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

Rowley Reconsidered: The (Re)Constitution of Free Appropriate Public Education through Multiple Possible Discourses

Susan Baglieri
Doctoral Student
Department of Curriculum and Teaching, Box 31
Teachers College, Columbia University
525 W. 120th St.
New York, NY 10027
E-mail: s.baglieri@verizon.net


In this response to Rosen's article, "An unintended consequence of IDEA," I expand his argument to consider the multiple possible ways that everyday people interpret the law as practice. The dominance of the law arises in an interdependent relationship between the intent of the law-writers as expressed in text and the public discourses in which disability and education gain meaning. I present the 1982 case of the Board of Education v. Rowley as a backdrop to examine discourses in disability and education that may have informed the Supreme Court's ruling on "Free Appropriate Public Education," and further offer understanding into the school context that led to litigation at the outset. Finally, I propose the central roles of teachers, whose changes in classroom discourses are at the heart of the increasing prominence of Deaf culture and ASL in schools.

Keywords: IDEA, Deaf Studies, Inclusion, Disability Studies

In his discussion of the proliferation of Deaf culture and American Sign Language (ASL) as an unintended consequence of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Rosen (this issue) demonstrates the potential for the law to expand discourses in disability, as well as the necessity of law-writers to respond to changing values and understandings of the complexity of American culture(s). While the revision of IDEA's text to include sign language as both a native language and a consideration for the development of Individualized Education Plans (IEP) is an important hallmark in a shift from an audist to a more Deaf-inclusive perspective, changes in the response of schools and teachers toward d/Deafness not only reflect their adherence to the writ of law, but also indicate shifts in societal thinking about disability and education. This expansion of Rosen's work, then, more precisely examines the discourses in which d/Deafness becomes meaningful in schools and classrooms, not necessarily as a "consequence" of law, but as a reflection of the changing society in which the law becomes meaningful. In this response I offer the 1982 case of the Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Amy Rowley as a backdrop to exemplify the elasticity of the law as its limits and possibilities become subject to acts of interpretation, which are necessarily enmeshed with circulating discourses in disability and education.

A Framework for Discourse

I approach this work with Foucault's (1972) and Fairclough's (2001) assertion that power is enacted in discourse. Ideologies are codified in language and gain dominance as they are reified through the interaction and communication of everyday people. IDEA gains meaning not only in its word, but in the performances of systems and individuals as they act in accordance with multiple possible interpretations assumed in their cultural value or non-value. Ferri and Connor (2005) perhaps best exemplify this interdependence of legal and public discourses in their discussion of southern schools' subversion of integration directives in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. Here, the public, with segregationist "hearts and minds," clung to gradualism as a way to avoid racial integration in schools and to consequently thwart legal reform. In the context of IDEA, the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) represents a knowledge-claim to what we believe about the best interests of students with disabilities in education, and is similarly subject to the "hearts and minds" of the public who interpret its meaning for practice. Differing interpretations of whether the LRE may be determined to be a locale in general education (Rueda, Gallego, & Moll, 2000), in terms of the extent that "accommodations" are pragmatically possible or evident (Kavale & Mostert, 2003), or in terms of the discourse of classrooms to be and ever-become inclusive in its assumption of diversity (Allan, 1999; Ware, 2004) is a mainstay in public debates about the inclusion of students with disabilities in general education settings. I present these examples not to debate the merit of the particular claims, but to point out that the dominance of law-as-practiced is dependent on its circulation through the discourses in which it gains meaning toward action.

To interpret phenomena as "unintended" by the law, as Rosen claims, is to read within it limitations, which may, or may not, be products of purpose. While an analysis of discourse in IDEA compels us to read intention–an act of power–as it is writ within legislation (Knopf & Parekh, 2005; Beratan, 2005), to imagine that we are held to this intent assumes our compliance with the worldview of law-writers, and mitigates individual and public agency. People, schools, districts, and courts read the law to fashion it into educational experiences, and do so within unique, local, and ever-shifting discourses on disability and schools. Though we certainly operate within dominant discourses, power circulates, and there is potential to disrupt the ideologies that shape culture. Intention, then, is liminal in the life of the law once it is authorized; it is the interpretation of the words that ultimately restrict or cultivate the educational lives of students who are served through IDEA.

