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

One Size Does Not Fit All: A Response to Institutionalizing Inequity

Edward Garcia Fierros
Department of Education and Human Services
Villanova University
800 Lancaster Avenue
Villanova, PA 19085
610.519.6969 (office)
610.519.4623 (fax)
E-mail: edward.fierros@villanova.edu


In addition to providing a definition for ableism, Fierros addresses the main arguments in Gregg D. Beratan's article entitled, "Institutionalizing Inequity: Ableism, Racism, and IDEA, 2004". Specifically, Fierros presents competing ideas about the appropriateness of inclusion for students with special needs, discusses the notion of the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) clause as ableist, provides data on the disproportionality of students with special needs, and examines the links between race and ableism. In terms of theory, he suggests that teacher preparation programs educate professionals about institutional ableism and racism. In terms of practice, he urges the use of differentiated instruction to support all students in inclusive settings.

Keywords: Disability Studies, Policy

Special Education Controversy in the Classroom

During a learning activity in my diversity graduate course, student teachers critically reflected on issues facing students, teachers, administrators, and educational policy makers in addressing the learning needs of students with disabilities. I separated the students into two groups and asked them to discuss the pros and cons of the impact of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 2004 (IDEA) (U.S. Department of Education, 2005) from the perspectives of students, teachers, administrators, and parents. Immediately the "con" students began to grumble about how they had gotten the "short end of the stick" and listed reasons why it would be difficult to develop arguments against the IDEA. The "con" students argued that the premise of the law was written to level the playing field for students with special needs by including them in the general education classroom at levels that have been increasing each time laws are passed in the area of special education. The "con" students further argued that by providing students with disabilities the opportunity to learn with their non-disabled peers in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), they would be better able to assimilate into mainstream culture and would no longer be ostracized or excluded. In presenting their argument about the difficulty of arguing against IDEA 2004, the "con" group provided the "pro" group with talking points for their opposing argument. To add a layer of complexity to this activity, I told the students, that according to one author, "the Least Restrictive Environment clause of the IDEA reinforces ableist practices" (Beratan, this issue). Students first asked what the term "ableist" meant, and when informed, could not accept the possibility that the IDEA would be written to reinforce ableist notions that discriminate against students with special needs.

In this response to Beratan I provide a definition of ableism (the same one I shared with my students) before addressing the main arguments in the article. Specifically, I present competing ideas about the appropriateness of inclusion for students with disabilities, discuss the notion of the LRE clause as ableist, provide data on the disproportionality of students of color within disability categories, and examine the links between race and ableism.

Ableism Defined

Ableism is a term with various definitions, which are all based on the discrimination and oppression that people with disabilities experience in our society (Ferri & Connor, 2005; Hehir, 2003). Thomas Hehir (2003) defines ableism as

the devaluation of disability" that "results in societal attitudes that uncritically assert that it is better for a child to walk than roll, speak than sign, read print than Braille, spell independently than use a spell-check, and hang out with nondisabled kids as opposed to other disabled kids (p. 1).

Ableism purveys negative attitudes and prejudice toward an individual based on physical, mental, or physical and mental disabilities. Like racism and sexism, ableism is embedded within our society at a root level and combating it requires ongoing education about how a person's uniqueness can counteract cultural myths about people with disabilities (Koppelman & Goodhart, 2005; Lipsky & Gartner, 1997). The question, of course, is how to do that–how to combat fear and ignorance about perceived differences?

Response to Beratan

Beratan (this issue) focuses on how the IDEA 2004 negatively impacts students with disabilities. He maintains that the IDEA 2004 "actively contributes to and maintains existing discrimination" (this issue). Citing the work of many scholars who have expanded the field of disability studies through their work, Beratan challenges what he views as ableist policy and practice in educational institutions or "institutional ableism." He describes how the field of disability studies has adopted the interrogative approach of critical race theory (Ladson-Billings, 1998) "to place disability at the center of areas of theory and research" (this issue). Beratan uses critical ability theory to challenge assumptions about the IDEA 's Least Restrictive Environment clause and to examine issues of disproportionality and race for students with special needs. He joins the longstanding debate among scholars about the appropriate learning environment for students with disabilities.

Competing Ideas about the Appropriateness of Inclusion

Within the disability community, there are differing perspectives about how best to serve the learning needs of students with disabilities even though all "camps" maintain that their particular view about the degree of inclusion or level of restrictiveness serves the best interest of individual learners and their learning needs (Fierros & Conroy, 2002). Yet, these perspectives can be, and often are, diametrically opposed to one another based on the beliefs and research about what is best for students' overall learning needs. According to Ferri and Connor (2005), "special education, despite being designed to meet the needs of diverse groups of learners, has nonetheless been used to both create and perpetuate the marginalization of individuals based on the interconnected discourses of race and ability" (p. 461).

