Disability Studies Quarterly
Summer/Fall 2003, Volume 23, No. 3/4
Copyright 2003 by the Society
for Disability Studies

In search of a paradigm shift:
What disability studies can contribute to school psychology

Andrew T. Roach
University of Wisconsin - Madison
E-mail: atroach@students.wisc.edu

In the most recent edition of Best practices in school psychology, Reschly and Ysseldyke (2002) contribute an introductory chapter that documents "the shifting paradigm (in school psychology) towards services guided by problem solving and evaluated by the achievement of positive outcomes" (p. 3). According to Reschly and Ysseldyke this "paradigm shift" features: (a) an emphasis on systems reform, including non-categorical eligibility and functional assessment; (b) a de-emphasis on the use of intelligence testing and other forms of standardized assessment; and (c) a commitment to identifying and implementing effective interventions for children, their parents, and their teachers. Most importantly, this "paradigm shift means making differences in, rather than predictions about, students’ lives" (p. 16). Reschly and Ysseldyke’s chapter illustrates the growing desire among many practitioners and researchers to move the practice of school psychology beyond its traditional role as "gatekeeper" to special education services towards an increased emphasis on prevention and intervention.

In the Structure of Scientific Revolution Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), T.S. Kuhn used the term paradigm to refer to the conceptual frameworks or worldviews that form the foundation for a scientific community’s research and practice. Paradigms may be "taken-for-granted" for a long time, but eventually anomalies occur and a new theory or model is proposed which leads to the rejection of old assumptions. Kuhn refers to the process of replacing one conceptual framework with another as a "scientific revolution." Scientific revolutions occur during periods where at least two paradigms co-exist, one traditional and one new or "revolutionary." The theories and concepts each paradigm uses to understand and explain basic facts and beliefs are incompatible; community members are not able to embrace both worldviews simultaneously. Eventually, the traditional paradigm is discarded in favor of the "new paradigm." This movement from the old to a new paradigm represents a paradigm shift (Carroll, 1998).

Paradigm shifts demand what Argyris (1993) calls "double-loop" learning. "Single-loop learning changes only the surface behavior, whereas double-loop learning addresses the ‘underlying program or master program.’ Double-loop learning prompts people to reflect and test the assumptions implicit in their mental models" (Knight, 1998, p. 2). Creating deep conceptual change is difficult because school psychology "emerged largely out of legislative mandate… and in response to a series of practical needs…(which) has contributed to making (school psychology) a pragmatic, technique-driven profession" (Arokiassamy, 1993; cited in Linton, 1998, p. 137). Although meaningful and necessary, the changes described by Reschly and Ysseldyke question few of the underlying assumptions of school psychological practice and research. However, through consideration of the critical interpretative work of disability studies scholars, school psychologists can extend Reschly and Ysseldyke’s (2002) ideas and discover the impetus for the conceptual breakthroughs that lead to a "real" paradigm shift.

What is Disability Studies?

Over the past several decades, the field of disability studies has developed an increasingly meaningful presence in policy discussions and academic research regarding people with disabilities. Disability studies examines the social, economic, and political forces that serve to marginalize and oppress people with disabilities. Specifically, scholarly work and training in disability studies:

  • Uses the perspectives and experience of people with disabilities as the foundation for all research and training.
  • Seeks to examine the commonalities in the experiences of the diverse group of people who have been defined as disabled.
  • Views disability as a social construct and people with disabilities as a minority group (Harris & Lewin, 1998).

According to Linton (1998), disability studies developed "as a counterpoint to the medicalized perspectives on disability emanating from the applied fields, and in response to the marginalization and distortions apparent across the curriculum" (p. 133). Although Linton clearly delineates between disability studies and the applied fields of special education, rehabilitation counseling, and school psychology, she also endorses the need for professional programs to incorporate disability studies as a way to "bring the active voice of the disabled into the academic curriculum" (p. 147). Specifically, exposure to disability studies may help school psychologists and other professionals (a) view disability as more than an intra-individual pathology, (b) understand the roles of power and authority in the researcher/research participant and clinician/client relationships, and (c) avoid objectification of people with disabilities.

Beyond Pathology: Disability As Social Construct

Disability studies questions the medical model that views disability as an intra-individual disorder or pathology. School psychology’s traditional commitment to categorization, care, and cure has placed it squarely within the medical framework. "With the medical lens fixed on the individual and his or her disability, the larger political, economic, and material forces at play in the able-ist society fall somewhere outside the frame" (Ware, 2001, p. 107). In contrast, disability studies embraces a social model of disability that views people with disabilities as a minority group subject to prejudice and oppression. The social model relocates the problem of disability; rather than being a medical or mental health concern, disability becomes an issue of policymaking and political advocacy. This shift is important because the search for evidence-based interventions and treatments can serve to distract professionals from "the solutions (which) lie in social and political transformation, architectural and technological redesign" (Potok, 2001, p. 162).