The law, while we may argue can set a stage for racial or disability integration, reaches only as far as public belief and action are willing to extend. Conversely, however, the law may also extend as far as we are willing to reach. In contrast to an analysis of IDEA in terms of the dominant discourses (often ableist/audist) that may be read within the codified language of the law, as Rosen, Knopf and Parekh (2005) along with Beratan (this issue), have already offered, I rather turn my critique outward, and present Amy Rowley's case to focus on the possible contexts in which the law gains meaning as it is enacted post-authorization.

The Case of Amy Rowley

The Supreme Court's 1982 decision in Board of Education v. Rowley signaled an interpretation of Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) that reverberated with implications for d/Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing (D/HH) students, students labeled with disabilities, and educational service providers. Amy Rowley was a d/Deaf first-grade student whose skill in lip-reading allowed her to progress relative to her hearing peers, despite her comprehension of less-than-half of what was said in her spoken-language classroom. Amy's parents, both d/Deaf, with ASL as their primary language, proposed that including an ASL interpreter in Amy's general education class would maximize her educational potential. When their request was initially denied by the school administration, an independent examiner reviewed the claim, and agreed with the administration that Amy's relative progress indicated some benefit, and therefore no additional requirement for the school to provide an interpreter. The examiner's decision was then affirmed on an appeal brought by the New York Commissioner of Education.

Amy's parents subsequently pursued the case, and claimed that the failure of the school to provide an interpreter violated Amy's right to an "appropriate" education under FAPE, here compelled by the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) (1975, later revised as IDEA). The District Court decided in their favor. The school district's second appeal to a higher court affirmed the decision of the District Court. A final petition of the school was accepted by the Supreme Court to review the lower courts' interpretations of FAPE. Their 4-3 opinion was that:

Noticeably absent from the language of the statute is any substantive standard prescribing the level of education to be accorded handicapped children. Certainly the language of the statute contains no requirements like the one imposed by the lower courts-'that States commensurate with the opportunity provided to other children' (Board of Educ. v. Rowley, 1982).

This interpretation of what constituted an "appropriate" education indicated a basic level of access and benefit, and guaranteed no promise of maximum achievement, opportunity, or a consideration of possible student potential. Therefore, providing an ASL interpreter in a context where Amy Rowley was progressing and did have a basic level of access toward "educational benefit" was deemed beyond the scope of the legislation, and could not be compelled. Herein, to incorporate ASL interpretation into instruction was positioned as a possible method for education–parallel to prescribing to an oral approach–which could be determined by the school.

The Landscape of Case Law

As is explicit in Rowley, one arena to examine the life of the law beyond congressional authorization is the context of case law. While the majority opinion of Justices Rehnquist, Burger, Powell, and O'Connor reflected an ideology wherein what is "appropriate" as education for "handicapped" students need not extend to include an assumption of opportunity that might be implicit in the general ideology, or minimally, the goal for compulsory education for all children (Kliebard, 1995; Tyack, 1974), Justices White, Brennan, and Marshall note in their dissent:

Despite its reliance on the use of "appropriate" in the definition of the Act, the majority opinion speculates that "Congress used the word as much described the settings in which the children should be educated as to prescribe the substantive content or supportive services of their education." Of course, the word "appropriate" can be applied in many ways; at times in the Act, Congress used it to recommend mainstreaming handicapped children; at other points, it used the word to refer to the content of the individualized education. The issue before us is what standard the word "appropriate" incorporates when it is used to modify "education." The answer given by the Court is not a satisfactory one (Board of Educ. v. Rowley, 1982).

They further assert that the majority opinion falls short of what the Act intended, and

if there are limits not evident from the face of the statute on what may be considered an 'appropriate education,' they must be found in the purpose of the statute of its legislative history...[to] provide a full educational opportunity to all handicapped children (Board of Educ. v. Rowley, 1982).

