As a field, Disability Studies has gained ground in the past few decades by highlighting alternative ways of thinking about disability as a social, cultural, and political phenomenon. As more education professionals pursue advanced degrees with a Disability Studies framework, there is a need to understand how, if at all, Disability Studies influences their perspectives and practices. This study employed semi-structured interviews with nine doctoral students enrolled in a Doctorate of Philosophy in Education program that used the framework of Disability Studies, who are also practicing education professionals, to explore how gaining knowledge about Disability Studies impacted their daily work in the field of education. Through their experiences, they indicated that Disability Studies has transformed their conceptualization of disability, their practices, and themselves.

The emergence of Disability Studies has provided new ways of thinking about disability and special education or the education of students who learn differently than what is assumed to be normal (Valle & Connor, 2011). Re-conceptualizing disability as a social, cultural, economic, material, historical, and/or political phenomenon enables seeing disability as part of the human experience rather than as a medical problem (Ferguson & Nusbaum, 2012). Since Disability Studies seek to address the social oppression of person's labeled as disabled there are certainly benefits to introducing teachers and other school practitioners to the field of Disability Studies (Ashby, 2012; Taylor, 2008). For example, teachers may be able to identify and change practices that oppress or marginalize students with disabilities (Ashby, 2011). Therefore, expanding the conceptualization of disability provides a framework to challenge educational policies and practices (Taylor, 2008).

Within the past decade, there has been a growth of university programs that incorporate Disability Studies within the curriculum (e.g., undergraduate minor/major or certificate, master's degree or doctoral degrees with a concentration in Disability Studies, or doctoral degree in Disability Studies) (Taylor & Zubal-Ruggieri, 2013). As a growing number of students gain exposure to a field that promotes awareness and challenges their understanding of inclusion, disability rights, and disability identities, there is a need to understand how the framework of Disability Studies impacts individual's philosophy, research, and practices (Danforth & Gabel, 2008). In other words, Danforth and Gabel (2008) raise the question: "In what ways, if at all, does disability studies inform pedagogy and practice?" (p. 9). This reflects the need to understand the perspectives of those who are pursuing degrees or certificates within Disability Studies in order to not only understand their experiences but also take into consideration the changes that need to occur within academic curriculum, culture, research, and practices in order to prepare future educators to best address and serve the needs of students and teachers within K-12 and higher education (Danforth & Gabel, 2008).

The purpose of this article is to understand the impact of exposure to Disability Studies on professionals' perceptions and practices in their respective fields of early education, K-12, and higher education across multiple contexts including school and clinical settings. Interviewing nine doctoral students (i.e., six special educators, one instructor in a special education teacher preparation program, one early intervention coordinator, and one full time student who adjuncts on the side), who are enrolled in the a Ph.D. in Education program at a private university, enabled a glimpse into understanding the transformational impact of Disability Studies as they relate to teaching and teaching practices.

Professional Development and Teacher Transformation

"Transformative" professional development is defined as continuing education that supports positive change in teachers' perceptions and practices through reexamination of self and their practice through transforming self, their practice, and the school environment (Jurow, 2009; Miranda, 2012). A significant body of research suggests that such professional development often occurs when teachers work in groups and are provided space to collaborate and learn from one another (Desimone et al., 2002; Jones, West, & Stevens, 2006; Levin & Rock, 2003). Hoffman-Kipp (2003) found that teacher working groups such as "Communities of Practice" assisted teachers in gearing their teaching more heavily toward social justice issues. In essence, collaborative dialogue around teaching for social justice supported the transformation of teacher practice. Providing opportunities for teachers to engage with each other seems essential in transforming perspectives and practice.

