Disabled people as an overlooked minority group

In this post I would like to address the readings and then I will write another to address issues that have come up for me during the in-class presentations.  As a reminder, my research this summer (and interest in general) lies in the field of Disability Studies and my stakeholders will be young people with disabilities.  A brief theoretical background of Disability Studies will help me to explain my thoughts. Ingrained in our cultural views is the idea of disability as deficit.  In Disability Studies, we call this the medical model.  The disability is a deficiency existing within the individual that should be treated in some way (whether by medication, educational intervention, etc.).  The social model of disability came about as a direct critique of the medical model.  In the social model, people with disabilities are viewed as the largest political minority in the United States and disability seen as a form of oppression (Barton, 1992). People are disabled not by any physical, cognitive, or other impairment that they might have, but rather by the physical environment, cultural attitudes, and discriminatory policies of their society.  As Len Barton says, “in a society fundamentally organized and administered by and for white able-bodies males, the position of disabled people in relation to education, work, housing, and welfare services is a matter of grave concern” (1992, p.51).  If society was more accepting of diversity, impairment would be less disabling.

Given that I am a proponent of this minority model of disability, I could not help but read disability into the Ogbu and Simons article.  It has been in the past somewhat of a contentious idea that the plight of disabled people should be compared to that of racial and ethnic minorities in this country.  However, it is important to keep in mind that the construction of disability has been and continues to be used as a tool to maintain the oppression of other minority groups.  In practice, disability is how we explain people who fall outside of the culturally constructed view of normalcy.  At different points in history, racial and ethnic minorities. poor people, and women were diagnosed and treated according to the deficit model (Baynton, 2001).  They were considered to have something wrong with them because they did not conform to the white, middle-class, male ideal of what was normal and that justified their oppression.  They same is true today for children labeled with various learning and emotional disabilities who are segregated into special classes and presented with watered-down versions of the curriculum and low expectations from their teachers and administrators.  Indeed, racial and ethnic minorities are overrepresented among the population of children in special education.

The Ogbu and Simon article discussion of involuntary minorities sheds some light on the situation of students in special education.  While I do not think it is a perfect comparison, there are certainly elements of his analysis that can apply to children labeled with disabilities.  Students with disabilities certainly often share the “dual frame of reference” in regards to education.  They view their situation, often both economic and social, as inferior to that of their able-bodies peers.  In addition, the families of students with disabilities have both historical and practical reasons to mistrust schools and other powerful institutions.  Schools have certainly not held students with disabilities to the same standards as other students, which is evident even if we just look at graduation rates (which hovers around 30% for students with disabilities).

Ogbu and Simon give advice for what teachers can do that involves building trust with students and families.  This is necessary, but for me it’s necessary to think bigger.  Gadotti says in his article that we need to treat “education as a foundation for another possible world” and for emancipation.  Nothing will change about the way we treat students with disabilities until we begin to truly embrace diversity as a culture and see it as a necessary element to the success of the human race, much as ecological diversity is necessary for the success of the planet.  I agree with Gadotti that such a shift involves social and political movement that goes beyond traditional education.

Barton, L. (1992) Disability and the necessity for a socio-political perspective. In L. Barton, K. Ballard & G. Fulcher (Eds.), Disability and the necessity for a socio-political perspective. Monograph #51. Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire Institute on Disability.

Baynton, D.C. (2001). Disability and the justification of inequality in American history. In P.K. Longmore & L. Umansky (Eds.), The new disability history: American perspectives. NY: New York University Press.