Abstract

Within each socio-economic class there exist able classes, characterized by the ability to successfully access and enact their preferred capital. There also exist disabled classes of individuals who possess preferred capital, but remain unable to perform in the same manner as able bodies. In the attempt to perform accumulated knowledge and normality, the disabled individual confronts the relationship between his capital and body, his intention and ability. By examining my own classroom experience as a student with attention deficit disorder, together with research from the fields of education and disability studies, this research-based narrative reveals that preferred capital does not merely comprise cultural knowledge and social relationships, but also the ability to perform one's knowledge and desires through behavior that is valued in the classroom. In a field dominated by able-bodied individuals, the disabled body possesses "disabled capital", as preferred capital becomes compromised when housed within a disabled body.


In this essay, I will share an experience that I had in the seventh grade, in which I was segregated from the rest of the class because of a disruptive learning disability: attention deficit disorder. By closely examining this strip of experience, together with research from the fields of education and disability studies, I apply Bourdieu's theory of capital as a lens through which to better understand the role and impact of disabilities in school and society. Ultimately, this research has led me to believe that preferred capital does not merely comprise the possession of cultural knowledge and certain social relationships, but also the ability to perform one's knowledge, and enact one's desires and intentions through behavior that is approved of and valued in the field. Thus, an individual's preferred capital—comprised of knowledge, relationships, desire and intent to perform dominance and normality—becomes compromised when housed within a disabled body. In a field dominated by able-bodied individuals, the disabled body possesses disabled capital.

Each day in my seventh grade math class, located within a public school in the suburbs of Boston, I sat at a desk near the back right corner.

Figure 1

But one day, in the middle of the school year, my math teacher said to me, "Jared, from now on you're no longer allowed to sit in your usual seat. Instead, you'll sit at this big old desk against the side of the classroom. I had it brought in just for you." What my teacher really meant to say was, "Jared, your hyperactive-unable-to-focus-finger-tapping-pencil-chewing-mind-racing-thirteen-year-old-self will have to sit at this big gray metal desk against the side of the classroom." And so, from that moment on, that's where I sat. I had lost my place among the other students.

Figure 2

From my new vantage point, I did not face the teacher and the blackboard like the rest of my classmates. Instead, my teacher had positioned me to face the rows of students. I looked out at the profiles of my classmates. I saw them attentively focusing on the teacher, then tilting down to take diligent notes, and then looking up again with hands raised. A choreographed ballet of nineteen perfectly focused, wonderfully calm and quiet bodies!

With my back against the wall, I was forced to stare at the profiles of the attentive, well-focused students. I even saw the empty desk where I once sat. Looking at my old desk, I felt like a ghost in that space, observing the other students and occasionally the teacher who behaved as though they could no longer see or hear me.

I wanted to be like them. I was equipped with the capital to do it, and not just any capital, but the preferred capital of that field in the classroom. Pierre Bourdieu's body of work declares that there is no such thing as an individual who lacks capital; we've all got it in some form or another. A person may, however, lack the preferred form of cultural capital within a given field. I possessed the preferred cultural and social capital of that field, and yet my performance, and thus my presence in the classroom, remained of lesser value.

My family's socio-economic status enabled my parents to purchase a home in an affluent suburban town, which in turn, allowed me to gain entrance into a well-regarded public school system. My mother, a teacher herself, had long supported my academic endeavors and instilled in me the value and necessity of education. As part of an education-oriented, middle-class family, I was never in want of school supplies, parental help with my homework, or conversation in the home that engaged my critical thinking skills. In his essay, "The Forms of Capital," Bourdieu writes that capital "takes time to accumulate" and "contains a tendency to persist in its being" (241). My capital had been constructed throughout my childhood, internalized and lodged in my very being. My capital was thorough and persistent, and it wasn't going anywhere anytime soon.

I had the knowledge, the desire, the intention, and the motivation to be productive in the classroom, to learn as much as I could, to please my teachers and my parents with good grades, and to charge ahead toward a bright academic future. I knew what I needed to do to be accepted and successful in the classroom, and yet I was relegated to the side of the room, literally and symbolically, removed from the center to the edge of the field.

Jay MacLeod writes in Ain't No Makin' It, "By embodying class interests and ideologies, schools reward the cultural capital of the dominant classes and systematically devalue the lower classes. Upper-class students, by virtue of certain linguistic and cultural competence acquired through family upbringing, are provided with the means of appropriate for success in school" (MacLeod 14). Yet my learning disability complicated the efficacy of my accumulated, steadfast capital. I couldn't capitalize on my knowledge, on my desires, or my intentions in the field of school.

