This book. SO much to like. SO much good energy.
DisCrit: Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Education is an exciting and important beginning of what I hope will be an ongoing, intentionally interdisciplinary exploration and conversation at and about the intersection of disability and race in Western, Eurocentric culture. Using the analytical tools and thinking from two blossoming academic fields, critical race theory and Disability Studies, editors Subini Annamma, Beth Ferri, and David Connor, along with individual chapter authors, dive deeply and spiritedly into waters in which ideologies of disability and race are difficult to separate except at something equivalent to the molecular level. Their attention is focused on how disability-race—these things that we see as separate really are two sides of a single ideological coin, aren't they?—is enacted in schools, and ranges across several succinct topics, addressed in six sections.
What is perhaps most powerful about Discrit is the emerging and striking energy that Subini Annamma brings to the work. In saying that, I don't want or mean to diminish the contribution of co-editors Beth Ferri and David Connor, who have long been active in exploring Disability Studies and/in education; their work has looked, for a number of years, at some of the ways in which disability and race play out in schools and culture. But it is clear that Annamma's fire is what is driving this inter/trans/cross-disciplinary and truly intersectional work. Her voice is (especially) clearly heard, and felt, in the text's introduction and opening chapter. And Connor and Ferri honor the importance of Annamma's contribution to their collective action and scholarship in the final paragraph of the book, noting "the audacity and boldness of her vision and confidence as a young scholar" and that "she should be credited with coining the term Discrit" (p. 222). THAT'S cool.
Annamma, Ferri, and Connor's introduction, which they call a "Truncated Genealogy of DisCrit," tells the story, principally in Annamma's words, of how the text came to happen, and lays out the orderly plan for the chapters that follow. The genealogy is truncated, they point out, in order to acknowledge the important efforts of scholars and activists who have gone before, perhaps most notably the work of Chris Bell. The introduction lays out, as well, some of the values behind their use of language (more about that later).
The first chapter of the book is what Annamma, Connor, and Ferri have called a "Touchstone Text," for good reason: it describes the background behind the theoretical framework that they call DisCrit. The chapter, "Dis/ability Critical Race Studies (DisCrit): Theorizing at the Intersections of Race and Dis/ability", was first published in the Journal of Race, Ethnicity, & Education. Perhaps most importantly in the chapter, they offer seven proposed tenets of DisCrit:
- DisCrit focuses on ways that the forces of racism and ableism circulate interdependently, often in neutralized and invisible ways, to uphold notions of normality.
- DisCrit values multidimensional identities and troubles singular notions of identity such as race or dis/ability or class or gender or sexuality, and so on.
- DisCrit emphasizes the social constructions of race and ability and yet recognizes the material and psychological impacts of being labeled as raced or dis/abled, which sets one outside of the western cultural norms.
- DisCrit privileges voices of marginalized populations, traditionally not acknowledged within research.
- DisCrit considers legal and historical aspects of dis/ability and race and how both have been used separately and together to deny the rights of some citizens.
- DisCrit recognizes Whiteness and Ability as Property and that gains for people labeled with dis/abilities have largely been made as the result of interest convergence of White, middle-class citizens.
- DisCrit requires activism and supports all forms of resistance. (p. 19)
These tenets, it seems to me, form the basis for important activism-scholarship that must occur throughout both Disability Studies and critical race studies, and other places as well.
In "Part I: Race, Class, and Ability" chapter authors focus on perceptions. David Gillborn, Nicola Rollock, Carol Vincent, and Stephen Ball's chapter, "The Black Middle Classes, Education, Racism, and Dis/ability: An Intersectional Analysis," uses qualitative research to look at the experiences of Black families in the United Kingdom whose children receive special education services and supports. Because of their race, family participants are denied access to services typically granted to Whites. Their "…findings powerfully demonstrate that dis/ability continues to operate as a racialized barrier to equity in English schools" (p. 52).
Alicia Broderick and Zeus Leonardo's chapter, "What a Good Boy: The Deployment and Distribution of 'Goodness' as Ideological Property in Schools" focuses on the way goodness and smartness are constructed as property differentially owned by Whites and Blacks. They point to disciplinary measures given to Black boys that are not experienced by Whites, that are a function of what they call "racialized ability profiling" (p. 61). If, following DuBois, the defining problem of the 20th century was the "color line," they suggest that the defining problem of the 21st century is the "ability line."
In "Part II: Achievement/Opportunity Gap" authors look at the differential between achievement and opportunity as a result of disability and racial ideologies. Elizabeth Mendoza, Christina Paguyo, and Kris Gutiérrez approach "Understanding the Intersection of Race and Dis/ability: Common Sense Notions of Learning and Culture" through an alignment of cultural historical activity theory (CH/AT) and DisCrit, opening up some of the ways that commonly accepted, unexamined ideologies of ability and race permeate education. Kathleen King Thorius and Paulo Tan look at an "Expanding Analysis of Educational Debt: Considering Intersections of Race and Ability," pointing to ways that debt rooted in history, economy, sociopolitics, and morality is owed, and must be paid, to students of color and disabled students.
In "Part III: Overrepresentation" writers zero in on how (and why) children of color are overrepresented in special education systems. Elizabeth Kozleski's chapter, "Reifying Categories: Measurement in Search of Understanding," looks at foundational assumptions that undergird ways that students of color are counted and sorted, ensuring that they are over-represented in special education and referred for discipline. Edward Fergus describes the ways that current research into disproportionality is broken, and makes a case for the importance of understanding teacher expectations and beliefs in creating and sustaining overrepresentation.
