DSQ > Winter 2009, Volume 29, No.1

In this study I use critical discourse analysis to explore how one special education teacher who is informed by a sociocultural perspective of disability deconstructs disability in the way that she talks about her practice as a special educator and about her work with students who are labeled as having disabilities. By analyzing her discourse, I reveal the positioning of the teacher in relation to her school and show the importance that language plays in constructing and deconstructing disability, knowledge, and power.


Culture is historically and socially inherited and continually enacted and reenacted. It informs the way that people construct beliefs and values among other things (Varenne & McDermott, 1998). The meaning of disability, like so many other meanings within culture, is not fixed but rather is changed across time and place (Scully, 2002). Disability, as Vygotsky notes (Mahn, 2000), is produced through social interactions among people and history that give meaning to different types of impairment.

While the meaning of disability is produced through the social interactions, our society is prevalently embedded with the medical perspective of disability, which assumes people labeled as disabled are those who have problems (Barnartt, Schriner, & Scotch, 2001; Corker & Shakespeare, 2002; Reid & Valle, 2004; Thomson, 1997). In this social system, people labeled as disabled usually have unfavorable representation on themselves. Moreover, many people argue that the meaning of disability is scientific and that people labeled as disabled have problems and these people need to be remediated (Sternberg & Grigorenko, 2001). However, as a Disability Studies scholar, I challenge the conventional assumptions on the construct of disability, and would argue that the construct of disability is temporary and can change across time as Scully (2002) mentions.

In this study, I present how Amy (pseudonym), a special education teacher, who is informed by a sociocultural perspective of disability, deconstructs disability in the way that she struggles with a school which has conventional assumptions about disability.

This study uses a critical discourse analysis (CDA) to explore how Amy talks about her practice as a special educator and her work with students who are labeled as having disabilities. By analyzing Amy's discourse, I reveal how the teacher positions and constructs her discourse in relation to her school and I show the importance of language in constructing and deconstructing disability, knowledge, and power.

The Discursive Construction of Disability

Discourse refers to any spoken and written language in use as social practice related to it and that supports it (Fairclough, 1989). Furthermore, Fairclough claims that "the coherence of discourse is dependent on discoursal common sense," which is "ideological to the extent that it contributes to sustaining unequal power relations" (p. 107). He suggests that all ideologies are not naturally commonsensical, but are selected from struggles among ideologically diverse discourses and become naturalized through common-sense. For example, we commonly treat the attributes of disability as essential and timeless, but the attributes of disability are actually constructed within particular social and cultural circumstances that classify people labeled as disabled as abnormal (Dudley-Marling, 2004; Reid & Valle, 2004). Accordingly, contrasts such as "black/white" and "abled/disabled" are not natural phenomena, but socially constructed dichotomies that serve to position people according to what appear as self-evident differences. In this sense, disability is not given, but made (Rice, 2002). People are, of course, different from each other. Disability, though, can be described as the effect of discursively embedded negative perceptions of people with differences and the subsequent exercise of restrictions of activity that privilege those who are deemed as abled. Because people who meet the contemporary standard of normalcy, that is, abled people overwhelmingly control social-cultural discourses, people with differences are often positioned as having less power over the discourses that construct them as disabled to begin with (Fairclough, 1989). Thus, disability is a power-laden construct that upholds the privilege of the abled majority.

Sociocultural perspective of disability

Normalcy and disability are not formed by objective facts, but constructed through existing sociocultural interactions and their discourses (Peters, Klein, & Shadwick, 1998). In the sociocultural perspective, disability does not exist as objectivity because the phenomena that constitute the definition of disability are socially, culturally, historically, and politically "constructed and constantly negotiated" (Scully, 2002, p. 51). However, because the identity and culture of disability are also "always-already constituted from social and political discursive action" (Titchkosky, 2002, p. 102), disability manifests in language as an objective fact. The perception of the true nature of disability as objectivity is produced through discursive traditions that persist over time through the transmission of culture through history and social interaction. Although we may know that some knowledge would be false, we accept this knowledge as truth without rational reasons (Berger & Luckman, 1966; Burr, 2003). For instance, teachers and students often enter discursive contexts that are already dominated by the scientific, medical, and psychological perspectives of disability (Allan, 1999). In other words, as teachers and students talk and act according to an objective construction of disability, they will often sustain and reproduce the "fact" of disability and perpetuate an ideology of deficit.

