"Why is There Learning Disabilities?" — Revisiting Christine Sleeter's Socio-political Construction of Disability Two Decades On

Submission deadline: February 1, 2009

Projected publication date: Spring 2010

Co-editors: David J. Connor & Beth A. Ferri

It has been just over 20 years since the publication of Christine Sleeter's, Why is there learning disabilities? A critical analysis of the birth of the field in its social context. In this germinal publication, Sleeter argues that the category of LD emerged to fulfill a particular political and economic purpose during the Cold War threats to U.S. supremacy. She writes that the category of LD enabled parents

to differentiate and protect white middle class children who were failing in school from lower class and minority children, during a time when schools were being called upon to raise standards for economic and military purposes (1987, p. 212).

According to Sleeter, the category of LD allowed schools to explain the failure of white middle class children, who were having a difficult time dealing increased expectations for achievement, in ways that did not threaten white supremacy or the presumed worthiness of middle class children, their homes, or their families.

The prescience of Sleeter's argument to the emergence of disability studies in education is obvious. She writes that "rather than being a discovery of science," LD is a constructed category that allowed schools to maintain "race and class stratification., but in a way that appears to be based on innate human variation and objective assessment of individual characteristics" (p. 234). Sleeter's analysis was also one of the first to connect the construction of LD with racial and social class oppression — a topic that is still under theorized today.

Although Sleeter locates the emergence of the category of LD in the context of the Cold War era of industrial and military expansion, the U.S. is once again experiencing an increased emphasis on standards in education. Then, as now, we see an escalation of concern over academic ranking of children in the U.S. compared to other countries. Then, as now, the U.S. faces a threat to its status as the primary political power in the world. Then, and now, the government is responding to these challenges with an increased focus on raising standards.

The purpose of this special issue of DSQ is to revisit Sleeter's ideas about the construction of LD (and, by implication, the construction of disabilities, "school-based" and otherwise), while bringing her work in conversation with contemporary debates and analyses within disability studies and disability studies in education.

Structure of Issue

The issue will begin with a reprinting of Sleeter's 1987 article (pending necessary permission), or an introductory article by Sleeter where she revisits her earlier article and puts it in a contemporary context. Each contributor will be asked to build on or engage with Sleeter's original work in some way.

  • Sleeter, C. E. (1987). Why is there learning disabilities? A critical analysis of the birth of the field with its social context. In T. S. Popkewitz (Ed.), The foundations of the school subjects. (pp. 210-237). London: Palmer Press.

Potential Themes and Prompts

Some potential themes that could be developed in the issue are listed below in no particular order:

  • In what ways do children and youth who receive the same label of LD have very different school experiences based on class and/or race?
  • How is the renewed emphasis on "evidenced-based" practice and "scientific research" in relation to teaching methods recommended for students LD reinforcing medicalized conceptions of disability?
  • What can be learned by exploring the discourse regarding the unfettered growth of LD in schools (representing 50% of all children with disabilities)?
  • How has the expansion of the LD diagnoses given rise to a burgeoning LD industry involving professional certifications, professional specializations (i.e. school psychologists, educational evaluators, therapists, counselors), professional organizations, conferences, publications, commercially made materials, specialized schools, international and national networks, powerful lobbyists, test preparation, learning centers, etc.
  • How has Response to Intervention (RTI) been touted as a tool to stem the flow of increasing numbers of students with LD? How does RTI reinforce traditional notions of LD and traditional modes of instructional delivery?
  • What are the social and political aspects of LD?
  • In what ways are public schools unprepared and inhospitable to children with dyslexia and other learning disabilities?
  • What is the impact of increased and seemingly relentless emphasis on standards for students labeled LD? In what ways has international academic competition changed?
  • In what ways are LD and inclusive education at odds with standards. For example, the New York City public school system has policies such as 'Failing to Meet the Criteria' for grade promotion that results in grade retention of students with LD, despite their documented disability and that research has consistently proven a correlation with dropping out.
  • Why are such high numbers of students with LD dropping out of school?
  • How might a DSE understanding (or understandings) of LD be articulated?
  • What can be gained by using the concept of LD to unpack and critique the concept of intellectual/academic/cognitive normalcy?
  • What is to be made of the history of LD, traditional and alternative(s), since Sleeter's account published over 20 years ago?
  • How does class and race still significantly play into LD?
  • In what ways is LD arguably marginalized in the hierarchy of disability within DS?
  • How has the increased interest and growth of other categories that merge/overlap with LD such as ADD, ADHD, Asperger's Syndrome, BD/ED, Gifted and LD complicate or change concepts of LD/disability?
  • Why does LD continue to be stigmatized to the extent that it is?


