How are disability and ability defined in relation to each other? Who decides these definitions within educational systems, and how do these definitions shift over time? In Contemplating Dis/Ability in Schools and Society, David J. Connor offers a range of personal, professional and political insights from 30 years of his own experiences as a critical special educator in New York City. With great skill and thoughtfulness, Connor takes the reader across his career trajectory through an autoethnographic memoir that provides an extensive set of systemic observations about the various ecosystems concerned with inclusive education in the city. Organized in eight chapters that correspond to different phases of Connor's career in education, Contemplating Dis/Ability in Schools and Society does an excellent job of centering the main personal narratives while also foregrounding them with astute analytical commentaries. Each of these commentaries provides an insight into a different aspect of teaching and learning through a reflection on the work of teaching and learning in schools and universities, the role of educational laws, and above all, the impact of these structures and systems on the lived experiences of people with disabilities through a Disability Studies in Education framework (from Connor, Gabel, Gallagher and Morton, 2008, cited on xxvi).

Interestingly, it is Connor's choice of method that allows for the most valuable contribution of this book, which is the addition of a personal perspective to the range of available empirical data. It is his continued reluctance to separate the personal from the professional that has influenced the methodology of this book, which is aptly titled, "The Personal is the Professional" (xxiv). In the introduction, Connor provides a comprehensively researched, accessible review of the value of autoethnography as method, both from a personal perspective and as indicated by the literature on its use as a method within education. He notes that the goal of his method is to influence the opinions of readers who may have very different perspectives and experiences relating to dis/ability in education, and in doing so to continue a number of conversations relating to the issues that this book raises (xxviii).

Beginning with his time as a public high school teacher who worked with students labeled Learning Disabled, Chapter 1 of Contemplating Dis/Ability draws out a tension that Connor continues to refer to through the book i.e. his "wanting out" (xviii). Despite his attempts to leave teaching and to move away from special education, it is here that he comes to find and build a personal and professional home as he continues to reflect on his own engagement with ideas of difference and ability. As Chapter 2 makes evident, his time as a teacher opens the door for his work as a in-service professional development specialist in a number of Manhattan high schools. Here, he engages with the manner in which education laws embody the medical model, causing administrators often to run a "production line" (73) with regard to special education, while still noting the moments when he is met with more acceptance than anticipated.

Chapters 3 and 4 are focused on Connor's time as a doctoral student. In Chapter 3, Connor's own journey toward rethinking disability takes a fascinating turn with his decision to apply for a doctoral degree. He points the reader to seminal works in disability studies and the role of several key scholars who influenced his own thinking. In an attempt to buy the time that would allow him to continue the research necessary for his decision, he begins another chapter as a teacher coach with the then-newly restructured NYC Department of Education. Working between two schools over a two-year period, he gives careful consideration to the influence of various models of disability as reflected in teacher and student mindsets.

Chapters 5 – 8 are focused on Connor's work within academia. In Chapter 5, having completed his degree, he begins working as a professor in Hunter's Department of Special Education. Given his expansive engagement with other founding scholars of the field of Disability Studies in Education, Connor is both keenly aware of the tensions between special education and disability studies and uniquely placed to guide the reader with his personal reflections on philosophical differences, history and sociopolitical critique. Having secured a tenure track position, it is in Chapter 6 that he takes us through some of his internal deliberations and external processes as he builds upon his scholarly body of work in Disability Studies in Education. Here, he also provides summaries of his engagement with other scholars through conferences and personal correspondence. In Chapter 7, he muses on his own role in introducing doctoral students from a range of backgrounds to disability studies, contrasting it with his previous experiences with graduate level education programs. Finally, in Chapter 8, Connor discusses some of the challenges and affordances of his time as department chairperson, including a closer reading of his interactions with students and his relationship with other faculty members.

Working through his own deliberations on the chasm between special education and DSE, Connor concludes with a fulsome engagement that suggests the need for a shift in focus away from special education through the use of DSE as a framework for reconceptualization. Ultimately, the epilogue provides a hopeful ending that calls for a continued passionate commitment to rethinking dis/ability and makes evident the need for more educators to share their experiences with these processes. This is a book that speaks to both general audiences who may be unfamiliar with the evolution of disability studies in education and to those who are keen to know more about the history of the field within academia. The detailed reflections give texture to the content of the book, while the analytical commentaries continue to draw the implications of the personal back to the systemic nature of disablement. This fascinating and valuable text makes a powerful interdisciplinary contribution and would be useful to educators and students working through various conversations within disability studies and education.

Works Cited

  • Connor, David. (2018). Contemplating dis/ability in schools and society – a life in education. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
  • Connor, David & Gabel, Susan & Gallagher, Deborah & Morton, Missy. (2008). Disability studies and inclusive education — implications for theory, research, and practice. International Journal of Inclusive Education. 12. https://doi.org/10.1080/13603110802377482
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