DSQ > Fall 2008, Volume 28, No.4

This qualitative study explores the relationship between state licensure and preservice teachers' pedagogical and theoretical boundaries pertaining to elementary education, mild/moderate disabilities, and moderate/severe disabilities. It uses data from interviews with 18 preservice teachers after one year in a combined (elementary and special education) credential program. Findings indicate views about the students preservice teachers are willing to teach relate to concerns about control over disabled bodies, pity about the perceived limitations of disabled students, and issues of teacher and student responsibility. These findings map onto state level divisions in teacher credentialing. The findings in this paper lead to implication for teacher preparation, policy development and hopes for inclusive practices.


I don't think I'm the right person for someone who basically sits in a wheelchair and can't move. That sounds awful and horrible. But I don't think I'm the person. I mean I've never actually even think considered that. — Adele, preservice teacher, combined credential program

Colleges are increasingly being asked to prepare all teachers to better educate all children; some are choosing to do so by the creation of combined credential programs. We must ask what it means to receive a combined (special and a general education) teaching license. This question can be purely bureaucratic or pedagogic, but it can also summon a much harder question: What is the relationship between state credential categories and preservice teachers' understanding of disability?

Comments like Adele's lead to serious theoretical and pedagogical questions about how preservice teachers understand the breadth and limitations of credential categories when these categories are steeped in different, although connected, histories, research traditions, and practices. Given the large research base on how teacher attitudes affect how and whom they teach (Loreman, Forlin, & Monash, 2007; Pfeiffer et al., 2003; Rosetti & Tashie; 2002) coupled with the increasing number of combined credential programs (Blanton & Pugach, 2007), it is important to unpack the epistemic interactions that take place in a combined program. Michael Oliver (2002) states, "[I]t is not disabled people who need to be examined but able-bodied society." This study examines new combined teacher credential programs as one aspect of able-bodied society.

This paper frames analysis of teacher education from the standpoint of a Disability Studies (DS) critique of the relationship between institutional structures and preservice teachers' (PSTs) professional development. This paper "investigates what disability means; how it is interpreted, enacted, and resisted in the social practices of individuals, groups, organizations, and cultures" (Danforth & Gabel, 2006). This paper explores how state level credential categories are enacted in preservice teachers' understandings pertaining to the students they are willing to and feel capable to teach.

Combined Programs

The National Picture

Although there have been examples of combined credential programs for more that 40 years, these programs are experiencing a resurgence.1 In the mid-1960s, State Education Agencies advocated for professional development for general educators. This coincided with students with disabilities beginning to be included in regular classrooms. By the mid- to late 1970s, federal support began to be available in the form of REGI and Deans' Grants. REGI (Regular Education Inservice) grants were targeted for practicing teachers to gain awareness, knowledge, and skills about students with disabilities. These grants were also created to help teachers meet the mandates of the newly passed P.L. 94-142 (Kleinhammer-Trammill & Fiore, 2003). Deans' Grants appeared in 1974 targeting preservice teacher education. These grants attached monies to university programs that encouraged collaboration between special education and other departments. In some cases Deans' Grants became the foundation for the first blended, merged or dual credential programs. At other universities, these grants became the precursors for 'give general education students one special education course and call it a day' approaches evident in so many teacher education programs today (Kleinhammer-Trammill & Fiore, 2003; Pugach, 2001).

Support for additional instruction for general educators and preservice programs about the needs of students with disabilities have ebbed and flowed. The passage of the 1997 amendments to IDEA (P.L. 105-17) renewed interest in better preparation for all teachers. This version of IDEA "attributed primary responsibility for all students with disabilities to regular education" (Kleinhammer-Trammill & Fiore, 2003, p. 238). Similar to 40 years ago, the new priority for grants cited that:

Extensive data indicate that general education teachers do not feel that they have the knowledge and skills to meet the educational needs of these students in their classrooms and that special education teachers are required to assume roles…for which they are insufficiently prepared (Kleinhammer-Trammill & Fiore, 2003, p. 238).

Although grants continue to advocate for increasing knowledge and skills, their language continues to assume an 'otherness' epistemology based on technical rationality rather than epistemic shifts in understanding. Ware argues that most teacher credential programs "have failed to imagine possibilities beyond the parameters of inherited institutional practice" (2005, p. 105). Institutional practices include university programs and state licensure.