In contrast, in its application to education, Disability Studies scholars identify that the discursive practices of labeling people as having disabilities position people labeled as disabled as less powerful in schools and society (e.g., Collins, 2003; Danforth & Rhodes, 1997; Reid & Valle, 2004). I agree with these Disability Studies scholars that the term "disabled" does indeed position individuals labeled as disabled as less powerful in schools and society. As some students are positioned as "disabled" through the structures and instruments that essentially work to define and identify normal and abnormal, they may adopt a disabled identity as "disabled," which interferes with their ability, or agency, to disrupt the dominant discourse. This positioning does not diminish the agency that labeled students can enact to transgress their construction as disabled, as Allan (1999) points out, but they are nevertheless acting within and in opposition to a dominating discourse that defines them according to its structures, whatever their wishes may be.

Among structures and instruments teachers also construct disability through their ideologies and everyday experiences as they exercise their beliefs about students as they teach (Collins, 2003). Collins (2003) provides an extended example of how Laura, a classroom teacher, constructs disability in her practice. In this example, the teacher views her students through already constructed images of disability and in doing so, creates a classroom context that positions particular students as unable to achieve success. Their subsequent failure then confirms her initial perception and reifies her student as disabled. Laura's beliefs are constructed through the social values that circulate widely in school and societal discourses. Like Laura's beliefs about students labeled as disabled through already constructed images, society often does not look at the abilities which people labeled as disabled possess and assumes people labeled as disabled as less abled or even having no ability. For example, Kliewer, Biklen, and Kasa-Hendrickson (2006) indicate that society often considers people labeled as disabled as illiterate despite these people's "evidences of literate" ability (p. 176).

Like students, teachers too can resist the dominant, conventional discourse. A sociocultural perspective suggests that disability can be constructed as merely another marker of diversity in the human range of variation. Students labeled as disabled can be valued for their differences and constructed as whole people, rather than viewed through the lens of their disability (Stiker, 1999). Danforth and Rhodes (1997), for example, provide evidence that the way teachers talk about disability can work to deconstruct students as disabled. By carefully choosing positive words to discuss students who have difficulty in the school setting, teachers can resist constructing students as deficient and choose instead language that empowers and respects students' differences as anticipated, natural aspects of whole people.

Analytic Process

I conducted two one-hour open-ended interviews with questions designed to enable Amy, a teacher who aligned herself with a sociocultural perspective of disability, to talk about her teaching practice with students labeled as disabled. Amy was a White, non-disabled, middle-class woman who had over 10 years of experiences teaching in the United States, and was in her 2nd and final year teaching in a specialized school for students who were labeled as having autism and other disabilities on the autistic spectrum. In addition to working as a special education teacher, Amy was a doctoral student who worked in Disability Studies. I attempted to understand Amy's ideas and practices surrounding the education of students labeled as disabled both as a special educator and a graduate student.

Transcript analysis

CDA (Critical discourse analysis) is defined as "fundamentally concerned with analyzing opaque as well as transparent structural relationships of dominance, discrimination, power and control as manifested in language" (Wodak, 2001, p. 2). It explores social inequality with a critical perspective on discourse, and questions how people obtain and maintain power in a society. CDA problematizes production and reproduction of power by dominant people (van Dijk, 2001) and in this case, it helps us analyze how teachers, in their position of power over students, can deconstruct and construct the seeming objectivity of disability.