In addition to collaboration, sharing each other's expertise, knowledge, and experience not only enables growth in perspectives and praxis, but also acknowledges, values, and draws upon a diverse array of expertise, knowledge, and experiences (Jones, West, & Stevens, 2006; Whitehead & Huxtable, 2013), which can lead towards significant positive transformation in their pedagogical approaches as they critically reflect on new information (Arnold, Edwards, Hooley, & Williams, 2012; Lebak & Tinsley, 2010). This not only empowers teachers but also assists them in recognizing the significance of understanding how their learning process impacts the learning of others (Jones, West, & Stevens, 2006; Whitehead & Huxtable, 2013). This indicates that a critical element of "transformative" professional development is self-conception and self-knowledge rather than overview of technical knowledge that is already familiar to teachers (Jurow, 2009). Critical self-reflection/reexamination is significant to personal and professional development as it may contribute to a further sense of renewal, sustainability, and collaboration that may enhance teachers' ability to adapt to the continuing changing demands of the student population (Jones, West, & Stevens, 2006; Jurow, 2009; Miranda, 2012).

While critical self-reflection may contribute to positive sense of renewal, teachers may also experience a sense of conflict between personal ideologies and current practices/context. For example, a first year principal struggles with providing an education for immigrants when the law prohibits spending money on educating undocumented immigrants. Within this particular scenario, she realized in order to retain her sense of ideologies within a system that expects otherwise, she would need to undergo a process of transformation that equipped her to handle this situation that aligned more with her personal philosophy (Poutiatine & Conners, 2012).

This conveys a sense of needing to transform oneself and practices in order to be able to be part of the transformations of the very systems that one wishes to operate within (Miranda, 2012; Poutiatine & Conners, 2012). This is where one can begin to understand the critical need for "transformative" professional development in order to not only prepare, but also facilitate growth, renewal, and sustainability among educational leaders (Jones, West, & Stevens, 2006; Jurow, 2009; Poutiatine & Conners, 2012). While, the impact of "transformative" professional development is evident within school cultures (e. g., greater trust, responsibility, and commitment) (Miranda, 2012), at the same time, there is a need to "understand the process of transforming that internal state to achieve more effective practice" (Poutiatine & Conners, 2012, p. 74).

Disability Studies and Disability Studies in Education

In the past few decades, the field of Disability Studies has offered an interdisciplinary framework of understanding what constitutes disability. Disability Studies conceptualizes disability as a "social, political, cultural, discursive phenomenon rather than an individual or medical one" (Ferri & Connor, 2006, pp. 14-15). The medical conceptualization of disability limits one's understanding of disability as a medical condition that needs to be identified, treated, and overcome, which in turn, defines disability as an individual's limitation, impairment, or abnormality (Barnes, Mercer, & Shakespeare, 1999; Davis, 1995; Johnstone, 2001; Linton, 1998; Michalko, 2002). The issue with the medical conceptualization of disability is that it fails to consider social factors such as stereotypes, prejudice, discrimination, and oppression (Abberley, 1993; Barnes & Mercer, 2010; Shakespeare & Watson, 1997).

To address those social factors, Disability Studies heavily emphasizes the social model of disability that views disability as a social construction that has been continually reconstructed throughout history by political, economic, social, historical, and cultural factors (Davis, 1995; Gabel, 2005; Michalko, 2002; Titchkosky, 2006). The social model of disability provides a platform to address and collectively work towards constructive solutions while addressing citizenship rights, equal opportunity, inclusion, and social justice. As a model the goal is to generate social theory that provides explanations and understanding of disability that shift toward social and political change and that improve the lives of those with disabilities by examining how family, education, income, financial support, employment, housing, transportation, and the built environment impact those very lives (Barnes & Mercer 2010; Oliver, 1996). For example, grasping the relationship between the legacy of slavery, colonialism, and neocolonialism and the significant number of students of color within special education classrooms illuminates how multiple factors not only construct the notion of disability, but also carry both individual and institutional implications for individuals with disabilities (Annamama, 2015; Erevelles & Minear, 2013). This approach allows those with disability to not only vocalize their experiences with disability, but also gain understanding and control over their lives by collective political action and social change (Annamama, 2015; Barnes & Mercer, 2010; Bell, 2006, 2012; Connor, 2008; Johnstone, 2001; Oliver, 1992; Stapleton, 2015; Swain, French, & Cameron, 2003).