New combined credential programs cause practical and scholarly confusion. Terminology cannot be agreed upon. Terms like blended, merged, combined, unified, and dual have all been used to indicate changes to teacher preparation programs. The program in this case study calls itself a "combined" program; that is the term I will predominantly use in this paper.

Variation in terminology connects to variations in design and implementation2. Combined programs can create coursework requirements where students receive two separate credentials simultaneously. They can create new integrated coursework taught by individual faculty. They can have faculty from different departments co-teach new or existing classes (Blanton & Pugach, 2007). Students in the program at California University (a pseudonym) take coursework from two programs with little to no faculty collaboration. The faculty did delete courses from both general and special education curricula and technically created a few new courses, but because faculty were neither well versed in the different knowledge bases nor given time to regularly meet, these courses essentially retained their previous deficit-oriented focus.

The State Picture

Over the past ten years eleven university programs in California have developed some form of combined credential program (R. Webster, personal communication, September 28, 2006). Similar to the national scene, combined programs in California do not have set terminology or implementation (CA Ed Code 44259. and 44259.1.). Each must apply for accreditation. The credential commission asks that, "each IHE (Institution of Higher Education) with a dual credential program should select one of the two credentials and include all of the program completers in the institutional data for that credential" (CA Ed Code Title II, 2001, p. 8-9). Schools of education report data in three categories: "Multiple Subject, Single Subject, and Education Specialist" (Code of Regulation Title 5; CCTC, 2006, p. 4). 3 All information (including enrollment, test score pass rates, supervisor numbers) must be aggregated into those categories.

The preservice teachers in this study entered their combined credential program with the desire to obtain an elementary and a mild/moderate credential—not a moderate/severe credential. 4 This distinction is important as a boundary category in defining the relationship between licensure and developing teacher identities (Bowker & Star, 1999). Many preservice teachers in this study possess the same fear and pity about significant impairments evinced in Adele's opening statement.


The study

The data in this paper reflects a small part of a larger case study including over 300 hours of audio and video data collected over the course of the 2005-2006 school year at California University (Yin, 2003). The larger study explores theories of disability and typicality as evidenced in personal, spatial, and institutional practices in a combined credential program (Young, 2007). California University is a large, urban, public university. The combined credential program is 90% female, 10% male; 75% White, 25% Asian, 15% Latino/a (some categories were marked more than once). The school of education is slightly more diverse than the national demographic figures of teacher education students (Wideen, Meyer-Smith, & Moon, 1998).


Relying on naturalistic methods of observation and interview, I attended courses with PSTs in 2005-2006 and then interviewed them at the end of the year. 18 of the 20 credential candidates agreed to be interviewed for one to two hours. The demographics of those interviewed parallels that of those in the program. I created an open-ended interview protocol that underwent several iterations with two different research groups and then developed it further with participant input over the course of the interviews (Miles & Huberman, 1994). No two interviews followed exactly the same format, but they all covered the same essential prompts. This method of a conversational interview allowed a natural flow of dialog that more closely approximates how people actually think and talk (Weiss, 1994).

Data in this paper refer predominantly to the questions that follow this prompt: I think you know that I am trying to understand how you make sense of these credential categories, and what the terms used in the credentials mean to you. (How) do you differentiate between mild and moderate disabilities? And between moderate and severe ones?

The questions were created after spending extensive time with this group over the course of a year and hearing multiple comments and questions in course work using categorical labeling. The questions mimic the terminology used by interviewees. Though these questions might seem like they presuppose differences between categories, asking the interviewees what the terms they used in classes meant to them gave them freedom to question the terms, admit confusion, and offer examples (Weiss, 1994).

The data was transcribed and then entered into Qualrus, a qualitative analysis software program. Using grounded theory, the first pass at the data garnished large descriptive "bins" of over 30 codes (including public perception, prior experiences, labels, field experiences, etc.) (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Miles & Huberman, 1994). These larger descriptive codes led to code refinement in Excel (McIntyre, 1998; Swallow, Newton, & Van Lottum, 2003). I used Excel because of the amount of data that could be displayed side by side, which allowed me to complete cross-case analysis (Miles & Huberman, 1994) and 'constant comparative analysis' (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) with ease. Subsequent passes reflected attention to interpretative and categorical analysis of disability in schooling (Connor, 2007).