The dissonance between the majority opinion and dissent in Rowley attests to the negotiation and interpretation in which individuals engage as they consider the law in terms of belief in action. Competing discourses on disability and education are evident here. The majority opinion seems nestled in a discourse of disability in which students with disabilities are seen as the "other," and where their inclusion in public education is an act of charity (Shapiro, 1999), and not toward providing opportunity equal to that of other students.1 Whereas the Justices reasoned that a standard for educational opportunity is not implied by any federal law on education writ large, we can assume that the concept of compulsory school presupposes an innate value which strives toward the highest possible gain. The implication, then, is that Amy, as a d/Deaf student, was positioned as somehow outside of a general vision of educational excellence.

The dissent, in contrast, read the law in terms of intent to provide full educational opportunity at its most expansive. They point out that the history of the Act as a civil rights law, hence an initiative toward equity, should be considered to interpret FAPE. The possibility for another outcome is not lost, then, as the words of those who did see Amy as guaranteed the fullest benefit of education are also written into case law. Thus, a discourse that positions students with disabilities as the charitable "other" appears alongside a civil rights discourse that defies inequity for any. Whether the absence of clear legislation to spell out a standard for educational excellence or the refusal of the Justices to read an assumption of high achievement within the dictum of education, the Justices' interpretation of the law necessarily arose within larger societal discourses.2

The Landscape of the System of School

While the federal litigation and subsequent legal implications of Rowley has gained much attention, I am drawn further to consider the circumstances in which such a case comes before the courts. If I make the assumption that the vigilance of Amy Rowley's family to secure the best opportunity for their daughter is self-evident, my greater understanding of this case regards the conviction with which the school district brought their appeals. Before the Supreme Court, and even before the initial decision of the independent examiner, there was, simply, a d/Deaf child's family requesting an interpreter. While I cannot offer the specific conversations that occurred in the school, I can imagine the over-arching discourses in which the discussions arose.

The practice of teaching has changed little from the industrial era-influenced social efficiency model that gained dominance through the 19th and early 20th century. Taylorism informs a school structure where students are assumed to learn in the same relative ways, and the teacher's role is to teach toward the mass in a "technically-sound" manner (Kliebard, 1995). If analogous to an assembly line, the teacher is to modify each "widget" in the same way, through the same time-tested method. As school-as-a-system operates with an ideology of efficiency, then it is no surprise that the Hendrick Hudson school district was unwilling to provide further alteration of Amy Rowley's learning environment, especially at cost to the school.

In addition to an efficiency model, Varenne and McDermott (1998), along with Dudley-Marling and Dippo (1995) describe schools as arising within and perpetuating a discourse of the "normal," wherein the practice of teaching is rightfully static, and students who fail to learn are necessarily anomalies. To uphold this ideology, the system of special education arises and utilizes a medical discourse to position struggling students though individual deficit as it names their particularities–deaf, learning disabled, cognitively impaired, emotionally disturbed, to name a few. Thus, a justifiable cause to uphold the rightness of school, and the "wrongness" of particular students is instantiated. As Kalyanpur and Harry (1999) point out, the medicalization of students with disabilities occurs within a professional lexicon and culture that positions school workers as experts, and lays greater claim to knowledge about students' best interests than their families/guardians. For Amy Rowley, this discourse of expertism protected the school's prerogative to determine the in-appropriateness of an ASL interpreter, despite her parents' lived experience--in both raising their daughter and being d/Deaf themselves–which may have led them to their request.

Another discourse that may have led to the school's appeals is the audist perspective that was a framing concept of IDEA, and which, as Rosen proposes, surely indicated a stance toward the assimilation of d/Deaf students into a "hearing" world. What acculturation was to "culturally deprived" children in the early years of compulsory education, here, perhaps, was a further example (Kliebard, 1995). Finally, Fleischer and Zames (2001) point out a view of people with disabilities as charitable benefactors, and not active participants in the workforce as characteristic of widespread ableist ideology. In this view, the school was willing to accept a basic level of achievement for a student who they, perhaps, saw limited options for future opportunity.