Beliefs about levels of learning and the appropriate degree of inclusion or level of restrictiveness for students with special needs stand in stark opposition to one another (Fierros & Conroy, 2002). For example, supporters of full inclusion maintain that the learning of students with disabilities is improved as a direct result of being in the general classroom with nondisabled peers (Jorgensen, 1997; U.S. Department of Education, 2005). Those in favor of full inclusion perceive that the quality of learning by students with disabilities increases as the level of inclusion increases. On the other hand, supporters of instruction out of the general classroom believe that the learning of students with disabilities increases when students are placed out of the general classroom in specialized settings. Proponents of specialized instruction outside the regular classroom setting argue that learning is diminished for students with disabilities when they are placed in general education settings (Bartlett, 1997; Hehir, 2002; Hehir, 2003). Between these two competing camps are those who believe that the solution is not clear cut and that students with disabilities benefit the most from a classroom placement that is tailored to an individual student's needs (Crocket & Kaufmann, 1999; Cushner, McClelland, and Safford, 2005; Keller, 2000). Further complicating matters for students with special needs is the reality that decisions by professionals about their placements are greatly influenced by their racial ethnicity and the lack of diversity among their teachers (Artiles, Rueda, Salazar, & Higadera, 2002; Ferri & Connor, 2005; Fierros & Conroy, 2002; Losen & Orfield, 2002).

Institutional Ableism and Racism

In "Institutionalizing Inequity," Beratan (this issue) argues that the IDEA 2004 negatively impacts students with disabilities. He states that "our society uses the IDEA 2004 and a combined institutional ableism and racism to discriminate against students in violation of even the stated intent of the law". Beratan's critical perspective calls attention to how institutional ableism and racism are not easily mitigated through legal remedies. He points out that those legal remedies, in the form of the IDEA 2004, work to reinforce existing ableism and racism. Specifically, he suggests that the LRE clause of IDEA 2004 creates or reinforces institutional ableism. But, does the LRE clause create or reinforce institutional ableism? The answer: it depends.

Given the various perspectives of appropriate placements for students with special needs mentioned above, whether the IDEA 2004 or the LRE clause creates or reinforces institutional ableism–the belief that ableism is reinforced by legal, educational, and social structures–is dependent on the vantage point of the individual making the claim. Those who see the LRE clause as a safety valve for specialized instruction and separate placement cite both a lack of empirical support for inclusion, and the inability of general education teachers to individualize instruction to adequately meet the needs of students with special needs to cement their argument (Hehir, 2002). On the other side are those who believe that the learning needs of students with special needs can only be met in the general classroom settings. Proponents of inclusion view the IDEA 2004 as part of a structure that creates or reinforces ableism (Beratan, 2006). These proponents are more likely to believe that ALL students, regardless of ability, should be placed in regular education classes where their learning needs can be met best by a support staff working in collaboration with the general education teacher. Some also believe that there was no need for a LRE defined by a continuum of placements because the LRE was, in fact, the general education classroom (Lipsky & Gartner, 1997). Complicating both sides' perspectives about appropriate classroom placement is the reality that decisions about the placement of students with disabilities in general education settings vary dramatically from state to state, county to county, and even district to district (Fierros & Conroy, 2002; Losen & Orfield, 2002). Placement patterns vary because of legal, economic, and social realities in a US education system that is built on the premise of local control of schools.

Since the passage of IDEA in 1990, numerous researchers have explored the placement patterns of students of color with special needs finding inappropriate placements or restrictive placements that systematically segregate students from regular education settings (Artiles & Trent, 1994; Ferri & Connor, 2005; Fierros & Conroy, 2002; Losen & Orfield, 2002). Despite the intent of the IDEA, however, these restrictive placements have meant that minority special education students' educational experiences have been more likely to be delivered in unequal and separate classroom environments. For example, Couhtino and Repp (1999) reported that for the 1992-1993 school year, nearly 60 percent of all students with disabilities (ages three to twenty-one) were taught outside the regular classroom. Lipsky and Gartner (1997) state that "the negative consequences of the separate special education system are greater for students from racial minorities" (p. 33). Like other disability scholars, Beratan (2006) views students of color with disabilities as voiceless in the discussion about appropriate classroom placement. So, does it appear that the IDEA 2004 may be reinforcing institutional ableism and racism as Beratran (2006) suggests, or it is more likely that institutional structures are so pervasive that the law by itself has failed to shift beliefs about placement of students with disabilities? In either case, has the law become a convenient mechanism for sorting individuals based on their perceived abilities and their racial or ethnic identity?