School psychologists and other educators have tended to view children with disabilities as particularly vulnerable and in need of "special" assistance or remediation. Linton (1998) questions this assumption: "Rather than assume that disabled people are the most vulnerable among us, why not consider the mechanisms that a society uses to make disabled people economically vulnerable, powerless, and isolated, and consider what the use of those mechanisms says about a society" (p. 122). Adjusting to the social model, however, can be difficult for school psychologists and other professionals because it demands less attention to traditional service delivery roles and more emphasis on policy analysis and systems change.

Olkin (2002) suggests that the reframing of disability as a socio-political issue has multiple benefits for people with disabilities including: (a) facilitation of the integration of disability into a positive self-identity, (b) greater openness to relationships with both able-bodied persons and people with disabilities; and (c) the availability of the disability community as a source of support and resources. As Mary Lou Breslin, a disability rights lawyer who is also quadriplegic, says in describing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), "We were able to shift understanding from ourselves and our problems to the role discrimination played in our lives. It doesn’t matter what the medical (or psychological) diagnosis is…It made people realize that disability is the problem of the guys who design and build the steps, not the problem of the person in a wheelchair for not being able to walk" (Potok, 2001, p. 65). School psychologists need to bring a similar understanding to children’s educational difficulties. Learning disabilities represent a challenge and a responsibility for the school, the teacher, and the society at large. Informed by the social model of disability, school psychologists’ assessment and consultation practices should facilitate parents', teachers', and administrators' understanding that children’s difficulties must be viewed in light of contextual factors (e.g., adequate classroom instruction) rather than as solely the result of a deficit in ability, intelligence, or motivation.

Moreover, Olkin explains that clinicians must understand and embrace the social model because "if therapists do not subscribe to the principles of the social model, they will treat the personal and political problems of disability as if they were only personal, and in so doing mirror the oppression experienced by people with disabilities" in the larger society (p. 134).

Power and Authority in School Psychology Practice

School psychology’s investment in diagnosis and treatment encourages researchers and practitioners to avoid advocacy within their work with students and schools. The emphasis in professional preparation programs has been on the acquisition of the techniques and strategies to make school psychologists more effective helping professionals. Disability studies, however, considers over-dependence on professionals a barrier to independence and self-determination for people with disabilities. Instead of calling for more helping professionals and increased programming, disability studies sees the solution as "self-advocacy, system advocacy, removal of barriers, and control by the person with a disability who decides what is his or her desired outcome" (Pfeiffer & Yoshida, 1995, p. 478). Reading the work of disability studies scholars may cause school psychologists to experience the dismay felt by rehabilitation counselor Henry McCarthy while attending the 2000 Society for Disability Studies (SDS) Conference: "The most rehabilitation relevant session at (the conference) was titled Disability Identity, Disability Studies, and Those Troublesome ‘Helping Professionals’" (McCarthy, 2002, p. 115). How do school psychologists avoid becoming "those troublesome helping professionals"? A first step is being aware of the structure of power in school psychologists’ professional relationships with clients.

By virtue of their involvement in providing psychoeducational assessments of students, school psychologists wield an extraordinary power to classify, diagnose, and label. Disability studies implores professionals to remember learning disabilities, mental retardation, and emotional disturbance are social constructs and categories that carry with them considerable stigma. As Taylor writes about mental retardation, "there are differences among people in intellectual ability, but this does not prove the objective existence of mental retardation or the utility of dividing humanity into two groups–the retarded and non-retarded. Who is or is not considered mentally retarded hinges on arbitrary and professionally controlled definitions and classification procedures" (Taylor, 1996, p. 6). Writing about the professional preparation of physicians, Wilson (2000) provides a critique of the power involved in the diagnostic process that can easily be extended to school psychologists’ work in schools. "Medical science empowers doctors to interpret and inscribe their patients according to specialized scientific vocabulary that conceals knowledge and excludes patients from decision making. Diagnosis leads in turn to prescription, treatment, and prognosis, all of which extend physicians’ authority over patients’ lives" (p. 155). To illustrate the socio-political aspects of diagnosis, Wilson asks his medical students to deconstruct the concepts of "the norm" and "normality." Because many of our diagnostic procedures are based on normative measures, school psychologists might benefit from engaging in the same exercise. As Linton (1998) states, school psychology and other applied disciplines "conceptualize disability as deviance from the norm, as pathological condition, and as deficit…(There is a) power differential between nondisabled and disabled people, reinforced because ‘the dominant group defines itself as normative’" (p. 144).

By virtue of their vocational choice, many individuals might assume school psychologists and other helping professionals are aware of this power differential and take action to affirm and empower their clients. Unfortunately, "research suggests that negative attitudes (towards people with disabilities) prevail among students and professionals in the fields of education, nursing, psychology, rehabilitation, and physical education" (Antonak, 1980; Dailey & Halpin, 1981; cited in Adrian, 1997). Moreover, school psychologists and other helping professionals are prone to viewing diagnosis, intervention, and treatment as innately apolitical acts. However, as Brantlinger (1997) explains, "Power in modern societies is located in…a class composed of highly skilled wage earners: managers and such professionals as social workers, teachers, psychiatrists, and researchers…. Credentialed experts retain a sense of their validity by relying on tradition, deference to authority, and inherited privilege" (p. 438). The overrepresentation of students of color and students from low SES households in special education programs is but one example of the need to closely examine the implications of school psychology practice within larger political and social contexts.