I follow Fairclough (1989) by employing a three-dimensional framework for analyzing and conceiving of discourse: text, discursive practice, and social context. Discourse-as-text is divided as a written text and a spoken text, and is comprised of concrete instances of discourse through linguistic features and organization. Discourse-as-discursive-practice refers to discourse that is produced, circulated, distributed, and consumed in society. Discourse-as-social-context refers to the ideology and hegemony surrounding discursive practice. I analyze discourse on each level according to three linguistic features: vocabulary, grammar, and textural structures. I also analyze discourse in three different levels. I analyze text as basic concept of discourse, discursive practice as larger concept of discourse, and social context as the largest concept of discourse. I analyze how each level of analysis interacts with one another through each example that I present. For example, I analyze text itself by using discourse-as-text, discourses penetrating each example by using discourse-as-discursive-practice, and ideology and hegemony surrounding discursive practice.

Amy's View

The sociocultural perspective and disability studies

Earlier, I described the sociocultural perspective of disability. I anticipated, however, that each individual interprets his/her application to research and education through subjective lens. Amy defines her own conceptualization of the sociocultural perspective as it relates to her practice as a teacher:

… I guess the way I see the sociocultural perspective is taking into account the unique perspective background um, culture, ethnicity, everything that makes the child who they are and acknowledging that in any given classroom there's gonna be a variety of kids coming from a variety of perspectives and to be able to sort of mine that, mine their strengths as, as, building on the curriculum it's the way always I kind of envisioned that.

Amy views her students as whole beings who possess a variety of strengths and unique backgrounds. Her use of the metaphor "mine their strengths" constructs, in some ways, students' strengths as hidden and requiring effort to uncover and use, but as possessing inherent value. Amy's view of the sociocultural perspective is consistent with my description in that Amy views her students labeled as disabled in terms of their various "backgrounds um, culture, ethnicity, [and] everything that makes the child who they are." She sees them as whole people with identities that transcend an objective view of disability as deficit. She believes that teachers need to acknowledge "that in any given classroom there's gonna be a variety of kids coming from a variety of perspectives." We may connect this view with Stiker's (1999) notion of bringing difference into the frame of the norm or, in other words, viewing diversity as a pervasive feature of humanity.

In the next statement, Amy more explicitly connects her classroom practice to the positioning of people labeled as disabled in society:

So I don't see, I don't see them as disabled, I mean, I really do believe that this society disables them because they, we do a pretty good job in our classroom, meaning myself and my teaching team in our tiny little microcosm (laugh) of setting that we are just creating [an] environment that's really open, and really accepting and tolerant, and, uh, and yeah, accepting (laugh).

In this example, Amy tries to disrupt the notion of disability as a matter of objectivity and notes that she does not see students as "disabled" and believes that "society disables them." She contrasts the notion of disability by constructing a non-disabling environment as one that is "really open," "really accepting and tolerant." Although Amy critiques disabling society and tries to use different words to express her beliefs about disability, she is not free from dominant discourses and thoughts on disability. She exercises the deficit model of disability while thinking about her students. For example, her statement, "really accepting and tolerant," is problematic and oppressive because she exercises power over students labeled as disabled. She seems to consider her position as more powerful than students labeled as disabled, and mentions that she can accept and tolerate students labeled as disabled. Her wording in "tiny little microcosm" signals Amy's belief, however, that she is operating to disrupt the norm and to workin opposition to the "society that disables them."

Amy operates from a non-dominant perspective, which focuses on creating environments and contexts in which students can be valued in their wholeness, rather than devalued based on disability identification. She perceives her students as disabled by society, and claims agency over being able to reconstruct their microcosm as one in which students are valued because of their unique, but often unrecognized strengths. Although Amy operates from a non-dominant perspective, she was not completely free from a dominant discourse on disability. Amy calls her students labeled as disabled as "them." Even though she might use "them" to stress the relation between society and students labeled as disabled, I assume that she is somewhat influenced by the discourse of disabling society.