Theoretical Framework

Through our own experiences in learning about Disability Studies later on in our educational careers, we suspected that gaining exposure to Disability Studies in one's educational professional career may bring about a certain amount of personal transformation due to Disability Studies' conceptualization of disability as a "social, cultural, and political phenomenon" (Ashby, 2012, p. 91). This conceptualization challenges and contradicts the clinical, medical, instructional, or therapeutic perspectives of disability that emphasize rehabilitation, prevention, or curing (Ferguson & Nusbaum, 2012; Linton, 1998; Taylor, 2011). This may cause educational professionals who were initially trained and socialized to perceive disability as an individual medical problem or deficit to reexamine traditional practices and procedures used on a daily basis. Therefore, there is a need to understand the personal transformational process that educational professionals undergo while gaining exposure to Disability Studies in order to examine how they grasp and implement the knowledge of Disability Studies within their own philosophy, research, and practices.

This research is positioned in Mezirow's (1978, 1991) theory of transformative learning. Based on this framework, personal transformation can be defined as "a dynamic, uniquely individualized process of expanding consciousness whereby an individual becomes critically aware of old and new self-views and chooses to integrate these views into a new self-definition" (Wade, 1998, p. 716). This enables, to a certain degree, "a clearer and more expanded vision of the world" (Wade, 1998, p. 714). Through dialogue inquiry, individuals begin to connect new knowledge and perspectives to personal experiences in a non-linear manner (Wade, 1998).

Personal transformation is preceded by a disorienting dilemma that causes disequilibrium, which results from the contrast between one's framework and a newly introduced framework (Busick, 1989; Ferguson, 2001; Mezirow, 1978, 1991; Wade, 1998; Wildemeersch & Lierman, 1988). The contrast contributes to a dissonance, which leads to a threatening, stressful, and challenging period of reflection (Ferguson, 1980; Loder, 1981; Mezirow, 1978, 1991; Wade 1998). This involves an array of emotions such as excitement, sadness, pain, self-pity, anger, helplessness, freedom, or satisfaction, which may lead to a negative or positive transformation (Jaffe, 1985; Wade, 1998). In order for transformation to happen, a person facing the disorienting dilemma must make a deliberate choice to mindfully encounter the dilemma (Busick, 1989; Ferguson, 1980; Mezirow, 1992; Wade, 1998; Wildemeersch & Lierman, 1988). Personal transformations result in new and broader self-definitions along with a sense of freedom and creativity (Wade, 1998). Within the transformational process, a new level of consciousness takes place that connects experiences to the new framework resulting in a more inclusive and integrated understanding (Mezirow, 1991; Wade, 1998).

For this personal transformation to occur, there is a need for self-reflection and an integrative process, but also a need to provide additional modes of the transformative process (Mezirow, 1978; Ward, 1998). While transformation involves being introduced to a new framework, it also involves the need for reinforcement to practice or adapt the new framework within their current frame of reference (Mezirow, 1978, 1997). This involves allowing them to not only gain a stronger and clearer understanding of the framework, but also develop to a certain degree of competency as one continues to entwine the framework with their experiences and interpretations (Mezirow, 1978, 1997). The space must embody an environment that is conducive to critical thinking, that is learning-centered, is participatory interactive, and collaborative (Mezirow, 1992; 1997). As Freire (2010) stated:

If students are not able to transform their lived experiences into knowledge and to use the already acquired knowledge as a process to unveil new knowledges, they will never be able to participate rigorously in a dialogue as a process of learning and knowing. (p. 19)

Transformation contributes not only to the understanding of a new frame of reference, but also to the forging of alliances between individuals who embody similar frameworks that move towards social change (Freire, 1998; Mezirow, 1992). Thus, a sense of transformation (and liberation) is neither a singular experience nor something that can be implemented by others, but instead it is a process that can only occur among fellowship and solidarity (Freire, 1998, 2010).


