Disability Studies Quarterly
Spring 2006, Volume 26, No. 2
<www.dsq-sds.org>
Copyright 2006 by the Society
for Disability Studies


The Again Familiar Trope: A Response to "Infusing Disability in
the Curriculum: The Case of Saramago's Blindness"

Linda Ware, Ph.D
Associate Professor
School of Education
Department of Leadership and Special Education
City College of New York
138th Street and Convent Avenue
New York, New York 10031
E-mail: lware@ccny.cuny.edu

Abstract

"Infusing Disability in the Curriculum: The Case of Saramago's Blindness" aims for a conversation with readers about the possible uses for this parable as a vehicle to promote a more critical discussion of disability in college coursework. Central to the teaching of this novel from a disability studies perspective is the imperative to trouble the "othering" of blindness and by default, the "othering" of disability reified by this novel. In this response I consider the challenges for teacher educators who likewise aim to structure more critical discussion of disability in teacher preparation courses.

Keywords: Disability Studies, Literature, Blindness

"Infusing Disability in the Curriculum: The Case of Saramago's Blindness" offers readers both an overview of a much celebrated novel by the internationally acclaimed, Jose Saramago and a more problematized view of the again familiar trope of blindness in particular and disability in general. As readers are likely aware, Blindness offers little in the way of disability positive portrayals (Baker, 1999) and thus the novel is more readily utilized as a "non-example"–another, in a long list of what is typically conveyed in contemporary/popular literature and media. One can randomly select from endless passages that convey blindness as personal misfortune and social catastrophe–a form of evil that is at once subtly and overtly suffused in many works by non-disabled writers who author accounts of disability experiences. And yet, the majority of critics exclaimed the brilliance of the novel, in particular Saramago's stylistic devices that render the reader "blind" in a manner of speaking. Through the use of long sentences separated by commas, "stitched together" without speaker identification, without quotation marks or paragraph breaks–Saramago simulates the assumed confusion and chaos blind people experience in social situations. Writing in Poltics and Culure (1997), George Snedeker heralded this sentence structure technique noting that: "At first this may seem troublesome and an irritation, but in a book about the loss of sight or perspective, the stylistic devices Saramago uses only enhance your experience of the predicament the characters are in–a brilliant find."

Ben-Moshe is quick to remind that this simulation activity is off the mark when considered against first person accounts of blindness offered by others (i.e., Kleege, Kuusisto, Michalko). In Sight Unseen (1999), Kleege considers blindness as both "unique and universal" (p. 5), and in a later essay (2005) urges visual studies scholars to abandon their reliance on the "Hypothetical Blind man who serves as a prop for theories about consciousness" (179). Kleege contends that the average blind person "knows more about what it means to be sighted than the average sighted person knows about what it means to be blind" (ibid: p. 180). That is: "The blind grow up, attend school, and lead adult lives among sighted people. The language that we speak, the literature that we read, the architecture that we inhabit, were all designed by and for the sighted" (p. 180).

From this perspective the othering of blindness reified by Saramago is turned on its head and disability as an absolute state of difference is disrupted. Exposing teachers to the writings of Kleege against a close reading of Blindness would invite a way into the contested meanings about blindness and by extension, about disability. Carried a bit further, it would be useful to consider the H. G. Wells story, The Country of the Blind, also against the work of Saramago and augmented by Kleege's analysis:

Wells startles readers out of complacency by subverting their expectations that blind people in the real world are helpless, passive, and dependent. To imagine a world where sightlessness would be the norm, shaping every aspect of life, allows for the possibility that blindness might not be the dire disaster that Oedipus spends his life proclaiming. (Kleege, 1999, p. 80)

Such conversations are rare among educators as literature is typically found in supplemental readings and not necessarily integrated into teacher preparation coursework. The challenge remains to make important connections across these literatures so that teachers can construct more critical understanding of disability that will in turn, inform their practice.