Eight main themes across 18 interviews and 500+ pages of transcript arose —each worthy of its own paper. These themes are: explanations of credential categories; explanation of student placements; uses of labels; importance of placements; program descriptions; prior experiences; public perception; and English Language Learners. For the purposes of this paper, I focus on the first—explanations of credential categories. Throughout observations over the course the school year, I noticed that the categories mild/moderate and moderate/severe were often used to explain how preservice teachers made sense of who students were and where they belonged. This included comments like, "I think she is pretty severe5 cognitive. She's at a like 2nd or 3rd grade reading level so… " or, "There was definitely something emotional. Just severe cognitive problems, but has no visual disability so you can't tell." I wanted to better understand the nuances of categorical references to severity, especially since they were salient across coursework and interviews (Miles & Huberman, 1994; Weiss, 1994). In the code "credential categories" there were 9 comments about mild disabilities, 10 about moderate disabilities, 25 about mild/moderate disabilities, 63 about moderate/severe disabilities, and 42 about severe disabilities. 20 other comments did not fit into any category. As evidenced by sheer numbers, the PSTs who will receive a mild/moderate special education credential spoke at double the amount about severe and moderate/severe disabilities than about mild or moderate ones. These numbers led me to wonder why these teachers are speaking intensively about categories for which they are not officially educated and what exactly are they saying about each category. The 109 comments about severe or moderate/severe disabilities focused on one of three areas: teachers' fear about controlling "severely" disabled bodies, their pity of the perceived life chances of students deemed severely disabled, and responsibility or the lack thereof for students with significant disabilities.

The following section first demonstrates descriptions of mild/moderate disabilities and a lack of fear about working with these students. The section then moves on to interrogate stereotypic fear associated with explanation of students with more significant impairments.

Teachers' need for control

Preservice teachers' worries pertain to lack of control in a classroom. Much like Said's (1994) work on cultural imperialism where "the other" is constructed and then controlled, preservice teachers in this study seek to control students who are most different from themselves. PSTs fear those students who cannot be controlled.

PSTs use the following phrases to characterize students with mild disabilities: they don't have much focus (Lisa), could apply themselves if they felt like it (John), need different ways of teaching (Lisa), might learn slower (Samantha), mostly fit in and just need a little extra help (Angelica). The descriptions evidence a small degree of concern in the use of words like might, could, mostly, and a little. These terms do not evoke fear or lack of control. These terms do indicate that PSTs think they can control situations involving such students, who just "need a little extra help."

Preservice teachers use a very different tone and add strong descriptive detail when describing students with moderate/severe disabilities, explaining where they should be educated, determining if PSTs thought they could teach them, and expressing what PSTs thought about these students' lives. How credential categories impact this teacher education program is evidenced with PSTs who define themselves by whom they teach and what they believe about whom they teach. For example, Carla worries:

I wouldn't know what I would do if they all got out of control, if something happened, a meltdown, or, you know. I'd be standing there. I wouldn't know what to do!

Ellen describes:

The severe kid is the one always tearing up the classroom, always under the desk 70% of the time, throwing himself on the ground 80% of the time.

Carla admits, "I wouldn't know what I would do if…" then reiterates with an emotional plea, "I wouldn't know what do to!" Ellen, though not directly saying she would feel helpless, describes a near-impossible classroom situation. She adds weight to her concern by using percentages, "under the desk 70% of the time," "on the ground "80% of the time." It is no wonder preservice teachers shy away from students they deem severe if these are their descriptions.

Strong emotions connect to issues of loss of teacher control in the classroom. These unexamined fears connect to worries for safety of other students in the classroom, make PSTs feel unprepared and unknowledgeable about working with these students, and give reason to exclude students from a general education setting.

These factors reinforce beliefs that students with significant impairments are just too difficult, being their teacher too hard. Preservice teachers cannot identify as unprepared, undisciplined teachers when everything they are taught indicates that good teachers are prepared and in control (Cochran-Smith & Zeichner, 2005; Darling-Hammond & Bransford, 2005). It is not surprising that they have stereotypic notions of severity; however, these notions bring to light the importance of understanding relationships among credential categories, the teacher education program, and understandings of disability. Neither the elementary or the mild/moderate epistemology disrupt long held fears about students with significant disabilities, even though these students will be present in all classrooms.