Instead of struggling to learn and adopt certain capital, I was unable to successfully perform the cultural and social capital already in my possession. As James Christian writes the article, "The Body as a Site of Reproduction and Resistance: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and the Classroom," "the student's individual body is distinguished as the locality of dysfunction… The body is cut off from the person's intentionality" (Christian 39-40). I had been jumping out of my skin all year, unable to focus, and perhaps most importantly, unable to perform the role of a focused student.

What pushed my teacher over the edge, time and time again, was my drumming. While my jumbled thoughts traveled a mile-a-minute, my pencil had the nasty habit of tapping out beats to Hendrix and Zeppelin songs. My drumming served as the soundtrack to my internal chaos. My teacher was not a fan of my pencil drumming. Although I had tried to train myself to use the eraser end of the pencil for a quieter sound, my tapping was not always a conscious behavior. My mind was a whirlwind, and at the requests of my teachers, I was later tested for and diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, which, as I discovered, resembled another one of my maladies, Irritable Bowel Syndrome—no one really knows what's going on or what causes it, but whatever it is the faulty processing needs to be sloooowed down and brought under control.

My lack of focus and relentless energy level was treated as a disease in the classroom that had to be quarantined in order to save the healthy students. But why did my teacher physically remove me from my position within the collective group? Why did he segregate me from the rest of the class? What was the deeper meaning and impact of placing me in a new position in which I sat facing the other students? Firstly, my enforced segregation enabled a visible distinction to be made between normal and abnormal, acceptable and unacceptable student behavior in the field of the classroom. The visible separation allowed the dominant group to define my behavior as deviant and abnormal in the field by isolating and removing it from themselves. Christian writes: "the body, as Bourdieu argues, is part of the transference and monitoring of hegemonic dispositions" (Christian 38). By isolating and removing me from the rows of desks, the classroom became a privileged space that demanded both the performance of normalcy and the intolerance of abnormalcy.

In the article, "Eliminating Ableism in Education," Thomas Hehir studies the educational experiences of students who are deaf, blind or visually impaired, as well as students with dyslexia. Hehir characterizes society and schools as driven by "ableist assumptions," which segregate and lower expectations for disabled individuals. Hehir describes how ableism transcends the oft- inclusionary and exclusionary, binding and divisive categories of gender, socio-economic class, and race. Hehir references the African-American disability activist Greg Smith who writes in the Essence article, "The Brother in the Wheelchair," "I've faced unintentional discrimination, and it's just as damaging as racism, but doubly painful coming from one's own race. It's called ableism, the devaluation and disregard of people with disabilities" (Smith 162). Just like disabilities themselves, perceptions of disabilities cut across traditional lines of separation and social difference, such as economic class, race, ethnicity, and capital.

In a largely homogenous school overwhelmingly composed of white children from middle-class families, my disability differentiated me from my peers in the dominant majority, and overrode the value of my preferred capital. By segregating me from the rest of the class, I performed my disability—my deviation from the norm—in a removed, yet visible space. In doing so, I demonstrated for the "normal" students the consequences, namely segregation and loneliness, of not performing the "normal" expectations in the field.

This separate, yet visible performance reinforced a clear division between normalcy and abnormality, and the value of sustaining that division, in part by rejecting any body that deviated from the norm in the field of the classroom. Being an obedient student, that is, being able to perform appropriate classroom behavior allowed one to inhabit the privileged space of the classroom, and face the privileged direction of the chalkboard, the locus of intellectual knowledge. Christian writes:

Those students who are able to sit still, pay attention, and follow directions are perceived by teachers as ready to learn; and hence, they are a step closer to being evaluated as having learned… The context of the classroom can be understood more thoroughly as a field in which body postures and movements play a part in how the individual relates to the structures and routines employed by the school and managed by the teachers. (Christian 38)

It was a privilege to occupy the same space with the same intention as the dominant, able-bodied students, and my teacher suspended that privilege, separating me from my fellow students. Christian adds, "In addition to transferring ideas, one of the primary tasks of school, as theorized in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, is to monitor and shape bodies" (Christian 31), "ADHD is a category that distinguishes those individuals whose bodies are out of control in the classroom, and are incapable of following the structured expectations and routines of that environment" (Christian 32). The disabled body performs abnormal behavior. Accordingly, the enforced segregation, and in turn, subjugation of the disabled body's performance of abnormality remains vital for the maintenance of the dominant class's definitions of normal versus abnormal, powerful versus powerless, valuable versus non-valuable.