Similar to institutional racism, institutional ableism is distinguished from the individual bigotry toward people with disabilities by the existence of systemic, pervasive, and habitual policies and practices that disadvantage individuals based on their abilities. But because of institutional ableism's hold on our society, it is unlikely that any legal remedy will eliminate the educational inequity faced by students with disabilities. As Beratan states, "It is difficult to find a more clearly racist outcome than the disproportionate segregation of minority students from the general educational system" (this issue). Just as students of color have had to continue to experience unequal educational opportunities despite the passage of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision (Ferri & Connor, 2005; Connor & Ferri, 2005) students with special needs will also continue to experience schools in a society that views them from a deficit perspective (Hehir, 2002), and has largely ignored the problem of disproportionality.

The inequality faced by students of color and students with disabilities presents a challenge for those with the privilege of whiteness and ability, and to a lesser extent all persons without disabilities. As Beratan states, "Society's acceptance of disability discrimination enables the acceptance of otherwise unacceptable racial discrimination camouflaged in the language of good intentions it is protected against charges of either racism or ableism" (this issue). When improvements for students with disabilities are made, they tend to happen first for White students with special needs followed by students of color with disabilities (Donovan & Cross, 2002; Fierros & Conroy, 2002). Scholars at the National Research Council investigating racial differences in the delivery of services to students point out that,

the [negative] impact is likely to be greatest on students from disadvantaged backgrounds because (a) their experience outside the school prepares them less well for the demands of schooling, placing them at greater risk for failure, and (b) the resources available to them in general education are more likely to be substandard. Early efforts to identify and intervene with children at risk for later failure will help all children who need additional supports. But we would expect a disproportionately large number of those students to be from disadvantaged backgrounds (Donovan & Cross, 2002, p. 5)

The focus on students with special needs' deficits has become realized in the racial disparities that appear in U.S. dropout rates, graduation rates, postsecondary education and training, and residential independence (Coutinho & Repp, 1999; Lipsky & Gartner, 1997; Losen & Orfield, 2002). A deeper examination of the racial disparities in these measures of opportunities to learn show the clear link between race and poverty (Losen & Orfield, 2002). Beratan's conclusion that the IDEA exacerbates disproportionality for students of color with special needs is difficult to argue against given the data that document decades of inequity show no signs of dissipating (Losen & Orfield, 2002).

Conclusion and Recommendations

Beratan's "Institutionalizing Inequity" suggests that legal remedies like the IDEA 2004 will not be able to eliminate and may even promote the stereotyping, negative attitudes, and discrimination toward people based on their physical or mental disabilities. He argues that students of color with disabilities experience double jeopardy in the form of disproportionate placements that are maintained by U.S. legal and social institutions, and racism that continues to plague our society's educational institutions. He maintains that in order to address these inequities it will be necessary for disability studies and critical race theory to intersect. Although Beratan's suggestion is apt–encouraging scholars within disability studies and critical race theory to pursue analyses and critiques of institutional structures and practices with view to changing them–as a teacher educator, I am left asking what can educators do now?

In teacher preparation programs, potential educators wishing to improve the conditions for students with special needs must become cognizant of the complex reasons why such inequalities exist, and the implication of existing systems in maintaining inequalities. Confronting systematic exclusion of people based upon disability and/or race–including the institution of special education as it currently stands–is as necessary as it is daunting. While educators often feel powerless in the face of such widespread, pervasive institutionalization of ableism and racism, their locus of control within their classroom cannot be underestimated. Their approach to educating all children is contingent upon using effective strategies for addressing the learning needs of students with disabilities. One such method is differentiated instruction (Tomlinson, 1995a), an approach that helps teachers to adapt their teaching to "respond to the diverse students needs found in inclusive, mixed ability classrooms" (p.1). When teachers use instruction that is concept focused and principle driven, provide on-going assessment of student readiness and growth, group students flexibly, and enlist students as active explorers they raise the learning expectations for all students (Gregory & Chapman, 2002; Tomlinson, 1995b). In brief, teacher-educators must continue to prepare future teachers by providing them with approaches to working with all students–as well as give them the tools to critique the inequitable institutions in which they are professionally embedded.

Author's Note:

The author extends special thanks to Deborah Schussler for her assistance with this project.


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Copyright (c) 2006 Edward Garcia Fierros

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