Teachers pity students with significant disabilities

People in helping professions want to help (Finkelstein, 1981). These preservice teachers are no different. Their desire to help links to their beliefs that some children are uncontrollable or unhelpable. This desire connects to how PSTs see themselves as teachers. If they entered teaching wanting to help kids and then find themselves unable to help in the expected way, that reaction influences who they want to teach and what they believe about the students they teach.

Perceived life chances of students with significant impairments evoke pity in PSTs when they compare students to themselves or to traditional developmental expectations. PSTs were sad when they thought a student would not be able to ride a bike, have a boyfriend, or live on his/her own. They commented:

Yeah, like this little girl, I just wanted her to say something, I wanted to know, like, what was going inside that brain… and you can't…

- Sharon

But I haven't been able to pull myself out of that little loop in my head where it's all, they'll never have a boyfriend or they'll never be able to live on their own. Or they'll never do this or and, y'know, that gets me really depressed really easily, so I think that's I've had to pull my way, myself away from the more severe kids.

- Lisa

You can hear pain in the descriptions as they pity these children's futures. Their descriptions mimic many traditional understandings of impairment as "a tragedy, a disgrace, shameful, … objects of pity" (Phieffer, 2003, p. 133).

You also witness a teacher making professional choices like, "I've had to pull myself away" because of pity. Pity and an inability to help contradicts PSTs' developing identities as helpers. Lisa feels she cannot help those kids, but she is torn between what she feels and what she knows. To the above statement she adds:

I always have that thing which I know isn't good because they're gonna have a different type of life and their type of life isn't gonna be better or worse than mine. It's just gonna be different. But I haven't been able to pull myself out of that little loop in my head

Lisa's struggles can be seen as a glimmer of hope because she does not want to think the way she does, but cannot help herself. These preservice teachers are receiving credentials that advocate helping certain students in certain ways. Helping is infused with benevolence (Lane, 1999).

Not "being able to function" acts as professional absolution

Teachers' pity, desire to help, and sadness at being unable to help students with significant impairments in certain ways interact to establish norms about who PSTs expect to teach, even if the reality in schools is different. These norms are then reinforced through the expected licenses. Established norms also matter for where PSTs believe children should be educated. Eleven PSTs made explicit comments about students with severe disabilities benefiting from education in a separate location. Some made causal links like Jean who says, "So if they're labeled more severe then they are going to need more help in school. Like they're going to need maybe an aide, or, like I feel like, maybe they're going to need a more restrictive environment." Diana describes why she thinks a boy she works with needs an alternate setting:

There's no way he can do, I mean, up until fifth grade you can kind of get by. Sixth grade, it turns into a totally different ball game. You know, because you get grades, you're changing classes, the curriculum is really hard, and even with the one-to-one aide, (1 sec pause) you know, there's only a certain level, of, of achievement that he can probably, get to. And, he's, he's gonna be maxing out soon, at this rate that other kids are taught. I'm not saying he can't learn any more, but he can't learn at the rate, you know, these middle school kids are expected, to, uh, to learn.

She believes this student needs a separate educational setting because he cannot keep up with the academic curriculum (Brantlinger, 2005, p. 130). Diana does not see school structures or her growing knowledge base of 'helping those who can be helped in the way I want to help' at play in this excerpt. She only sees that this student will be unable to function in middle school. He will be unable to be helped and should be placed elsewhere.

Four preservice teachers shared examples of students with significant impairments who were successfully included in general education settings. John recounts his experience:

This semester we had a student in the language arts class who was not able to function. She could talk to you, but she's very, very slow mentally. So she wasn't able to do the material at all and she would get up and move around the room and all this stuff, but she was included in the classroom.

Even though "not being able to function" is heralded as the primary reason for separating out students with significant impairments, John provides a counterexample of a student being (successfully) included. However, after John description, his interview partner stated, "I would, see, something like that is, she would need a Special Day Class."

Lisa echoes the sentiment of John's partner. She reasons:

And then severe would be not being able to handle that classroom environment. It would be really difficult to handle it. Um, or they would have a lot of— don't want to say self-injury—but just like a lot of internal issues that make them not … I don't know, not flourish in classroom, I guess? … I think with a smaller environment that, uh, with, maybe out of safety reasons, they have to have more adults there to keep an eye on them or for just attention reasons or whatever other reasons they need a lot more focaliz [sic]—focus and specialized attention.