Othering disability in teacher education

Whether blindness is considered as Ben-Moshe does, specific to its metaphors, or it is subsumed in a discussion of disability in general, the point remains that "othering" disability has particularly problematic consequences for educators. In my work with teachers I have found that teachers too readily embrace exclusively clinical understandings of disability, and therefore efforts to explore alternative paradigms for understanding disability prove disruptive on several levels. Elsewhere I have considered this resistance among educators but rather than cite the limits of individual teachers, I have urged that we expose the limits of traditional teacher preparation (Ware, 2001; 2003; 2006). Clearly, if special education teacher preparation remains firmly rooted in reductionism the hunt for disability will remain the essence of practice (see Baker, 2002; Brantlinger, 1997; Rice, 2005).

Diagnosis as Default

With diagnosis so clearly the default mode for understanding disability in schools, what potential exists to disrupt this well-entrenched paradigm? Here I suggest that one way to avoid the retreat to reductionism is to recapture the curiosity of teachers through humanities-based disability studies and through the exploration of texts uncommon to special education teacher preparation. Such a project has the explicit goal of imagining curriculum that engages general and special education students in newly conceived communities of learners (Ware, 2005; 2006). It is a project that recognizes the necessity for meaningful curriculum building experiences between general and special education as one way to explore the hegemony of ableist mandates that are everywhere in education (see also Hehir, 2005).

Critical Dialogue on Disability Among Educators

In the section that follows I briefly outline earlier efforts towards these ends–they are instances to consider rather than models to follow. I draw on my experiences teaching general and special educators in a five-week disability studies summer institute for K-12 teachers funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). And most recently in the master's program at City College (City University of New York). For purposes of this essay I refer to the former as the immersion approach and the latter as the embedded approach.

An Immersion Approach

Working with colleagues at the University of Illinois Chicago (Mitchell, Snyder, Ware, 2003) in the summer of 2003, we organized a 5-week summer institute for K-12 educators sponsored by the NEH. Presenters included well-known disability studies scholars in the humanities (i.e., Martha Rose, Sharon Snyder, Helen Deutsch, Tobin Seibers, Martha Stoddard Holmes, Rosemarie Garland-Thompson, David Mitchell, Douglas C. Baynton, Carrie Sandahl, Jim Ferris; Lennard Davis, Brenda Bruegerman, G. Thomas Couser, David Gerber) and Chicago area artists and performers who appear in the video chronicle, Disability Takes on the Arts (Snyder & Mitchell, 2005). This immersion experience into disability studies provided teachers the time to consider the literary and historic record which included numerous examples of the influence of disability in the lives and art of thinkers such as Homer, John Milton, Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, John Keats, Charles Darwin, Walt Whitman, Henry James, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Stephan Crane, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Frida Kahlo, and Flannery O'Connor, to name only a few. These individuals have all drawn from their experiences as disabled people to participate in and contribute to the evolution of the expressive record in ways that undermine the familiar tropes cited by Ben-Moshe. And yet, when the institute faculty introduced this content to teachers, general dismay followed. There was general head scratching among the teachers as they assumed the posse formation and speculated about categories and labels to affix to these individuals in a quest to "name that disability." It was as if the institute organizers issued a handout with two columns: one that contained the names of these authors and artists and the other a list of disability labels. Rather than reflect on the possible insights contained in these works, the teachers envisioned the task as turning on identifying the disability.

As project directors/instructors, we were dismayed in the moment; however, in retrospect, we conceded that diagnosis is too often where educators go when the topic is disability. Truth be told, much of what teacher preparation demands is the rote memorization of categorical knowledge and scripted insights into disability informed by diagnosis and clinical assessments. This knowledge set subsumes all others to the extent that the relevance of the work of Flannery O'Conner and others outside the dogma of the textbook becomes increasingly difficult to excavate. As in the example above, when the curriculum called for educators to grapple with the complexity of disability experiences as more than static categories the knowledge base they relied upon was wholly inadequate to the task. When the curriculum asked that educators probe for meanings outside the medicalized view of disability questions surfaced about the relevance of this activity for educators. It was argued by some participants that the "limitations" of the students mandated "functional" instruction and to veer from a "basic skills" curriculum would only serve to harm students (Mitchell, Snyder, & Ware, 2003). Other participants insisted that mandated state testing in conformance with the No Child Left Behind regulations imposed strict restrictions on the curriculum, prompting that increasingly common refrain: "if it isn't on the test it doesn't get taught."