We invite articles from a wide range of potential contributors in the fields of critical special education and disability studies, including both established and emerging scholars. We also seek a variety of stakeholder perspectives, such as educators, students, parents, other professionals, policy-makers, and individuals who identify as learning disabled. All manuscripts will be peer reviewed. Both scholarly and creative work will be featured in the issue.

Manuscripts must be in the form of a Word document and:

  • Have a cover page that includes the author's name, institutional affiliation, and contact information (e-mail, telephone number, and address)
  • Have an abstract of 100-150 words
  • Be between 3,000-6,000 words in length (approximately 10-20 double spaced pages)
  • Provide full references for all citations
  • Include a brief bio of the author (50-100 words)
  • Adhere to general DSQ guidelines: http://www.dsq-sds.org/DPubS?service=UI&version=1.0&verb=Display&page=guidelines&handle=osul.dsq

If you prefer to submit a hard copy of your article, it should be typed on one side of letter size white paper, double-spaced throughout, including the reference section. Please enclose four (4) copies in an envelope postmarked by February 1, 2009 to Dr. David J. Connor, Room 917W, Department of Education, Hunter College, 695 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10065.

Please send manuscripts in electronic form to both dconnor@hunter.cuny.edu and baferri@syr.edu by February 1, 2009. If you have any questions, please contact David or Beth at the e-mail address above.

Projected Timeline
February 1, 2009Submission of papers for review
July 1, 2009Papers returned to authors for revisions
Oct 1, 2009Revised papers sent to editors
Dec 1, 2009Papers returned to authors for further revisions (as needed)
Jan 15, 2010All revised papers (as needed) sent to editors
Feb 15, 2010Papers ready for copyediting by DSQ
Spring 2010Special edition of DSQ

CFP: Special Issue of Disability Studies Quarterly on Autism

Submission deadline: Jan. 1 2009

Projected publication date: Summer 2010

Co-editors: Emily Thornton Savarese, University of Iowa, and Ralph James Savarese, Grinnell College

We are looking for completed articles, from a disability studies perspective, on what the medical community refers to as ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). We are especially interested in pieces that engage the so-called "low-functioning" end of the spectrum, where increasingly those presumed retarded and lacking social awareness are writing back to the empire of science. As the field of disability studies has theorized cognitive difference, it has had to refine its cherished social-constructionist approach, making sure to account for physiological distinctiveness in the organ of sensibility, a distinctiveness that has been interpreted in a myriad of ways, most quite prejudicial. We are interested in the burgeoning neurodiversity movement, which has self-consciously resisted such prejudicial interpretations, often revealing the "science" of autism to be anything but reliable and objective. How to talk about autistic difference? How to represent it? How to convey its gifts and challenges? Who can talk about it? What role should parents play in this representational arena? What role should teachers, doctors, researchers, therapists, media entities, and academics play? What kind of interdisciplinary approaches are needed to understand, respect, and even cherish autism?

We are open to the widest array of progressive approaches and topics. The latter include, but are not limited to issues of

  • race/ethnicity
  • sexuality
  • self-representation/autobiography
  • movement and cognition
  • perceptual acuities
  • popular cultural representations
  • internet
  • blogging
  • literacy
  • communication
  • the arts
  • treatments, cures, prevention
  • science/research
  • eugenics
  • education/inclusion
  • disability rights
  • employment
  • perseveration, echolalia
  • independence

Questions or queries may be sent to emsavarese@hotmail.com or savarese@grinnell.edu

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