This excerpt harkens back to worries of control, safety, and more adults needed to maintain safety for the disabled student and for others in the classroom.

The individualized notion of being able to function provides a normalized reason for continued separation of these students in school. It absolves responsibility from teachers' questioning overarching school structures and educational policies that maintain dichotomies and reinforce reified norms of disability.

Where does the responsibility lie?

Many PSTs use severity as a boundary marker to the range of abilities they feel comfortable teaching (Bowker & Star, 1999). That marker is reinscribed on the license they will receive. PSTs use students' "ability to function" as a euphemism for "what I feel comfortable with." When a student's ability to function is compromised, it is assumed that student needs a different placement; the preservice teacher should no longer feel responsible for that child. Although not qualified to teach students with significant disabilities, these examples raise serious questions about the epistemological underpinnings of this credential program and similar state policies.

Most preservice teachers in this study indicate that academic success lies with the ability of an individual child to succeed—not with how a teacher teaches, what additional supports are available, or what oppressive school structures might be in place (Ferguson, 1995). The idea that significantly impaired children are unable to function in certain environments is pervasive throughout the interviews. For example, Carla worries about where to place a child to give her the best educational services:

Is she severe enough to be in a place with more severe kids? And is that going to be detrimental to her… if she's not severe enough and actually less severe, this is actually going to hurt her. And then she's going to become more severe, hurt her emotional development being surrounded by people who are emotionally severe.

Carla believes that ability to function fluctuates with exposure to more or less significantly impaired peers—not to anything a teacher does or does not do or to her pedagogical and theoretical understanding of this category.

Only two PSTs mentioned environmental changes in classrooms as necessary to accommodate students with significant impairments into general education classrooms. Marina feels like the teacher should change the classroom to accommodate a new student:

In one, there's a kid, who, there is more severe, I guess, they would say, it does kind of, like, they (the other students) don't understand, like they get kind of scared when he, like, acts out, 'cause they don't really—and I think it's more 'cause kids don't understand … Like, the teachers didn't explain to them. Like I think he doesn't explain, I guess, to us all and just like, not even pointing out, "Hey, he has a disability."

Marina acknowledges the other students might be afraid and need to better understand the situation so their conditioned fear dissipates. One wonders, if these PSTs were prepared differently, might that allay their fears?

Other preservice teachers talked about student success and placement on a very individualistic level embedded with notions of disability as deficit. Rebecca shares a story about placement decisions in regards to a student's ability to function.

Like, um, so when I was—when I was doing my, um, para work in a kindergarten and the kids there, some of them were highly functional and they could do the work the teacher asked them to. Other ones needed aid all the time. And the ones that needed aid all the time, they are placed in a different school next year. The ones that were doing OK, they stay in the same school. They go to the next grade up with a different teacher, but still in the same school. If they were severe enough they'd go to a different school. So they kind of filter out the people who are moderate to severe from the general, um, school.

As evidenced in the excerpt, Rebecca explains the situation as a logical response to individual needs. Ferguson (1995) found similar results in her three-year study about what inclusion is or isn't in schools. Rebecca has already received socializing messages about separation and segregation as appropriate in schools, so she easily affirms the school's choice to separate students based on perceived need (Brantlinger, 2005; Ferri & Connor, 2006). If the students do not need constant aid they may stay; if so they must go. "In other words, when students fail, the School labels students as disabled to place the responsibility for failure on the student, rather than on the School context. The ideology of the School as successful is then maintained" (Baglieri, 2007, pg. 5). This same ideology is embedded in the credential requirements.

Categorical differences between mild, moderate, and severe disabilities merge into two opposing differences based on the extremes: mild and severe. Though PSTs subdivide students based on these characteristics, they base pedagogic assumptions on a unitary characteristic of deviation from the norm or ability to function (Hart et al., 2004). These designations are based on teachers' fears of loss of classroom control and pity for children thought to not be able to achieve like other children in schools. They are the unhelpable; PSTs can absolve responsibility and teach those who can function, who are more in control, and their credential will reinforce these decisions.