Although it could be argued as well that many of the NEH participants were hampered by the lack of familiarity with the literary works presented during the institute, one contemporary work proved equally troublesome. The Curious Incident in the Night-time with the Dog (Haddon, 2004) was newly published and none of the participants were familiar with it or the international acclaim that followed its publication. When I assigned the novel, my intention was to point to contemporary works as a vehicle to trouble the absolute categories proffered in special education theory. However, many participants were unwilling to finish reading it. The compunction was so strong to discredit the author's characterization of the main character, Christopher, who appears to have autism, that many teachers rejected the novel because the author didn't get the Asperger's "right" (for a more complete discussion see Ware, 2006). Today when I assign this book to teachers I anticipate the default to diagnose and rather than discredit this impulse it becomes a way into understanding the pervasive influence of the medical model.

It bears mention that resistance to the immersion approach was not uniform among the participants. Although most found the curriculum challenging, several have since presented their classroom-based research informed by disability studies in various research venues (see Solis & Ware, 2005; Stolz, 2005; Dinaro, 2004). The work of these educators holds great promise and it will serve those who attempt to reform teacher education to include more critical interpretations of disability.

An Embedded Approach

The special education program at the City College of New York (CCNY) was recently revised to include a heavy dose of disability studies content embedded within an inclusive education program. The stamp of this revisionist text is evident in nine new course descriptions but noticeably missing from the title of the program.[i]Such was our intent as any debate that might follow to rename the program to reflect disability studies would have jeopardized the energy of participating faculty who pushed the program through the many layers of approval (e.g., program, department and school-wide committees).[ii] The revision team embedded this content throughout the program with the clear intention of cross-referencing the content of our courses.

One course in particular, Disability Studies in Education[iii] will be referenced here as it was designed with the explicit goal of creating lesson plans for use in general and special education classrooms. This course enrolls general education teachers who take the course as an elective and special education teachers who take the course as a requirement. Working together these educators consider content once held to be the exclusive domain of special education and with their uniquely configured student constituencies in mind, the teachers create lesson plans informed by disability studies content that is new to the students.[iv]

Stretching in dialogue

Because our classes include general and special education students and those newly enrolled as New York Teaching Fellows[v]–the class composition is a more broadly conceived discursive community than the previous special education program allowed. In general, the Teaching Fellows are unfamiliar with teacher education coursework, unversed in the day-to-day operations of public education, and unwilling to abandon either curiosity or outrage as they navigate their early years as teachers. Although they may lack a working vernacular of special education terminology, they possess rich backgrounds in liberal arts and a strong desire to be teachers. In our classes they complete the mix of graduate students who have been teaching and who are pursuing a master's degree in special education and those general education teachers enrolled in the course for elective credit. In our first class meeting I present the same list (as above) and ask students to identify what they might know about the artists and/or their works. Working in small groups, they begin open-ended discussion on the question: How might we explore the ways that disability informs the works of these writers and artists?

Although each small group tackles the question in unique ways, it is significant to note that the heterogeneity of student backgrounds in the CCNY classes has extended this activity. Their conversations blend arts interpretations and disability knowledges, which taken together, defy the once again familiar tropes of disability. Ben-Moshe's guiding questions are considered in class before the students read Blindness. We consider:

If blindness is the signifier, what is the referent? What does it refer to in the world outside the novel? What does Saramago tell readers by using blindness as a signifier? Not just about humanity and society, but what does it say about blindness?

Students are given the option to read various first person narratives to probe not only blindness guided by the questions above, but to probe the othering of disability found in their selected readings for the class. In previous semesters I have utilized various guiding questions including Garland-Thomson's (2001) taxonomy of four visual rhetorics of disability. Informed by this and other works, the CCNY students have come to understand disability as a "culturally fabricated narrative of the body" (ibid: p. 347). Informed by this perspective the lesson plans that students create are infused with the critical eye of educators who now actively challenge the familiar tropes on blindness or disability in their own teaching.