The emphasis of "Part IV: School-to-Prison Pipeline" is on ways in which disabled, racialized children are forced to move between institutions, from incarceration in schools to incarceration in prisons. D.L. Adams and Nirmala Erevelles, in their critical and timely chapter, "Shadow Play: DisCrit, Dis/respectability, and Carceral Logics," remind of us of the too-many Black, Disabled lives that have been intentionally eliminated – dis-located, to use their language – in the United States. They analyze how these dis-locations occur not just through brutal killings, but through their removal to "carceral settings such as alternative schools, prisons, and institutions" (p. 132), through "practices of pathologization, racialization, and criminalization" (p. 133). They pointedly argue that these are, in fact, "social processes constituted within oppressive historical conditions that also associate disability with dis/respectable deviance" (p. 144).
In "The Overrepresentation of Students of Color with Learning Disabilities: How 'Working Identity' Plays a Role in the School-to-Prison Pipeline," scholars Claustina Mahon-Reynolds and Laurence Parker call for using special education legal structures to tear down that pipeline, rather than enhancing the punitive processes usually in place for disabled students of color.
"Part V: School Reform" begins an exploration of the potential contributions of DisCrit to social-justice-based school reform efforts. Sally Tomlinson begins this section with her chapter "Race, Class, Ability, and School Reform." Here, she notes that institutions of education in the West are founded on racial, class, gender, and disability divisions that "advantage and disadvantage some groups of students" (p. 157). These issues, she argues, must be addressed in any real school reform proposals, instead of blame-the-victim, competition-based reforms that are too often the default.
In "Toward Unity in School Reform: What DisCrit Contributes to Multicultural and Inclusive Education," Susan Baglieri points out the predominance of meritocratic school reform efforts, and proposes three important tenets of a DisCrit approach to school reform: (1) "Resist the meritocratic practice of schooling and normative assessment structure" (p. 177); (2) "Reconceptualize curriculum as being in service to communities, rather than in service to individuals or the economy" (p. 178); and (3) "Support community-based control of the economies build up around disability and disaster capitalism" (p. 179).
The last section of Discrit is "Part VI: Race, Disability, and the Law" in which authors address implications of current events crossing racial and disability boundaries, as well as identity and coalition building. Kathleen Collins starts with "A DisCrit Perspective on The State of Florida v. George Zimmerman: Racism, Ableism, and Youth Out of Place in Community and School." Collins closely analyzes the case, and the events that followed, placing them in counterpoint to her experiences with schools as a White mother with a biracial son. She outlines ways in which "ableism and racism work together to craft the narratives used to justify violence against and incarceration of you identified as out of place in community and school" (p. 200).
In "Disability Does Not Discriminate: Toward a Theory of Multiple Identity Through Coalition," Zanita Fenton looks at the subordination of disabled people, created by pseudoscientific eugenics, through a Critical Legal Theory lens. The book's final chapter is a conclusion authored by editors Ferri, Annamma, and Connor. Here, the text's editors describe the work done in the preceding chapters, and pose an important, summative question: "What new insights might emerge if our analyses began with the assumption that these and other systems of oppression are mutually constituted and interconnected at the deepest and most fundamental level" (p. 221)?
Quibbles about this important book? Yeah, I guess so. Too many of the chapters are filled with dense, academic, jargonate language that will be inaccessible and off-putting to many readers that should be reading this. There are notable exceptions, in the chapter done by Kathleen Collins, and the co-authored piece by D.L. Adams and Nirmala Erevelles, which serve as useful models for future work that is accessible to a variety of readers.
Too, the book is over-focused, it seems to me, on bodies as objects of oppression, ignoring the important contributions of scholars like Margaret Price (2011), who have reframed the body and mind binary as a single, two-sides-of-the-same-thing bodymind. I wish, as well, that there were more contributions by scholars who identify openly and explicitly as disabled, perhaps especially by neurodivergent scholars.
Connor and Ferri (among others) have long used the term "dis/ability," as a way "to 1: counter the emphasis on having a whole person be represented by what he or she cannot do, rather than what he or she can, and 2: disrupt notions of the fixity and permanency of the concept of disability, seeking rather to analyze the entire context in which a person functions" (p. 1). While I, too, have used the term as part of a edited text sub-title (at the recommendation of a series editor), I've since come to think that the word works counter to the ways in which Connor and Ferri propose, in some of the same ways that terms like "special needs" or "differently-abled" do. Others have made a similar critique (Waschler, 2011). It strikes me as another euphemism, more academic jargon. I don't identify as dis/abled. I do identify as disabled.
Increasingly, I'm interested in moving beyond interdisciplinary, intersectional work, to exploring ideas and concepts and lived experience from an ANTI-disciplinary, ANTI-sectional perspective. What will an undisciplined (probably Mad) exploration of DisCrit look like? That'd be something to think about.
But these are minor critiques of an important work. I really look forward to the conversation that this text begins. SO much to like.
- Price, M. (2011). Mad at school: Rhetorics of mental disability and academic life. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/mpub.1612837
- Waschler, S. (2012). Languaging Disability: Where do "Ability" and "Dis/Ability" Fit In? Retrieved from http://www.abilitymaine.org/