Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2006, Volume 26, No. 2
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies

Reframing Special Education: Reclaiming Effective Education

Robin M. Smith, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Special Education
Department of Educational Studies/Special Education Program
Old Main Building 112
State University of New York at New Paltz
800 Hawk Drive
New Paltz, New York 12561-2442
E-mail: smithrm@newpaltz.edu


Rice's analysis of New York Times editorials illustrates ways in which disability is constructed to promote public policy that maintains the status quo. I propose that George Lakoff's work can be useful in understanding how power structures operate, specifically in regard to disability issues. Lakoff suggests that language frames the debate differently for those who value a "nurturant parent model" than for those who value a "strict father model" for family and national governance. I conclude by explicating how an application of Lakoff's "language frames" to disability discourse might help progressives identify and recapture the public discourse on education and disability.

Keywords: Special Education, Media, Discourse Analysis

In her insightful article, Rice (this issue) analyzes the social construction of special education New York Times editorials, reminding us of the tremendous impact of widely circulated language upon the public's conceptualization of disability. The New York Times editorials, selected by Rice, represent positions that do not seem to benefit students with disabilities. One can question who benefits from seemingly contradictory positions that blame special education as a financial burden, yet call for reforms that appear to support special education while simultaneously advocating restrictions that risk leaving students underserved. When social issues are cast in cycles of threat/reassurance, it appears that policy makers/politicians would rather cast themselves as saviors of public resources who limit access of "undeserving" poor and disabled people to publicly funded assistance than take a stand that assures full citizenship to all constituents. Moreover, Rice encourages us to look at how existing power sources and structures are actively protected by slowly implemented integration laws that serve to re-segregate students of color and students with disabilities into a separate educational system.

Rice's analyses enlighten us about linguistic tactics used to manipulate the public. For example, framing special education as a budget item (rather than, for example, considering the best ways to serve students with disabilities) could convey heartlessness; however, in their portrayal of special education as a troubled and ineffective system in need of repair, the editors position themselves as speaking for citizens concerned about students with disabilities. Such language leads to discourses of reform which attend to marginal issues or incremental steps that further the status quo. Rice explains:

In the case of these editorials, the focus is on where students are placed, how funding works and who reports to whom. More fundamental issues are not addressed. The existence of separate spheres of education, the disproportionate number of students of color in special education, the silencing of people with disabilities in designing services, the creation of subjectivities that reinforce entitlement for nondisabled students and marginalization for disabled students, and the distribution of funds mentioned earlier are obscured by the focus on incrementalism. (this issue)

How can editors (and politicians) reconcile their stance for a better educational system and at the same time overlook major issues–for example, the existence of separate spheres of education, the disproportionate number of students of color in special education, and the silencing of people with disabilities and their chosen advocates in designing services? One might conclude that these tactics merely preserve existing power structures. However, might there be more to the picture? Perhaps editors and politicians are convinced that they are doing the right thing. If so, how do they reconcile the contradictions between promoting limited reform and leaving so many people out? Are they even aware of the contradictions? Might they be locked into particular paradigms that George Lakoff (1996; 2004) refers to as "frames"?

Framing the issues

George Lakoff (1996; 2004) addresses such questions in his theory of frames.

Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world...They are part of what scientists call the "cognitive unconscious"–structures in our brain that we cannot cognitively access, but know by their consequences: the way we reason and what counts as common sense (2004, p. xv).

If we look at Rice's selected editorials in terms of conservative or progressive values that represent different cognitive frames, we might reach different conclusions than those proposed by the editors as "common sense." Lakoff contends that the difference between radical conservative values (what we often refer to as the status quo) and progressive values lies in the framing of "family values." Conservatives, protectors of the status quo, subscribe to a "strict father" model: father is right and knows right from wrong. He protectively lays down rules and establishes discipline. He serves the family by pursuing self interest/success and teaches that "good people" have self discipline, thus prosperity and wealth, or that they, at least, aspire to wealth. In contrast, progressives subscribe to a "nurturant parent" model, which is gender neutral. Progressives believe that to be moral is to be happy and fulfilled. They cultivate empathy and care for others and the common good–the route to happiness and safety. They believe in disciplining through understanding and compassion. These values translate into a simple principle: use the common wealth for the common good to better all lives.

In short, progressives believe that the central role of government is to promote the common good. In contrast, the (right-wing) conservatives now in power hold somewhat opposite values and principles. They espouse values of individual discipline and initiative, believing that government has no useful role. In fact, conservatives see the only common good as the sum of individual goods. In other words, it is the difference between "We're all in this together" and "You're on your own, buddy." Lakoff proposes that progressives might regain footing in the national conversation–a conversation that conservatives have methodically been working to capture since Goldwater's 1964 defeat–by understanding and using their own frames (Lakoff, 2005).

It is useful to return to The New York Times editorials using Lakoff's theory of frames. For example, progressives might observe that events, such as the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy telethon, promote pity, fear of disability, and charity. By the same token, Rice's selection of New York Times editorials represent that tradition by promoting fear of disability-related education. Furthermore, The New York Times editorials frame the special education debate in ways that preclude discussion of what progressive readers might see as the "real issues"–for example, who has access to resources (educational and otherwise) and why. In other words, the social construction of disability serves and maintains values underlying charity and privatization while the deconstruction of disability reveals issues of inequality and supports values of liberation.