This study used one-on-one and group interviews of nine students enrolled in a Ph.D. in Education Program that incorporates the Disability Studies framework into the curriculum at a private university in California. Purposeful sampling was used to recruit individuals who fit the criteria of the research questions. Patton (1990) notes this sampling-type results in information-rich cases for a comprehensive study and allows for an examination of study-specific issues. Criteria included students who were enrolled in a Ph.D. in Education program that draws upon a Disability Studies framework who concurrently held positions within various education-related fields (e.g., special education teacher, program director). The doctorate program does not yield an advanced degree in special education; it is an educational doctoral program that incorporates a Disability Studies framework into its curriculum. As such, the program considers and problematizes, in particular, educational theories, practices, and policies from a Disability Studies standpoint. This may differ from programs that offer a doctoral degree specifically in Disability Studies that focus on the application of the theories and practices of Disability Studies in a broader array of social, political, economical, educational, and historical theories, practices, and policies. This sampling method allowed for some consistency across the recruited individuals that were best suited for the specific research questions.


Recruitment. To recruit participants, an email was sent to the graduate student listserv explaining the purpose of the study and asking for individuals who were interested in being interviewed as part of the study. Once interest was expressed via email, the first author emailed consent forms containing a full description of the study to each interested individual. The author also gave additional time to further discuss the study and the participant's role if necessary. Prior to the interviews, each participant filled out an open-ended demographic survey and signed an informed consent form. Probed demographic information included the participant's age, race/ethnicity, gender, disability, marital status, current occupation, and year in the program. These questions were selected in order to derive a general sense of group attributes.

Participant Demographics. The criteria focused on professionals who were enrolled in Disability Studies-oriented educational doctorate programs and were employed within various education-related fields, which resulted in, unintentionally, mostly participants who identified as special educators. Isabella, Edith, Cassandra, Jessica, Lillian, and Christine worked as special educators in early education or K-12 schools, Amber worked as an early intervention coordinator in a healthcare setting, one Jennifer was a former special educator who at the time of this study worked as an instructor in a special education teacher preparation program, and Ashley formerly worked as a special educator and was at the time of this study a full-time doctoral student who worked part time as an adjunct professor. Amber, Isabella, Edith, Cassandra, and Jennifer were in their first year in the program. Ashley was in her second year in the program. Christine was in her third year in the program. Jessica was in her fourth year in the program. Lastly, Lillian was a graduate of the program.

The age range of participating individuals was between 29 and 63 years of age. The individuals also replicated the racial/ethnic diversity of the doctoral program. Specifically, Amber identified as Asian American, Christine, Isabella and Jennifer identified as Hispanic, Ashley identified as African American, and Edith, Cassandra, Jessica, and Lillian identified as Caucasian. Jennifer and Ashley disclosed having a disability. The years of teaching experience ranged between five and 22 years, with five to 18 years teaching within special education or inclusive education. All individuals were female.

When the individuals were asked as to why they were interested in pursuing a doctorate in education that used the framework of Disability Studies, most of the individuals expressed interest in broadening their horizons or furthering their professional development. Familiarity with the institution was another factor in the decision to attend. In addition, prior to enrolling in the doctoral program, two of the cohort members had a certain degree of familiarity with Disability Studies; for four individuals, the program was their exposure to Disability Studies. One was aware that the program would not result in an advanced special education degree, though the participant was not fully aware of significant nuances of this type of study. Three individuals believed the program was a doctorate in special education. The remaining two individuals did not respond to this question. All of the names have been changed to ensure anonymity.

Data Collection

Data were gathered through semi-structured individual and group interviews with recruited individuals. A group interview was employed with the cohort who was in their first year of the program, while non-first year doctoral students were interviewed on an individual basis. The researchers used the same protocol for all interviews. Prior to recording, the purpose of the interview was reiterated and confidentiality and expected duration of the interview were addressed. Attempts were made to keep the duration of the interview to 60 minutes or less. At the end of the interviews, a discussion was held in order to provide a space for debriefing opportunities.