Negotiating competing discourses

Reclaiming the vocabulary of disability is a significant element in the Disability Studies field in which ownership over words has become symbolic of ownership over identity. While people labeled as disabled were once heckled by words such as "cripple" or "gimp," these terms are now used as self-identifiers by people labeled as disabled to symbolize reclamation of power (Linton, 1998). If, as I claim, language is a construct of power and through its use it signifies power, then close attention to the role that vocabulary plays in our talk about disability is necessary.

We can use vocabulary as a way to distinguish between different disability discourses. The medical discourse, for example, tends to use a clinical vocabulary, rife with nominalizations and scientific jargon. It utilizes terms that are rooted in medicine and psychology such as "diagnosis," "referral," "identification," "deficit," and also refers to terms that imply cohesion through medical diagnoses such as "population." The bureaucracies of medicine and educational psychology that use such jargon often remain unnamed, which works to communicate authority and the perception of neutrality through science. While normalcy is hidden and unnamed in the society, abnormality is named in various ways. We name some students who are considered as having disabilities through names such as autism, mental retardation, and learning disabilities. However, we do not name some students who are not considered having disabilities. Nondisabled students remain unnamed, and are considered "the taken-for-granted 'nature' of … ablebodieness and ability and so on" (Graham and Slee, 2007, p. 11). For example, in discussing a "diagnosed disability," we rarely attribute agency to the psychologist or medical doctor who delivers the diagnosis, and even more rarely call to question the clinical ideology within which such professionals work. We rather take for granted the authoritative connotation that "diagnosis," assumed scientific, and hence neutral, implies.

In contrast, a Disability Studies perspective problematizes the medical identification of people as disabled, which construes disability as a condition that afflicts individual people through an ideology of deficit (Thomas, 1999), and prefers vocabulary that prioritizes individual experience and description that is related to unique contexts, rather than commonalities assumed from a disability "diagnosis." For example, claiming a disability identity, rather than being identified as disabled, indicates ownership over group membership. Further, replacing the term, deficit, with difference, is not necessarily a change rooted in desire to be "politically correct," but signals a conceptual shift from marking individuals based on a perception of deficiency as the undesirable opposite of "normal" to perceiving disability as part of the range of differences pervasive in the human palette. Further, a Disability Studies vocabulary rejects the sweeping generalization that a notion of a "population" of people with a particular characteristic implies. Rather than describe a particular impairment in terms of afflicting a "population," a Disability Studies vocabulary might instead, strive to focus on the common experience of a group of people who are discriminated against en masse precisely because of the notion of the medical "population." The difference may be subtle, but such is the nature of power as it is embedded and perceived within language.

Throughout the interview, the language Amy uses to describe her students shifts to disrupt the medical discourse of disability:

Example One

… I found a job in a school for kids with autism, and, um, spectrum, the whole spectrum of autism disorders, as they say, as the teacher of the oldest kids in the school.

In this initial description of her teaching position, Amy anticipates and disrupts the assumed hyponymy between autism and disorder by adding the clause, "as they say." By acknowledging that there are "they" who might assume autism to be disorder, Amy uses this phrase to position herself and her usage as separate from what "they" say. This description took place in the beginning of the interview during which I was establishing the relational context of the interview. Amy was trying to determine the type of vocabulary to use that would express common meaning and also express her beliefs. By deferring to the language of the medical discourse, we might assume that Amy perceives this dominant discourse as the "common" language of disability. Throughout the interview as Amy talks further about her school setting she utilizes a variety of other terms to describe and discuss her students. I present the next set of examples in the order that they appear in the transcript to highlight the different language Amy uses. I have put the descriptive terms in italics to make apparent my points of analysis:

Example Two

We had to do tons of these meetings… child study overly focusing, in my opinion, overly focusing on kids', um, you know, quote/unquote faults…

In example two, Amy employs a technique, similar to that in example one, where she includes the clauses, "quote/unquote" to position her use of the term "fault" as the words of others. Amy uses clauses to indicate the common usage of a term, but her disagreement with its use. For example, Amy's use of the clauses "as they say" and "quote/unquote" in examples one and two indicates that she wouldn't use the terms "disorders" or "faults" despite their common use in her setting.