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson writes in her essay, "The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetoric of Disability in Popular Photography," "disability functions to preserve and validate such privileged designations as beautiful, healthy, normal, fit, competent, intelligent—all of which provide cultural capital to those who can claim such status" (Garland-Thomson 73). The cultural and social capital with which I entered the classroom presumably set the stage for my success within the dominant group; however, my inability to perform my capital relegated me to a lower status. In the article, "Disability and Bodies as Bearers of Value," Claire Edwards and Robert Imrie write, "For Bourdieu, the body and its social location are interrelated, while the management of the body is core to the acquisition of status and distinction" (Edwards 240).

In addition to maintaining divisions between normal and abnormal, acceptable and unacceptable, valuable and non-valuable behavior in the field, my relocation to the side of the room specifically positioned me so that my gaze was directed at my peers, rather than at the teacher or the math lesson on the chalkboard. This position directed me to observe my classmates' performances of normalcy, presumably with the hope that I would learn to mimic their behavior. Indeed, watching my classmates from my big desk on the side of the classroom, I felt incredibly alone and inadequate to perform as a student. The classroom operated so smoothly without me. Everything was calm and the teacher didn't get angry with anyone else. Why couldn't I perform like the rest of them? They were able to behave and keep still. They were better than me. They were fully functional, highly valued citizens of the field.

With my back against the wall, I couldn't help but stare in awe and frustration at my classmates. Garland-Thomson writes, "The history of disabled people in the Western world is in part the history of being on display, of being visually conspicuous while politically and socially erased… Disabled people have variously been objects of awe, scorn, terror, delight, inspiration, pity, laughter, or fascination—but they have always been stared at" (Garland-Thomson 56). However, although students would occasionally glance over at me, it was I, the "abnormal" student, who stared at the "normal." I was the starer, and the others were the staree. (Staree, by the way, is a word that Garland-Thomson had to invent for the purposes of her investigations into staring.) But who holds the power in this situation? The starer or the staree? It seems we were both on display for each other.

Garland-Thomson adds, "Staring at disability choreographs a visual relation between a spectator and a spectacle. A more intense form of looking than glancing, glimpsing, scanning, surveying, gazing, and other forms of casual or uninterested looking, staring registers the perception of difference and gives meaning to impairment by marking it as aberrant… seldom does looking broaden to envelop the whole body of the person with a disability… Staring thus creates disability as a state of absolute difference rather than simply one more variation in human form" (Garland-Thomson 57). In my case, however, the disabled was staring at the normal. The normal, in turn, became the spectacle.

But we do not only stare at objects and people from whom we wish to remain separate. We don't always stare at spectacles of difference with the intent of keeping our distance. Staring also emerges from attraction and the desire for an intimate connection beyond eye contact. I wanted to join the others, I wanted my teacher's approval, and I wanted to better myself through learning and receiving good grades. I wanted to perform the conformity, the predictability, and calmness in front of me. And so by sitting apart from the rest of the class, the feeling of not belonging intensified, which in turn increased my desire to belong. I was both the starer and the staree, looking at my classmates, and looking back at myself through their imagined eyes.

In the book Talking Back: thinking feminist, thinking black, bell hooks writes: "One of the clear and present dangers that exists when we move outside our class of origin, our collective ethnic experience, and enter hierarchical institutions which daily reinforce domination by race, sex, and class, is that we gradually assume a mindset similar to those who dominate and oppress, that we lose critical consciousness because it is not reinforced or affirmed by the environment" (hooks 78). In that seventh grade classroom, however, I was not outside of my middle-class origins or my ethnic experiences as a white, American Jew. And so rather than adopting the dominant, oppressive attitudes that hooks references, the already internalized attitudes regarding appropriate classroom behavior only intensified and turned me against myself. hooks writes, "One of the most tragic manifestations of the pressure black people feel to assimilate is expressed in the internalization of racist perspectives. I was shocked and saddened when I first heard black professors at Stanford downgrade and express contempt for black students, expecting us to do poorly, refusing to establish nurturing bonds… Ideologically, the message is clear—assimilation is the way to gain acceptance and approval from those in power" (hooks 81). I had internalized both the view of myself as the negative, less valuable "other," and therefore desired to assimilate to the status quo and perform the expected role of a student coming from my socio-economic class, a student who "should" know how to behave and who should be able to achieve academic success.