Data Analysis

Once all data was collected, the recordings were transcribed by a third party source. The coding process was differentiated by study and initiated by two authors who read through the transcripts in order to centralize the emerging themes broached by participants. The coding process involved highlighting significant statements and common themes throughout the individuals' experiences (Charmaz, 2010; Glesne, 2016). The coding process involved a data driven coding approach rather than a concept driven process. In a data driven coding approach, the codes emerged while reading through the transcripts, rather than using predetermined codes (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009). Those codes highlighted themes, patterns, and processes as a means of comparing across individuals and within each individual's experiences (Glesne, 2016). The coding took place in two stages: open and selective (Creswell, 2007). Open coding involved line-by-line coding that enabled an inductive approach where categories were determined. Once categories were determined, selective coding located specific statements that correlated with the categories and theoretical framework (Charmaz, 2010; Creswell, 2007). Once the two initial coders were in agreement, the codes were presented to the rest of the authors to reach consensus on the established themes.


In the process of inferring and analyzing the data, there were five themes that emerged from the individuals' reflection of their exposure to Disability Studies. These themes included: experiences of disequilibrium, shift in perceptions of "disability," questioning current teaching practices, transformation of teaching practices, and new perception of self as a change agent. As noted earlier, prior to the program, the individuals expressed some familiarity to no familiarity with Disability Studies. As the individuals gained exposure to Disability Studies, various degrees of personal transformation took place as a result of previous notions of disability differing from new notions, which led to a challenging and stressful reexamination of self, practices, and disability.

Experiences of Disequilibrium and Guilt

In the process of wrestling with the contrasting knowledge of Disability Studies and their previous training and/or personal experiences related to "disability," all of the participants expressed various degrees of intellectual disequilibrium, which ultimately led to the transformation of perceptions of practice. Edith, a special educator, described the process as:

With all the framework around me of who I am and what I do, the gradual kicking away of all of the props that were there and feeling really un-centered and failing. Intellectual disequilibrium. Just all of my paradigms that I've structured were blown away.

Isabella, a K-6 resource specialist expressed similar sentiments:

It was definitely a learning curve for me. I felt like I was trying to climb this ladder and I just kept falling down, because I felt like I had somewhat of a grasp on understanding disability, but then I realized that I really didn't. What I was exposed to, especially the first semester, it was like new work for me, and I just felt lost a lot of the time and trying to wrap my head around it all was difficult, and then it made me question myself and why do I do things.

Gaining exposure to Disability Studies triggered a sense of awareness of how their approaches and trainings were entrenched in the individualistic medical conceptualization of disability. In addition, their struggle to grasp and digest the framework of Disability Studies generated a sense of tension between this "new" framework, and their "old" framework of disability. Consequently participants experienced a certain degree of internal turmoil or intellectual disequilibrium.

Shift in Perceptions of Disability

Individuals indicated the Disability Studies framework provided them with new and different perceptions of disability. Disability Studies presented an alternative framework that conceptualized disability as a social phenomenon, which enabled a means of shifting away from the deficit-based language of disability (Ferguson & Nusbaum, 2012). For example, Jennifer, a director of a moderate/severe credential program, explained,

… it has made me reflect on how society disabled human beings and at the same time constructs what disability is…. When we think about what disability means, what is being disabled mean? Is it just impairment? Is it just physical? If it is impairment, is it visible, invisible? Is visible disability considered more disabled than invisible disability?

Other individuals such as Ashley, an adjunct instructor, echoed these sentiments and described a broader understanding of disability. She stated,

Disability Studies has definitely shaped my understanding of disability from the social construction part, which I really didn't know before. It's given me a whole another insight in terms of barriers, biases, and our history of people with disabilities. It [has] really given me that global picture of how disability can be socially constructed or is socially constructed.

There was clearly a shift in the way that these individuals defined disability. In addition, Amber, an early intervention coordinator, questioned by not seeing disability as a difference is problematic in helping those with disabilities as it emphasized the deficit language. This reconstruction seemed to be a very powerful influence in how they perceived their role in education as well as their teaching practices.