Example Three

Yeah, um, I suppose, just a general level of respect for kids, as people and, regardless of their quirkiness. Or, you know, basically the essence of who they are is sort of picked on and, um, and not just overly focusing on their faults (which is done on a daily basis that's why this school is there), um, but you know, the, the kind of subtle jokes, eye-rolling, stuff like that.

In this example, "the essence of who they are" shows that how much Amy possesses the deficit model of disability while pursuing deconstruction of disability. Amy materializes students labeled as disabled as those who really exist. However, Stiker (1999) states that disability is merely constructed in the society which labels somebody as disabled and does not really exist outside disabling society.

In addition, "faults" is construed in a synonymous relationship with autism and disorder since "that's why this school [specialized for autism] is there." This synonymy, however, is laden with expressive value. Amy's replacement of the term "disorder" in example one with "fault" in examples two and three could be interpreted as euphemistic. As Amy notes "really accepting and tolerant" and "the essence of who they are," she uses the word "fault" to describe her students' characteristics. The selection of these words implies that Amy still exercises the deficit discourse while expressing and thinking about students labeled as disabled through the social model of disability. Nevertheless, Amy uses her vocabulary and descriptions of her students to disrupt the medical categorization of her students as disordered in favor of one that describes them with a less-medicalized set of descriptors. My next examples further illustrate my analysis:

Example Four

Researcher: So, so what would, how would you describe your personal perspective on disability on your kids?

Amy: Um, my kids are so much fun. They are very, um- eccentric and you know, they're- they have diagnosed disabilities but, I mean, it's human variation I, I view all of them as just — different expression of, of humanity, I mean, they're, all there within my class and I only have nine kids they're all incredibly different from one another. They're all kind of put in that classroom because they have Aspergers which is an even more detailed of subset of autism, but, um, even with the nine there is huge variation and the personality is, in their, um, their ability to, it just, you know, their aptitude for different things- capacities and stuff like that.

Amy's initial statement in example four is complex: She first describes her students as "eccentric" and then implies synonymy between "eccentric" and their status as having "diagnosed disabilities," and then subordinates this clause by explaining that it's "human variation" and later, "different expressions of humanity." These expressions show how much Amy struggles with her conceptions of disability which are often conflicting. She states disability in very medical terminologies such as "diagnosed disabilities," but also expresses disability in less-medicalized terms such as "variation" and "different." That they "have Aspergers" is also connected with the subordinate clause, "but, um, even within the nine there is huge variation…." The overall effect is a complex shifting among different discourses in which Amy's struggle is embedded to subvert medicalized vocabulary, but is always tempered by her need to use it in relation to school contexts and school talk. It is important also to note that the less-medicalzied terms of "human variation" and "eccentric" are subordinate to the medical terms, "diagnosed disabilities" and "Aspergers." The subordination of what we may describe as non-medical terminology reveals once again the dominance of the medical terminology. She further explains:

… I can't get around using those labels. I mean there's just, I can't- um… And you know its hard I mean, we try to be, and credit given to the school that I'm in, there's a lot of great things about it, they do try to focus on the whole child but it's still within this environment that is clearly reductionist and medicalized.