Categorical uncertainty despite pedagogical assurance

This paper has demonstrated how strongly worded statements made by preservice teachers about their concerns about teaching students with significant impairments relate to their understanding of disability. The excerpts give the impression that these PSTs know what "severe" means and can relate that understanding to their beliefs about students, what credential they are working to obtain, and who is responsible for including students with significant impairments. Though many PSTs in this study have definitive views about who they can and cannot teach and how they feel about "severe disability" and "ability to function," they also admit to confusion surrounding the terms mild, moderate, and severe. Several preservice teachers relate their confusion to a relative definition of severity or to school and society factors that impact decisions about labeling. Their wavering also reveals the political manifestation of these terms (Gere, 2005). John, throughout his explanation of category labels, says, "but I might contradict myself" to indicate his lack of assurance about what each term means. Marina defines severity in terms of the physical nature of the impairment:

It's hard to figure out like too, um. Like, I was like, what is mild, what is moderate? Like, um… (pause 3 seconds) I guess to me it seems more of, I guess, their ability or like, like, the amount of—I don't know—help that they need? And, like, I could see, like, some of the kids in my classroom have moderate disabilities. They need a lot more help and more of them it's physical—

In her explanation she uses words and phrases like, "hard to figure out," "I guess" (twice), "it seems," "I don't know," and "I could see." Her intonation rises throughout this excerpt to indicate indecision. She uses "like" seven times in a short segment and has a three second pause as she is trying to figure out what she means so she can share it with me. Though her description of severity is physical in nature, Marina is still unsure of herself. Marsha, having worked with many different students states:

I don't know what severe looks like or how it's defined, I've worked in a classroom with kids who used to throw chairs at other kids and I thought that was severe. And I was in a class with someone who tried to stab a kid in the eye. That's more severe to me than sitting in a wheelchair. Or having to change your diaper to me, I don't know, that's even more severe.

Marsha's try at an explanation indicates she is more worried about controlling students' behaviors, and those who are less in control are deemed more severe. This is in contrast to whom the school deemed more severe—namely, students with less physical control. She adds "I don't know" several times to indicate her confusion about the topic. Marsha continues her explanation by relating her confusion to society and individual teachers' ideas about severity:

Besides that, what about, like what society sees as extreme and certain teachers would say this is mild and certain teachers would say this is extreme stuff and some would say this isn't extreme

Marsha then indicates that not only are there individual and societal variations in the understanding of severity, but also those explanations are moderated by developmental expectations of students at a certain age. Again Marsha brings doubt into the equation:

What's interesting is that kid who came to class to talk, could be considered, um, you know, um, mild moderate and moderate to severe. That person could have been considered severe at some point in their life, but as far as I can tell, um, this person is autistic … that would be pretty mild to me, I mean our perception is what defines it most of the time.

Marsha and others wade into descriptions of severity tentatively. Although they fear being able to control students, pity students, and abdicate responsibility, they also admit to not knowing what severe means or looks like. It is an interesting theoretical conundrum that these PSTs have strong ideas about what to do with significantly disabled students without agreeing who those students are.

California's credentialing system, which this preservice system reproduces, reifies the distinction between "mild/moderate" and "moderate/severe" without creating dialog about what these terms might or might not mean. It is not surprising that preservice teachers have negative views about certain students with disabilities. It is surprising that they have so much to say about a category they are not academically well versed in, and that they have little to say about the very children with whom they actually work. The design of the credential system and the program are flawed, I argue, because of artificial divisions created in licensure systems that reify politically determined differences in students.


In 1990, Seymour Sarason noted in The Predictable Failure of Educational Reform, "School personnel are graduates of our colleges and universities. It is there that they learn that there are at least two types of human beings, and if you choose to work with one of them you render yourself legally and conceptually incompetent to work with others" (p. 258). If the system of licensure is such that we cannot prepare teachers to teach all children, then there will remain some boundary categories that create divisions among students that result in inequitable experiences, and likely, outcomes.

The evidence in this paper suggests that these preservice teachers' beliefs about categorical labels are tied to their emerging identities as elementary and mild/moderate special educators; are related to the perceived boundaries of these category systems; and reify the existing licensure system in place in California. These preservice teachers, who learned about and interacted with students with mild/moderate disabilities, focused intensely on severe disabilities in their interviews.