Seeing the Person, Not the Disability

Disability studies questions the salience of a person’s disability. "Salience…simply means that the disability is most important, or the only important, aspect of the individual" (Smart, 2001, p. 88). "Just as woman’s studies is not the study of women’s reproductive organs, disability studies is not the study of medical/psychological/legal definitions of disability. Both subscribe to standpoint theory. That is, you cannot understand my experience unless you look at it from my point of view" (Murphy, 1999, p. 2).

Unfortunately much of the research presented in school psychology journals and at professional conferences, depersonalizes information regarding people with disabilities, making them more like research specimens and less like individuals. Linton laments this situation: "The overwhelming majority of scholarship on disability either utilizes or implies third-person plural: ‘they’ do this, ‘they’ are like that, ‘they’ need such and such. This contributes to the objectification of disabled people" (Linton, 1998, p. 142). This may be attributable to the difficulties in studying the "lived experience" of people with disabilities. However, substitution of behavioral measures or the perceptions of others (e.g., family members or care providers) may present an inaccurate portrayal of the lives of people with disabilities. "Why is this procedure a problem? It is because we would reject or at least strongly qualify men’s impressions of women, Christians’ impressions of atheists, whites’ impressions of African Americans, and (in the same way) non-disabled persons’ impressions of people with disabilities because they will be influenced by stereotypes" (Pfeiffer, 2002, p. 283). An example of this process is presented in Wilson’s critique of Sacks’ (1995) case study of Temple Grandin, a college professor and researcher who also has Autism. In Sacks’ portrayal, "Grandin’s voice disappears as she becomes an object to be exhibited. That is, Grandin is colonized by and through narrative strategies Sacks employs, becoming a victim of what disability scholar Thomson refers to as ‘enfreakment’" (Wilson, 2000, p. 159).

To counteract the objectification of people with disabilities, school psychology researchers need to embrace research methods like narrative inquiry, ethnography, and participant observation. Moreover, practicing school psychologists should demand the inclusion of disability studies in professional preparation and in-service training programs. Without that exposure, school psychologists "are doing cross-cultural counseling with clients with disabilities without requisite training. The outcomes could be the same as it is for other cross-cultural counseling without cultural competence: early dropout, client dissatisfaction, and negative outcomes" (Olkin, 200, p. 132).

Disability studies presents an emerging resource for challenging and re-creating many of our professional practices. As McCarthy (2002) confesses, disability studies assails "some of my unrecognized assumptions and comfort zones. (It) prods me to ponder, react (sometimes defensively, sometimes apologetically), and reflect on those reactions" (p. 115). Many school psychologists are eager for a "paradigm shift" that will renew and extend our field’s ability to make a difference in the lives of students with disabilities. Inclusion of disability studies in our professional literature and training programs would provide an important impetus for that shift.


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Argyris, C. (1993). Knowledge for action:A guide to overcoming barriers to organizational change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Brantlinger (1997). Using ideology: Cases of nonrecognition of the politics of research and practice in special education. Review of Educational Research, 67, 425-459.

Carroll, R. T. (1998). Paradigm and paradigm shift. The Skeptic’s Dictionary. Retrieved November 13, 2002, from the World Wide Web. http://skepdic.com/paradigm.html

Davis (1995). Enforcing normalcy: Disability, deafness, and the body. London: Verso.

Harris, P., & Lewin, L. (1998). Information Package on Disability Studies. Syracuse, NY: Center on Human Policy.

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Kuhn, T. S. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolution. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Linton, S. (1998). Claiming disability: Knowledge and identity. New York: New York

University Press.

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Murphy, P. (2000). Why the rehabilitation profession needs disability studies. Disability Studies Online Magazine, Summer/Fall 2000. Retrieved October 3, 2002, from the World Wide Web: http://www.disabilitystudies.com/Murphy2.htm

Olkin, R. (2002). Could you hold the door for me? Including disability in diversity. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 8, 130-137.

Pfeiffer, D. (2002). Correspondence: Simeonsson et al. on the participation of students with disabilities in school activities. Disability and rehabilitation, 24, 283-284.

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Potok, A, (2002). A matter of dignity: Changing the world of the disabled. New York: Bantam Books.

Reschly, D. J., & Ysseldyke, J. E. (2002). Paradigm shift: The past is not the future. In A. Thomas & J. Grimes (Eds.) Best practices in school psychology IV (pp. 3-20). Bethesda, MD: NASP Publications.

Smart, J. (2001). Disability, society, and the individual. Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen Publishers.

Taylor, S. (1996). Disability studies and mental retardation. Disability Studies Quarterly, 16, 4-13.

Ware, L. (2001). Writing, identity, and the other: Dare we do disability studies? Journal of Teacher Education, 52, 107-123.

Wilson, J. C. (2000). Making disability visible: How disability studies might transform the medical and science writing. Technical Communication Quarterly, 9, 149-161.

Copyright (c) 2003 Andrew Roach

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