Throughout the interview Amy uses several terms, "autism disorders," "faults," "eccentric," "diagnosed disabilities," and "Aspergers" to describe her students and their disabilities, each of which carry an expressive value related to a variety of discourses. The position of each term in relation to the contextual arrangements of her statements reveals Amy's beliefs as she aligns each use of term with a discursive tradition. For example, when Amy uses terms such as "disorder," "autism," and "Aspergers," she uses them in relation to her school context and invokes the terms that the school uses to define them: "Aspergers" relates to why the students were "put in that classroom," she found a job in a school that is for "autism." In these cases Amy is referring her knowledge acquired from the experiences for the school's use of the terms. The negativity inherent in the term "fault" is also constructed in terms of her experience in the previously quoted "child study" meeting. As Amy talks more directly about her personal beliefs about her students, markedly so in example four, she brings her own perspective to the description by initially remarking that her "kids are so much fun," initiating a description that is based on her experience, which immediately marks the answer to this question as more personally aligned with her own belief in sociocultural practice. The shift from medical terms (e.g. disorder) to terms that are more neutral personality descriptors that are not confined to their use with students labeled as disabled (e.g. eccentric) shows the discourses through which Amy talks about her students.

I interpret Amy's position as caught between the competing discourse of the sociocultural perspective of disability and the medical discourse of the school and society. She actively seeks to acknowledge and disrupt the power of the medical discourse in her practice by consistently positioning herself as separate from "they/them," who represent the dominant discourse of school.

I have spent much time focusing on the language used to describe students because it is the act of labeling as the marker of disability that holds so much power. In these passages it becomes clear that Amy is actively trying to subvert the vocabulary of the medical discourse, but does so with constant recognition and subordination to the authority of that medical discourse. Such recognition leads us to closer analysis of Amy's position in her school and how she perceives her own position as powerful or powerless.

The circulation of power

I present, first, the full text of Example Two:

Um, I think, I since my starting day there — - I had a really difficult time just the intensity of all the child study teams that they have at this school: There is a psychologist, there is a social skills expert, there is a um, there, several different types of therapists and the principal, and everybody comes. We had to do tons of these meetings… child study overly focusing, in my opinion, overly focusing on kids', um, you know, quote/unquote faults and really I feel like, at these meetings I am the one person who's constantly- like, at least, first and foremost saying. But let's acknowledge that this kid has come so far since… And that, you know, that I even have to say that, I mean, there is just like some basic qualities that are not appreciated in these kids. It's, there is little jokes made, there is, uh…

In this section Amy characterizes the psychologist, the social skills expert, different types of therapists, and the principal as "everybody" in opposition to her. It is worthy to note that "everybody" is the school personnel who are deemed experts according to a medical (e.g. psychologist and therapists) or bureaucratic discourse (e.g. the principal) in the education of students labeled as disabled. Although she claims membership within this expert group, marked by her use of "we," she also perceives herself as "the one person "bringing a different and more positive experience of her students. She further defines her separation in a later statement in which she explains that, "… that's just the contention that will be there between me and them, I'm sure, for as long as I'm there."

The segregated school was not Amy's first choice. Amy's decision to work at that school was, in fact, due to financial and document issues. She needed a job as soon as possible and the public schools she wanted to apply to needed all the paperwork in order before even having a conversation with her. Thus, Amy could not afford to wait until mid-fall to seek a teaching position. Although Amy worked at a segregated school rather than an inclusive school, she did not merely follow the school environment which was embedded in the medical perspective.

In addition to her construction of herself as the "one person," Amy also describes the "intensity" of the child study team meetings, where "everybody" comes and which is compounded by her participation in "tons" of them. The expressive value of these terms implies that Amy views the meetings as oppressive and perhaps, excessive. That Amy sees these meetings as oppressive is significant, as she is contracted to monitor her students to reinforce their abnormalcy. Because her beliefs are discordant with the school, her feelings of oppression are in relation to the power structure that she acts against. Amy further provides information about her position in the school:

And there is, you know, there is quite [a] knowledge-base among other professionals there about autism and lots of resources, and lots of community outreach, and stuff like that. Um, and lots of parent involvement which is great, but it just feels like it's very one-sided, like there is no open door to inclusion. We'll say, that [inclusion], there is-isn't really brought up there and if it is, it's in a light that of, "No, it doesn't work." Period! You don't, you don't bring it up. If I want to talk about a school that has an inclusion program that I think is, would be great or successful with other kids with diagnoses like our kids, it's a kind of, I am looked at as a troublemaker. That's my perception. And, and I know that — - recommendations I made probably will not be followed through on.