In sum, the school's failure to provide an ASL interpreter for Amy Rowley, and the conviction with which they protected their decision reflects greater discourses in disability and education. Whether to uphold the efficient function of the school; to maintain the school as a normal enterprise; as a reflection of expert dominance; and/or as a response to an ideology of disability as undesirable or a charitable cause, underlying beliefs about disability and education likely informed the school's tenacity in the appellate courts.

The Landscape of the Classroom

As I narrow my focus from federal case law to the system of school, I present the classroom as a final context. Here, IDEA becomes less recognizable as a writ of legislation, and more consonant with the practice of individual teachers. Amy Rowley's progress, and the claim that she received educational benefit, was determined through her attainment of passing grades and her promotion to subsequent school levels–each criterion as evaluated by a teacher. Though ancillary to the litigation in Rowley, as I would not argue that grades and promotion should be the standard for determining "appropriate" education, nor that Amy would have been served better were she described as "failing," the discourses that structure school and case law decisions are made practical and impractical at the place of teaching.

Teachers' practices arise in broad discourses on disability and education, such as the ones I have already mentioned, as well as become central as they inform the discourse of the classroom. Teachers bring with them identities, beliefs, experience, and culture that strongly impact the ways that they envision student learning, their own acts of teaching, and their active work toward creating inclusive environments (Allan, 1999; Kincheloe, 2003; Lyons, 1994). Particular to teachers of D/HH students in inclusive contexts, but likely pertinent for teachers overall, Antia and Stinson (1999), Leigh (1999), Marlatt (2002), and Cawthon (2001), each point out that teachers' philosophies and beliefs about the inclusion of D/HH students in general education greatly impact the way that they approach their teaching and the outcome for students. Teachers commit to the success of their D/HH students by setting high expectations for achievement (S. D. Antia, 1999; Jimenez-Sanchez & Antia, 1999), and disrupt an ideology of education as charitable. They envision "appropriate" education to be excellent education. Further, that teachers commit to collaboration with each other and with interpreters, along with their expansion of methodologies to be inclusive of D/HH students attests to a changing view of teaching and the classroom as flexible, rather than static (Kreimeyer, Crooke, Drye, Egbert, & Klein, 2000). Finally, as teachers enact the inclusion of d/Deaf students to value and nurture their identities as members of a history and culture, most strong in ASL, they strip the shame from disability, and re-write a history of audist-acculturation (Cawthon, 2001; Leigh, 1999). As teachers enact and model their beliefs, so then a classroom discourse arises in which D/HH students may become rightful participants, and where ASL figures into full educational opportunity.

Although the LRE and inclusion of sign language as a consideration in developing the IEP compelled a locale in which Deaf culture and ASL could be made prominent, I propose that it is the due diligence of teachers in their en-action of FAPE that has led to their proliferation. It is the teacher-led classroom context where ASL interpretation becomes practical and impractical, Deaf culture is valued or made marginal, and students learn to see themselves and others as included or excluded. To consider the impact of IDEA on students and on the spread of Deaf culture is to recognize the in-practice and daily work of teachers and students as they make meaning of d/Deafness, disability, and education where it is most powerful.

A Position of Possibility

As the Supreme Court ruling on FAPE in Rowley, which has yet to be contested on the federal level, may indicate the most basic provision of support and access, it is clear in the research that some teachers and schools strive toward a higher standard for the education of D/HH students. Thus, we are not confined by the law, and neither does the law lead us, but for its broadest declarations. Ultimately, we–as Justices, boards of educations, and educators–are left with our own beliefs, and our own interpretations through which to imagine FAPE as most extensive, to construct the LRE as truly expansive, and to explicitly live and practice our roles as en-actors and disrupters of many possible ideologies. The increase in schools' acceptance of ASL as language-culture and as a necessary accommodation arises from and pushes on the discursive context of school and society in which d/Deafness and disability gain meaning. The law, then, compels us to not only "read" intention within it, but also to continually probe its seeming permanence–to push its diaphanous borders to enact excellent education for all students through our due diligence.


