education that is not purely through the lens of special education. The question becomes, how far can we push, to insert our ideas in the mix, without negatively impacting teacher candidates, who are primed to begin their careers? In addition to preparing teacher candidates to be teachers for life, it is my obligation to help prime them for required state exams, regardless of how the discourse of disability is expressed in those documents. Additionally, even if I believe the field of Special Education is severely lacking in its embrace of diverse paradigms, I do not want teacher educators to feel bad about their career choice of supporting children and youth with disabilities. Nonetheless, I do want them to be aware of how oppressive traditional special education practices can be to children and youth, and, most importantly, to think of ways to transform those practices into more empowering ones. It is for these reasons I need to acknowledge the current reality of our society, educational systems, and the traditional aspects of Special Education—so teacher candidates can recognize, understand, and move confidently within them. In particular, teachers have great power within their own classrooms and, for some, in their schools, to reimagine and refrain much of what is in their personal domain of control, such as rejecting deficit-based notions of students, and demystifying LD to students and their families.
One of the major findings in teaching this course has been teacher candidates’ profound reactions to engaging with so many first-person narratives. I explicitly share that this is one of my goals to have them think constantly about whom is speaking for whom? Who is telling us knowledge of LD? What is that knowledge based upon? How do versions of knowledge about the same thing interanimate each other? What are some ways they may contradict each other? How do they impact what we believe? How do they influence our actions? Teacher candidates in the course who have LD get what is being done, often self-disclosing and speaking about their own experiences and thoughts—as an expert on the topic. The majority of teacher candidates are not learning disabled, and share that they had never realized the impact having a LD has upon a person. Hearing stories from the source helps them humanize the label in ways that cannot be done by definitions, statistics, and traditional research articles. The politics of representation cannot be underestimated. For those of us with a DSE disposition working in Special Education, it is important to keep pushing against ideas and concepts of disability we find damaging and oppressive, moving toward ones that are empathetic, affirming, and understanding of different contexts and multiple markers of identity. I myself have shifted from the notion of infusing knowledge to fusing knowledge, signifying from permeating to permanence. After all, DSE is no longer a new sub-discipline of DS. It should be in all courses related to disability and education because it speaks to the politics of representation, the power of presence, and need for plurality.
Like most educators revising courses, despite what I think has been a successful revamp, I still have nagging thoughts and some misgivings. Did I get the balance right? Have I been able to not throw the baby out with the bathwater, and maintain core knowledge about LD, according to both traditional and nontraditional perspectives and sources? Have I erred too heavily in keeping in many typical special education practices? Have I leaned toward overemphasizing the stories and perspectives of people with LD? Do I articulate my own thoughts about my preferences of having a DSE lens working within special education in presentations too much or too little? I speculate, to what degree does it matter what things are called if teachers better understand LD as a natural part of variation and support children and youth with that label in their academic, social, and emotional realms? Surely, just as it has been beneficial for teacher educators to be insider-outsiders within a system we seek to change and improve, won’t it be similarly beneficial for teachers? For teacher educators and researchers in DSE working within Special Education, negotiating this duality has become our professional life’s work. It is my hope that this article may be of some use to others facing similar, welcome challenges, and who may be amenable to sharing their own thinking and curricula around the problematic entanglements between DSE and the field of Special Education.
Note: If anyone would like a copy of the full syllabus, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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