In this example, Amy begins the statements by connecting "knowledge" with professionals and then uses a subordinate clause to introduce her opinion that the "knowledge" is "one-sided." She then directly denotes the power by saying that "you" don't talk about "inclusion," which she constructs as the other side of the knowledge base. While "you" refers to an unnamed collective, it uses language that implies an unspoken rule that applies to everyone across the school, symbolic of an oppressive situational context imposed by those with the knowledge base. Amy then introduces her own agency by saying. "If I want to talk about school that has an inclusion program…." This is quickly followed by the belief that her recommendations "will not be followed through on," and highlights the perception of Amy's lack of power to effect change within meetings and with professionals who have the "knowledge-base" that counts. Knowledge, here, is aligned with power. Those who have the "knowledge-base" have the power to effect change. She, in contrast, perceives herself as someone who wants to effect change but recognizes others' views of her positions as that of a "troublemaker" who agitates for change. She ultimately does not believe that change will happen because of predominance of other professionals' united, medicalized thinking.

Throughout my analysis, I have provided examples to show Amy's negotiation of the school discourses as complex and at times, contradictory. Amy sometimes tries to express disability in different ways, but she is still controlled by the medical discourse that constructs her students as disordered and faulty. For example, in her struggle to think about her students in different ways, she uses terms such as "faulty." In other words, Amy is still negotiating the medical discourse and the discourse of social model. Amy is also constrained both by her position as a teacher, which simultaneously is construed as less powerful than other professionals, but more powerful than students, and by her need to use particular kinds of language in relation to varying contexts in order to be credible. Because her knowledge is not construed as powerful enough to effect change, Amy is positioned and positions herself on the outside of the dominant discourse in her school. Nevertheless, Amy leaves us with a hopeful message:

I'm starting to find more, comfort in, um, I guess being this voice of alternative reason and I think- I've complained a lot about working in an exclusive setting, but I feel that I've been able to do a lot of work there. And not just the teaching and not just the kids but in getting a voice out to other professionals.

Conclusion and Discussion

Amy represents just one teacher who actively seeks to disrupt the way that students labeled as disabled are constructed in terms of a negative perception of disability. Through her talk and descriptions of her teaching practice as trying to create an accepting and tolerant context that utilizes students strengths and values them in their diversity, Amy provides us with an idea of how education should be. Similar to the work of Danforth and Rhodes (1997), this analysis provides examples of how the way that students are talked about works to construct students as disabled and how we can also work to construct them as able.

I, like Amy, am optimistic as I look into the future. The present day conceptions of disability are not natural, but the result of the past can be transformed as another conception (Rice, 2002; Scully, 2002). As teachers adopt and use language that constructs students as able, then so they may be conceived. Amy believes that her formal education in Disability Studies and sociocultural perspective has informed her way of thinking and talking about disability, which has subsequently informed her teaching practice. By incorporating Disability Studies into teacher education and preparation programs we can better prepare teachers to create educational contexts in which disability is no longer a site of oppression. Although I am cognizant of the work I must do to disrupt the power-embedded discourses of disability identification and surveillance in schools, I believe that teachers like Amy symbolize the potential to effect change, even when they are discursively positioned as less powerful. We all need agency to act against authority, rather than collude with our roles as the bystanders of students labeled as disabled.

If discourses, as I argue here, construct knowledge and power, changing the discourses of schools has the potential to re-define the identities and experiences of people labeled as disabled and society in schools. It is important to make apparent the power that circulates in schools and which is maintained to identify students as disabled and subsequently limit their access to power. I hope that by bringing the workings of power to the surface, teachers can better position themselves to act against the oppressive regime of disability construction in schools.