Although the field was a mathematics classroom, my teacher did not position me to stare at math problems on the chalkboard, but rather at the other students. With my attention purposefully directed toward the other students, rather than toward my teacher and his math equations on the chalkboard, my teacher's goal seems singular, and unrelated to mathematics. I was to correct my behavior, not improve my knowledge of the curriculum. Segregated to the side of the room, I became an observer rather than a participant. Look and learn. See how they behave? In order to be worthy of facing the teacher and learning mathematics, I first had to learn from the other students. Christian writes that only "When the management of bodies is achieved, [do] teachers feel they can then begin the intended goal of engaging the students' minds in the classrooms… The managed and monitored body is intrinsic to the daily running of the school" (Christian 31). In the case of my behavioral issues, the correction of my behavior took precedent over other aspects of schooling. Indeed, Hehir describes how for many students with disabilities, "'overcoming' disability was the only valued result" (Hehir 4) in school. The correction of my deviation, the performance of capital already accumulated, was prioritized over the learning of new mathematical knowledge within the field.

My inability to perform overshadowed the preferred cultural and social capital that I possessed. The learning disability therefore complicated my privileged position within the dominant socio-economic group, and pushed me to the edges of the field within this affluent suburban public school. My performance of abnormality overrode my capital, and in turn, led to my teacher, the person with the highest status, separating me from my peers and re-directing my gaze away from the intellectual curriculum of the class.

Although the preferred capital within a field may shift over time, or even change depending on the inhabitants of the field, the dominant attitudes that define normal and abnormal, acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in a classroom, similar to the attitudes governing conduct in a courtroom, appear to remain relatively inflexible. Christian cites a 1994 report by the American Psychiatric Association, which concluded that "symptoms [of attention deficit disorders] typically worsen in situations that require sustained attention or mental effort or that lack appeal or novelty (e.g. listening to classroom teachers, doing class assignments, listening or reading lengthy materials, or working on monotonous repetitive tasks)" (Christian 32). The tension between attention deficit disorders and the dominant expectations in the classroom field appear immovable.

However, if we all possess capital, then the potential remains for all capital to be generative, despite being in conflict with the given field in which the disabled capitalist exists. Moreover, one might speculate that for every individual there is a field in which his/her capital holds a high level of value. Hehir advocates altering the language and practices of the classroom in a way that "Encourage[s] disabled students to develop and use skills and modes of expression that are most effective and efficient for them," rather than trying to have "disabled students perform in the same way that nondisabled children perform [which] can ultimately be handicapping for some students" (Hehir 23). Similarly, Christian observes that "diagnoses such as ADHD involves behaviors being treated as objects, that is, reified into properties located in the brain of particular individuals. The reified properties can be measured on some sort of scale so that individuals can be ranked by the amounts they possess" (Christian 36). For example, I had an abundance of behavior that caused the dominant group to devalue my body in the field, and set me apart from those whose bodies were better managed, and more fully able to express their capital in the classroom field. In a way, what Christian describes is the attempt to measure an individual's capital of order versus capital of disorder, or, to put it another way, an individual's "able capital" versus "disabled capital."

In middle school, I had already accumulated valuable capital for the classroom field. My pockets were chock full of valuable capital, only I couldn't spend my cultural currency, because its presentation contradicted the purpose of its own composition. In other words, if the classroom field was a vending machine, then my capital was like a dollar bill, which based on its materials should successfully purchase goods. However, if the bill is unable to flatten out and conform to the expectations of the stubborn intake slot of the machine, then the capital remains incapable of creating the desired exchange.

Thus within each socio-economic class, there exist 'able' classes, characterized by the ability to successfully access and enact one's capital through demonstrative behavior. There also exist disabled classes, whose bodies do not perform their cultural capital in the same manner as able- bodies. In the classroom and society, the disabled individual who possesses dominant forms of capital can be coerced through verbal and behavioral social cues to segregate from and define himself in relation to the dominant able-bodied class. The disabled individual thereby confronts the relationship between his own body and his capital, his ability and his intentionality, in order to identity himself among a field of other bodies, operating in a society of performance.

Works Cited

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. "The Forms of Capital." Trans. Richard Nice. Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Ed. John G. Richardson. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. 242-258.
  • Christian, James M. "The Body as a Site of Reproduction and Resistance: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and the Classroom." Interchange. 28 (1): 1997, 31-43.
  • Edwards, Claire, and Robert Imrie. "Disability and Bodies as Bearers of Value." Sociology. 37 (2): 2003. 239-256.
  • Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie. "The Politics of Staring: Visual Rhetoric of Disability in Popular Photography." Disability Studies: Enabling the Humanities. Ed. Sharon L. Snyder. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2002. 56-75.
  • Hehir, Thomas. "Eliminating Ableism in Education." Harvard Educational Review. 72 (1): 2002. 1-33.
  • hooks, bell. Talking Back: thinking feminist, thinking black. Boston: South End Press, 1989.
  • MacLeod, Jay. Ain't No Makin' It. Third Edition. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2009.
  • Smith, Greg. "The Brother in the Wheelchair." Essence. July 2001. 162.
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