Questioning Current Teaching Practices

As the educational professionals began to think differently about disability, they began to question their current teaching practices and how they had been taught to support students with disabilities in schools. As they gained exposure to the Disability Studies perspective, they recognized how pervasive the deficit-based language was embedded within their training and practices; thus, triggering a sense of disjunction between their training and practices and Disability Studies. For example, Ashley shared:

Disability Studies is under the social model, special education is under the medical model. In my master's program, I learned all the characteristics of the deficits. I know all of the federal categories, the IEP process, the referral process for kids birth to 3 to 21, and the placements where students can go based on the severity of their people with disability, and it's all deficient based. It's all based on what they can't do that determine their placement.

Along similar lines, Edith asserted:

The push for data and the clinic deficit approach… I see it in a lot of my peers. 'Let's point out all of the areas where this child is below the norm. He is low here and he is really low there.' That emphasis on the deficit and then the clinical aspect of experimental treatment, behavior plans and gathering data on all of this stuff, feels foreign to me and it feels dehumanizing.

Through the lenses of Disability Studies, the individuals began to not only recognize the deficit based language within their training and practices, but critically questioned the heavy emphasis on deficiency rather than competency. In this space of tension between the language of deficiency and Disability Studies, several individuals commented on struggling with their job requirements as they gained exposure. For example, Edith shared:

To do the readings and to have the class discussions was really gut wrenching. I went back questioning what I was doing completely. How am I going to keep my job? How am I going to keep doing this horrible thing that I'm learning about?

Isabella conveyed similar feelings:

When I go to work, you can see me a little upset about the things that I am mandated to do because it's my job. I no longer necessarily believe in what I am supposed to be doing, but it is my job, so I do it. Here is a kid I have to assess. I have to say, 'Okay, this kid has a learning disability. Let's look at the deficit. Let's develop an IEP.' I used to just go through the motions because that's what we were supposed to do, and now I don't necessarily agree with it, but I continue to do it because it's what I have to do.

On a similar note, Cassandra, an early childhood specialist, expressed,

Having a child development background, I like to think I always look at the child first and then the disability. I think, for me, some big moments and how it kind of changed the way I teach or the way I work was when I really looked hard at developmentally appropriate practices after a conversation with a professor…. When I read a chapter from the professor's book on developmentally appropriate practices, it kind of shifted my whole vision… Now I find myself thinking, 'Well, that's developmentally appropriate, but is that correct?'

Along with conflicting feelings about continuing with one's practices was also a sense of having to walk a fine line. As one of the few individuals who had a certain degree of familiarity with Disability Studies, Jennifer revealed the strain of trying to interweave the framework of Disability Studies into a well-established credential program while trying to not undermine the current program's curriculum. While Disability Studies challenged the foundation that the teachers had already built, it appeared that there was also some agreement with the Disability Studies framework and language as evidenced by the internal questions and critical reflections upon their own training and practices.

Change in Teaching Practices

In spite of having a contradicting impact on how education professionals viewed their daily practices, Disability Studies appeared to foster awareness of what changes needed to occur within all educational institutions and everyday routines and actions. For example, Jennifer, noted the need to not only think about current practices, but also the reason for doing things differently and how to implement changes.. Similarly, Lillian, a special education curriculum leader, commented:

It made me realize how much work and inclusion there needs to be but there isn't. Just made me more aware. I have a filter now that I didn't have before. I question the systems that are in place that on a surface can seem like it's supportive, and you're providing services, but at the same time we're attributing to continue segregation.

In spite of the various degrees of discomfort, uncertainty, and frustrations, the educational professionals used different strategies that entwined the Disability Studies' perspective into their own practices and philosophies. Several individuals advocated for the incorporation Disability Studies within teacher preparation programs and special education programs in order to transform them into educational institutions that fosters and embraces inclusion. As the individuals have touched on the challenges of introducing the Disability Studies' framework within their professional practices, they still managed to interweave Disability Studies' considerations within their everyday practices, interactions, and conversations. For example, Jessica, an educator, indicated bringing content that was discussed or viewed in her Disability Studies courses into her school and classroom,

…I bring that movie (Wretches and Jabberers) and I show the kids anything that I can — I can share with them and explain to them that — that their differences can be very positive attributes. I'm hoping society continues to evolve to appreciate those differences. And we need to look at their strengths.