Conclusion

"When you hear the wolf–the wolf is everywhere."

This line appeared on the syllabus of my first disability studies course at the University of Kansas (Stigma and Disability, 1991), taught by the late Daryl Evans. Evans was an early leader in the Society for Disability Studies (SDS), and a sociologist who originally coined the term "normate" (see Thomson, 1996). When I enrolled in the course it included students from sociology, American studies, and social welfare. Although my scholarship was significantly influenced by the course content, for purposes of this essay I want to suggest that equally important was the fact that the class modeled the importance of participation in a more broadly discursive community. In Evan's class we departed from the insular discourse that serves to maintain status quo assumptions about disability in education. So much of what special education has morphed into is little more than a heap of terminology, manufactured identities and scripted texts that ensure compliance. Like the hypothetical blind man described by Kleege (2005) who becomes the "stock character" that serves for theories of consciousness (p. 179); special education is it's own hypothetical case that serves as a prop for theories that medicalize difference. This critique of special education found in the critical special education literature (Ware, 2005) was summoned by Thomas Hehir, the former director of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs (1993-99), who calls for the end of abelism in education (2005). In a final report to the New York City Department of Education (2005), a team of Harvard researchers led by Hehir found:

Although the medical model of disability is useful in determining the existence of some disabilities and is relevant to certain intervention decisions, reliance on this model alone is problematic. First, it is important to note that all children with disabilities, whether their condition is easily identified with a medical model or not, have to exist within the social system of the school. Further, schools should be preparing these children for the future in which they will live and work in the broader community. Excessive reliance on the medical model typically pays little attention to this reality (13).

At the heart of this report readers will find a critique of ableism that signals a sea change in education policy. My concern remains that teachers will not have the opportunity to engage in conversations to understand disability more critically. The fact remains that many teachers are ill prepared to discuss disability culture as a nuanced cultural formation; they feel under-equipped to articulate the views held by many disability rights activists because those perspectives remain relatively unknown and difficult to embody as knowledge the teacher can possess with confidence. It is my hope teacher educators will consider the conversation Ben-Moshe and I launched in our essays in an effort to better prepare general and special educators to challenge the imperative to "other" in K-12 education.

References

Baker, B. (1999). Disabling methodologies. Pedagogy, Culture & Society, 7 (1), 91-115.

Baker B. (2002). The hunt for disability: The new eugenics and the normalization of school children. Teachers College Record, 104 (4), 663-703.

Brantlinger, E. (1997). Using ideology: Cases of nonrecognition of the politics of research and practice in special education. Review of Educational Research, 67 (4), 425-459.

Dinaro, A. (2004). Conceptualizations of Disability in Special Education: An Exploration of Teachers' Understandings. Unpublished Master's Thesis, University of Illinois Chicago.

Garland-Thomson, R. (2001). Seeing the disabled: Visual rhetorics of disability in popular photography. In P. Longmore and L. Umanksy (Eds.), The New Disability History: American Perspectives (pp. 335-374). New York: New York University Press.

Haddon, M. (2003). The curious incident in the night time with the dog. New York: Knopf.

Hehir, T., Figueroa, R., Gamm, S., Katzman, L., Gruner, A., Karger, J., & Hernandez, J. (2005). Comprehensive management review and evaluation of special education. Final report to The New York City Department of Education. September, 2005.

Hehir, Thomas (2005). New directions in special education: Eliminating abelism in policy and practice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Kleege, G. (1999). Sight unseen. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

______. (2005). Blindness and visual culture: An eyewitness account. Journal of Visual Culture, 4 (2), 180-190.

Mitchell, D., Snyder. S. and Ware, L. (2003). Integrating disability studies in the humanites, a final report to the National Endowment for the Humanities, Washington, D.C.