Works Cited

  • Allan, J. (1999). Actively seeking inclusion: Pupils with special needs in mainstream schools. London: Falmer Press.
  • Barnartt, S., Schriner, K., & Scotch, R. (2001). Advocacy and political action. In G. L. Albrecht, K. D. Seelman, & M. Bury (Eds.), Handbook of disability studies (pp. 430-449). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
  • Berger, P. & Luckman, T. (1966). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
  • Burr, V. (2003). (2nd ed.). Social constructionism. New York: Routledge.
  • Collins, K. M. (2003). Ability profiling and school failure: One child's struggle to be seen as competent. London: Laurence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.
  • Corker, M. & Shakespeare, T. (2002). Disability/postmodernity: Embodying disability theory. New York: Continuum.
  • Danforth, S. & Rhodes, W. C. (1997). Deconstructing disability: A philosophy for inclusion. Remedial and Special Education, 18(6), 357-366.
  • Dudley-Marling, C. (2004). The social construction of learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 37(6), 482-489.
  • Fairclough, N. (1989). Language and power. New York: Longman
  • Graham, L. J. & Slee, R. (2007). An illusory interiority: Interrogating the discourse/s of inclusion. Educational Philosophy and Theory (OnlineEarly Articles), 1-17.
  • Kliewer, C, Biklen, D, & Kasa-Hendrickson, C. (2006). Who may be literate? Disability and resistance to the cultural denial of competence. American Educational Research Journal, 43(2), 163-192.
  • Linton, S. (1998). Claiming disability: Knowledge and identity. New York: New York University Press.
  • Mahn, H. (2000). Vygotsky's methodological contribution to sociocultural theory. Remedial and Special Education, 20(6), 341-350.
  • Peters, S., Klein, A., & Shadwick, C. (1998). From our voices: Special education and the "alter-eagle" problem. In B. M. Franklin (Ed.). When children don't learn: Student failure and the culture of teaching (pp.99-115). New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Reid, D. K., & Valle, J. W. (2004). The Discursive Practice of Learning Disability: Implications for Instruction and Parent-School Relations, Journal of Learning Disabilities, 37(6), 466-81.
  • Rice, S. (2002). The social construction of "disabilities": the role of law. Educational Studies (American Educational Studies Association), 33(2), 169-180.
  • Scully, J. L. (2002). A postmodern disorder: Moral encounters with molecular models of disability. In M. Corker & T. Shakespeare (Eds.), Disability/postmodernity: Embodying disability theory. (pp. 48-61). New York: Continuum.
  • Sternberg, R. J. & Grigorenko, E. L. (2001). Learning disabilities, schooling, and society. Phi Delta Kappan, 83(4), 335-338.
  • Stiker, H. (1999). A history of disability (trans, W. Sayers). Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press.
  • Thomas, C. (1999). Female forms: Experiencing and understanding disability. Philadelphia: Open University Press.
  • Thomson, R. G. (1997). Extraordinary bodies: Figuring physical disability in American culture and literature. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Titchkosky, T. (2002). Cultural maps: Which way to disability? In M. Corker & T.
  • Shakespeare (Eds.), Disability/postmodernity: Embodying disability theory. (pp. 101-111). New York: Continuum.
  • Stiker, H. (1999). A history of disability (trans, W. Sayers). Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press.
  • van Dijk, T. (2001). Multidisciplinary DCA: a plea for diversity. In R. Wodak & M. Meyer (Eds.). Methods of critical discourse analysis (pp. 95-120). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Varenne, H., & McDermott, R. (1998). Successful Failure: The schools America builds. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  • Wodak, R. & Meyer, M. (Eds.). (2001). Methods of critical discourse analysis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Return to Top of Page

Copyright (c) 2009 Jong-Gu Kang

Volume 1 through Volume 20, no. 3 of Disability Studies Quarterly is archived on the Knowledge Bank site; Volume 20, no. 4 through the present can be found on this site under Archives.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact libkbhelp@lists.osu.edu.

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)