Allan, J. (1999). Actively seeking inclusion: Pupils with special needs in mainstream schools. London: Falmer Press.

Antia, S., & Stinson, M. S. (1999). Some conclusions on the education of deaf and hard-of-hearing students in inclusive settings. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 4(3), 246-248.

Antia, S. D. (1999). The roles of special educators and classroom teachers in an inclusive school. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 4(3), 203-214.

Beratan, G.D. (2005, May 19-21). How to succeed in discrimination without really trying: Institutional ableism and IDEA. Paper presented at the 5th Annual Second City Conference in Disability Studies in Education: The Thirtieth Anniversary of IDEA: Its Impact on American Education and Society, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, NY.

Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982).

Cawthon, S. W. (2001). Teaching strategies in inclusive classrooms with deaf students. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 6(3), 213-225.

Dudley-Marling, C., & Dippo, D. (1995). What learning disability does: Sustaining the ideology of schooling. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 28, 406-414.

Education for All Handicapped Children Act, 20 U.S.C. 1401 et seq. (1975).

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Ferri, B.A. & Connor, D.J. (2005). Tools of Exclusion: Race, Disability, and (Re)segregated Education. Teachers College Record, 107(3). 453-474.

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Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. Section 1400-1487. (Supp. III, 1997)

Jimenez-Sanchez, C., & Antia, S. D. (1999). Team-teaching in an integrated classroom: Perceptions of deaf and hearing teachers. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 4(3), 215-234.

Johnson, S.F. (2003). Reexamining Rowley: A new focus in special education law. The Beacon, 2(2), Retrieved January 22, 2006, from http://www.harborhouselaw.com/articles/rowley.reexamine.johnson.htm

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Kavale, K. A., & Mostert, M. P. (2003). River of ideology, islands of evidence. Exceptionality, 11(4), 191-208.

Kincheloe, J. L. (2003). Critical ontology: Visions of selfhood and curriculum. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 19(1), 47-64.

Kliebard, H. M. (1995). The struggle for the American curriculum: 1893-1958 (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.

Knopf, J. & Parekh, H.M. (2005, May 19-21). Reauthorization of IDEA (2004) and its impact on students, teachers, and families. Paper presented at the 5th Annual Second City Conference in Disability Studies in Education: The Thirtieth Anniversary of IDEA: Its Impact on American Education and Society, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, NY.

Kreimeyer, K. H., Crooke, P., Drye, C., Egbert, V., & Klein, B. (2000). Academic and social benefits of a co-enrollment model of inclusive education for deaf and hard-of-hearing children. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 5(2), 175-185.

Leigh, I. W. (1999). Inclusive education and personal development. Journal of Deaf Studies and Deaf Education, 4(3), 236-245.

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Ware, L. (Ed.). (2004). Ideology and the politics of (in)exclusion. New York: Peter Lang.


1My references to ideologies of charity, and later discussion of the ideologies of the "normalized" school, while situated in the past to focus on Rowley, does not assume that these discourses no longer circulate as significant in the education of students with disabilities today. Conversely, their impact today leads me to assume that they were there then.

2In the time since this 1982 decision, disability rights have burgeoned in legislation through the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (1991), and in the revisions of IDEA (1991; 1997; 2004). Pittman & Huefner (2001) point out that the revision of IDEA to include sign language as a native language might now lead to a ruling on the appropriate language for instruction, and not to the appropriateness of method. In addition, bringing suit under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which asserts a right to non-discriminatory access, might also have altered the nature of the arguments ("Limiting the Impact," 2000). Johnson (2003) further notes that some State constitutions more strongly compel full opportunity in education, and in addition, a more defined assertion of standards-based curriculum in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (2002), which demands the adequate yearly progress of students with disabilities in terms of a high standard of achievement might yield a different outcome were Rowley brought before the Supreme Court today.

Copyright (c) 2006 Susan Baglieri

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