Rice, N. (2005). Guardians of Tradition: Presentation of inclusion in three introductory special education textbooks. International Journal of Inclusive Education,9 (4), 405-429

Snedeker, George (1997). Politics and Culture. Retrieved November 11, 2005 from, http://aspen.conncoll.edu/politicsandculture.

Snyder, S. and Mitchell, D. (2005). Disability Takes on the Arts [Motion picture]. Chicago, IL: Brace Yourself Productions.

Solis. S. and Ware, l. (2005). Research as Art. Installation of student picture books at Artist Space. New York, NY.

Stolz, S. (2005). The "Other" Way to Talk about Disability:  Changing Ableist Conceptions in the Classroom. University of California, San Diego: Unpublished Master's thesis.

Thomson, R. G. (1996). Extraordinary bodies: Figuring physical disability in American culture and literature. New York: Columbia University Press.

Ware. L. (2001). Writing, identity and the other: Dare we do disability studies? Journal of Teacher Education, 52 (3), 107-123.

_____. (2003). Working past pity: What we make of disability in schools. In J. Allan (ed.), Inclusion, participation and democracy: What is the purpose? (pp. 117-137). Dordreccht/Boston/London: Kluewer Academic Press.

_____. (2005). Many possible futures, many different directions: Merging critical special education and disability studies. In S. Gabel (Ed.), Disability studies in education (pp. 103-124). New York: Peter Lang.

____. (2006). Urban Educators, Disability Studies, and Education: Excavations in Schools and Society. The International Journal of Inclusive Education, 10 (4-5), 370-394.

Wells, H. G. (1978). The Country of the Blind. In J. Pickering (Ed.), Fiction 100: An Anthology of Short Stories, 2nd Edition, (pp. 1010-1023). New York: MacMillan Publishing Co.

Endnotes

iSpecial education home page www.ccny.cuny.edu
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iiThese faculty included: Jan Valle, Maysaa Bazna, Keri Levin, Ayn Male, Ken Male, Ellen Rice, Santiago Solis, and Marvin Stober. Also, invaluable insights from David J. Conner, Andreia Vizeu, Zenobia-Hazzard Mann, Melinda, Denise West and Ben Kates as student and community representatives informed our revision process.
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iii Disability Studies in Middle Childhood Education This course has the dual focus of promoting understanding disability and creating instruction informed by the experience of disability. Various contemporary literary and historical accounts of living with disability will be explored with attention to their use in a variety of educational contexts. Traditional as well as alternative interpretations of living with disability will be explored for consideration of their impact on learning. Moving away from the hegemony of strictly biological and/or pathological interpretations of disability, participants will design curriculum materials for classroom use that integrate disability positive portrayals. The participants will identify print materials (i.e., picture books, chapter books, young adult fiction, memoirs, biography, newspaper and magazine articles), and other visual media (film, television programs, advertisements, web-based materials) suitable for inclusion in the general curriculum (i.e., language arts, social studies, science, mathematics). From this selection the participants will develop lessons that focus on understanding disability in the everyday context (i.e., how many people live with disability). Attention will be given to issues of transition and access. This curriculum experience seeks to promote the view of disability as an essential feature of diversity in a multicultural society.
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iv Defined by the Disability Studies Special Interest Group (DSE SIG) of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) as: Disability studies is an emerging interdisciplinary field of scholarship that critically examines issues related to the dynamic interplays between disability and various aspects of culture and society. Disability studies unites critical inquiry and political advocacy by utilizing scholarly approaches from the humanities, humanistic/post-humanistic social sciences, and the arts. When specifically applied to educational issues, it promotes the importance of infusing analyses and interpretations of disability throughout all forms of educational research, teacher education, and graduate studies in education (Gabel, 2005, p. 1).
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v The New York City Teaching Fellows program offers alternative certification for teachers who are willing to commit to urban education in New York City Schools with designated "high needs" status. The students are enticed into a program that offers reduced tuition and a fast track masters program. They are recruited nationally and hold undergraduate degrees from many prestigious liberal arts universities. Their coursework in education is the first for many who prior to applying to the Fellows program had no expressed aspirations to become a teacher.
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Copyright (c) 2006 Linda Ware



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