Rice describes the "discourse of fear" that effectively blames the cost of special education on its students. For example, The New York Times states, "[T]he cost of special education for the handicapped was largely responsible for the budgetary crisis that plagued the Board of Education ("The Schools," 1980, as cited in Rice, this issue) and bemoans "mindboggling costs that would starve other public services" ("How Much," 1982, p. 11, as cited in Rice, this issue). Here we see two tactics–blaming special education for the budget crisis and pitting public services against each other–both of which open the way to calls for reform. In addition, those engaged in discourses of reform continue to blame the special education lobby (e.g., parents of disabled students and disability rights advocates): "[T]he Legislature needs to take a leading role in restructuring the system. That means standing up to the special education lobby." ("The Special Education Nightmare," 1996, p. 14, as cited in Rice, this issue).

Pitting public services against each other is one of the tactics used by politicians who, before the election of Reagan, began a campaign to dismantle government social programs in order to privatize them (Lakoff, 2005). According to the strict father model, people who get tax cuts (i.e., wealthy individuals and corporations) are more deserving (i.e., moral) because they possess the self-discipline to pursue their self interests and succeed. In contrast, the undeserving (i.e., immoral) poor need to raise themselves up by their bootstraps rather than receive (from social programs) money and services they do not earn. From this point of view, failing schools must first compete with other undeserving programs, all of which deserve to be dismantled. Conservatives see this competition as fair. Children (i.e., poor people) earn their allowance and Father (i.e., the government) enforces discipline through blame and punishment. Moreover, students with disabilities under this model can be made into commodities that financially serve the private organizations built to "serve" them, such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association and other charities and businesses. It is noteworthy that this model ignores the fact that poor, working- and middle-class people create and support the infrastructure (e.g., highways, the internet, bandwidths for media and communication) through their taxations, thereby supporting the wealthy and enabling them to create more wealth.

The nurturant parent model, on the other hand, teaches empathy and compassion–that self-interest means supporting others and promoting an inclusive and healthy society. Progressives ask how to spend funds effectively and equitably so that all students are served well. The answer to that question lies in the enfranchisement of all participants. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights reflects this tradition. If special education is part of a failing school system, then how can we best use taxpayer funds to benefit all children served by that ailing system? Who other than the poor are left out? What other programs are under attack? The progressives see Welfare Reform and the ending of funding for nongovernmental organizations for disenfranchised groups (two reforms proposed by the conservatives) as part of the problem instead of the solution. The prevailing discourses of fear and scarcity make a hero out of the authoritarian. In contrast, discourses of hope and plenty would reveal a very different discourse of self- interest: one of personal success predicated on a successful society where all are deserving and all contribute according to their means, including the wealthy.

The earlier New York Times editorials reveal how co-opting the value of "fairness" is a tactic to equate the same amount with the same need (Rice, this issue), a tactic that covers up the otherwise obvious fact that students with disabilities have different needs and, in some cases, more needs. The promise of truly inclusive schools as a way to use resources effectively is inadvertently ignored. Instead, the editorials promote a "discourse of charity" (Rice, this issue) by pitting special education students (who should be grateful rather than greedy for more than their share of pubic resources) against all the general education.

In more recent years, The New York Times moved from its ambivalence about educating special education students to supporting high standards and accountability for special education students within the context of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001. This shift seems like progress to those who agree that NCLB is the answer to failing schools. Lakoff (2004) proposes a different way to think about NCLB:

Why an education bill about school testing? Once the testing frame applies not just to students but also to schools, then schools can, metaphorically, fail–and and be punished for failing by having their allowance cut. Less funding in turn makes it harder for the schools to improve, which leads to a cycle of failure and ultimately elimination for many public schools. What replaces the public school system is a voucher system to support private schools. The wealthy would have good schools–paid for in part by what used to be tax payments for public schools. The poor would not have the money for good schools. We would wind up with a two-tier school system, a good one for the "deserving rich" and a bad one for the "undeserving poor." (p.32)

Overall, knowingly or unknowingly, the editors of this often-dubbed "liberal" press endorse the strict father model. This model is put forth by the sector of society that favors privatization of all social programs, which are seen as immoral. These conservatives work to frame the debate so that the language of both sides supports their goals within traditional power relations that are taken as defining a natural moral order (Lakoff, 2004).

A Wake Up Call

Rice's article is a wake-up call for us to take over the debate using our own frames, those that are embedded within disability studies. Following Lakoff, we might focus on broad prosperity instead of free markets, a better future instead of lower taxes, effective government instead of smaller government, and mutual responsibility instead of (narrowly defined) family values (see Lakoff, 2004, p. 94). Rice points out that The New York Times editors ignore frameworks of participation, citizenship, social justice, empowerment, and self-determination, apparently in the service of manufacturing consent. According to Lakoff, those who are manufacturing this frame have been working on their language and influence since Goldwater's 1964 defeat, with the generous funding of think tanks, university chairs and institutes, and the media (Lakoff, 2004, p.15-16). We can follow the themes that Rice identifies and work to get these ideas into the educational mainstream where they are often talked about, but, unfortunately, most often in a positivist and socially punitive context. Perhaps we can continue to gain insights in overturning "no child left untested" and replacing it with "no child left-out or pushed out," or to frame it positively, "justice and full citizenship for all."


Lakoff, G. (1996). Moral politics: what conservatives know that liberals don't. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

_____. (2004). Don't think of an elephant. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green.

_____. (Sept. 6 2005) The Post-Katrina Era. Posted on AlterNet. Retrieved November 5, 2005 from, (http://www.chelseagreen.com/2004/items/elephant/ArticlesByThisAuthor.

Copyright (c) 2006 Robin M. Smith

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