Adelswärd and Nilholm (1998) state that "specific forms of talk are used as devices to fulfill certain institutional aims" (p. 81). This data makes a case that fearful talk about significant impairments demonstrates the legacy of distancing students with significant impairments in our schools and through our state policies. The PSTs' intense apprehension about severity is laden with concerns about control over disabled bodies, pity about the perceived limitations of disabled students, and issues of responsibility in relation to placement and severity. This combination of control, pity, and individualized responsibility pushes preservice teachers away from responsibility for this group of students and limits the scope of which students they "can" work with. As Watson (2006) says, "The importance of the concept of professional identity lies in the assumption that who we think we are influences what we do" (p. 510). The interaction between the credentialing system and developing professional identities legitimates segregated systems of education. At the start of this paper I asked what the relationship is between credential categories and PSTs' understanding of disability. Artificial credential categories coupled with societal acceptance of exclusion of students with complex needs combine to maintain pity, fear, and lack of responsibility in regards to these students. These PSTs maintain, "I can't teach those students" because the basic deficit epistemology has not changed in this combined credential program or in state policy.

The limiting result of discrete credential categories poses theoretical and practical problems for inclusion. Theoretical links between societal values, categorical labeling, state credential systems and teacher education programs continue to need exploration. Understanding the inclusion and limitations of categorical labels, even these broader categories of mild/moderate and moderate/severe, will take much work and future research. Future research includes examining how credential schemes in different states might produce different theoretical understandings of disability and typicality, demonstrating teacher education programs' instantiations of policy initiatives, and analyzing the relationship between policy initiatives and epistemic foundations of disability and typicality. On the practice level, future research includes closer examination of blended, merged and integrated teacher education programs for evidence of deterministic and antideterministic discourse and practices, and analyzing the relationship of programs that change their teacher education epistemologies to preservice teachers' understandings of disability and typicality.

Dismantling discrete categorical labels and credentials associated with them (Learning Disability, Emotional and Behavioral Disorder, etc.) in preference for broader categorical labels of Mild/Moderate or Moderate/Severe only shifts the effects of categorization. Broadening the range of which students teachers feel responsible for matters, but as long as we separate, label, and codify those decisions into licensure, we leave room for teachers to abdicate responsibility for all students. They can claim to be unqualified and unprepared; they also can turn the question of responsibility from the school and the teacher to the "severely disabled" child's "ability to function."

Ware (2005) challenges special and general education to undergo self-critique on their treatment of disabled people. She argues:

[I]n the absence of such critical analysis educators will continue to deny the intrusive paternalism of the existing system, disbelieve that the system reinforces stereotypes of dependence and inferiority, dismiss the logic of the social construction of disability, and dispute their own complicity in pathologizing disability (p. 108).

Structural and policy problems might be overcome by infusing more disability studies into programs. Disability Studies is a way to help teachers problematize licensure systems and programs like this. Baglieri (2007) states:

Teacher education may incorporate DS (Disability Studies) to provide contexts in which teacher candidates can problematize multiple perspectives on disability, and develop a view of students labeled with disabilities not as intrinsically disordered, but as those who are continuously constructed within discursive contexts as "able" or "disabled." As teacher education programs conceptualize disability as an oppressed position subject to discourse, teacher candidates can enter education with an attitude toward action (p.11).

Teacher education programs will also need to reconfigure to specifically address the teaching and learning of a full range of students with and without disabilities. They will need to partner with schools and districts to incorporate systemic reorganization of school governance structures, policy, and resource allocation at the school site (Sailor, 1991). Policy makers will also have to be involved. Bowker and Star (1999) state that the first step in changing a system is to notice it is in place. This paper has made transparent the relationship between licensure and understandings of disability. Now we must work to make these important changes.


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  1. See Blanton & Pugach, 2007; Kleinhammer-Trammill, 2003; Pugach, 2001.
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  2. For a detailed explanation of three models of teacher education programs (blended, merged, and integrated), see Blanton and Pugach (2007).
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  3. Multiple subjects = elementary credential, single subject = secondary credential, and education specialist = special education credential.
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  4. In California: Mild/Moderate Disabilities: learning disabilities, cognitive impairments, other health impaired, and emotional disturbance. Moderate/Severe Disabilities: autism, cognitive impairment, deaf-blindness, emotional disturbance, and multiple disabilities.
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  5. Severe is used in reference to the credential category or when PSTs use the term.
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Copyright (c) 2008 Kathryn Young

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