In spite of their previous training and foundations, the educators employed different means of incorporating Disability Studies framework to enhance their advocacy and quality of education, and their role as a change agent.

The Role of the Change Agent

Although the educational professionals perceived themselves as good teachers and advocates for their students, it seemed as though the introduction to Disability Studies supported the development of their roles as change agents in schools. The teachers commented that the framework of Disability Studies enabled them to see that disability was not an individual or a micro issue, but rather a societal issue. For example, Ashley and Christine addressed how Disability Studies facilitated the realization that not all students, especially those with disabilities, had access to education. With this recognition of the 'bigger context,' it appeared the teachers gained a clearer stance of the significance of their roles as change agents.

After gaining exposure to Disability Studies, the individuals expressed that they felt they now had the tools and confidence to make change in their schools and districts. Jessica stated, "I think it has given me the confidence that I can effect change in my own way with my own efforts and my own thinking and action." Cassandra also expressed more confidence in her role as a change agent by stating, "…right now, I'm in a place where I feel excited. We can learn these things and we can go out and we can change the system, and that makes you feel like you have a little more power and control over changing things and making them go the way you feel they should go." These individuals clearly felt they were better prepared to advocate for change at their schools.

In addition to gaining confidence about being a change agent, some educators discussed ways in which they were acting as change agents at their schools or in other professional settings by using Disability Studies language and perspectives. By considering how she navigated this in her work place, Amber shared:

You just kind of chip away a bit by bit. With parents, I try to incorporate a different perspective so it's not just 'you need to fix your child' but also 'let's accept your child's differences' while maintaining a level of sensitivity.

Similarly, Cassandra discussed the conversations she had with her colleagues to facilitate a rethinking of teaching strategies for students with disabilities. After observing students sorting nuts and bolts into cans, Cassandra asked the purpose of the activity. The teacher claimed she was "just getting them ready" for their future. In response, Cassandra questioned, "What if that's not what they want to do? What if they have other ideas and dreams to pursue another career? Should we not support them and their whole career just like I was supported in my career choice?" Even though this interaction may have not changed the mindset of that teacher, Cassandra hopes that "maybe next time she talks about it, she'll think about it a little bit more." Disability Studies courses thus provided these individuals with newfound tools and strategies that could be used to help others (i.e., colleagues and peers) rethink how students with disabilities were being educated and supported in their schools.

Discussion and Limitations

The significance of the study resides in the unique but growing numbers of individuals pursing a degree with a Disability Studies framework. There is a need for further understanding of how individuals are absorbing and applying the framework of Disability Studies as they advocate for inclusion and social justice along with their needs during the transformational process. Through their voices, they revealed an ongoing tension between their framework and the Disability Studies framework. This was partly due to their initial saturation of the deficit model of disability language in their training programs, which clashed with the social model of disability language (Ashby, 2012; Ferguson & Nusbaum, 2012; Linton, 1998). As Freire (2010) noted, "Liberation is thus a childbirth, and a painful one" (p. 49); therefore, as a result, they encountered a disorientating dilemma as they struggled to grasp and make connections with the new framework (Jaffe, 1985; Wade, 1998).

Upon a deliberate decision to engage in critical dialogical reflection in order to understand how this new framework fits within one's current framework is when a new consciousness develops within the transformational process (Busick, 1989; Ferguson, 1980; Freire, 1998, 2010; Mezirow, 1991, 1992; Wade, 1998; Wildemeersch & Lierman, 1998). This is reflected in the circular action of wrestling with understanding disability in a non-medical/deficit lens as it illustrates their conscious choice to engage critically. Developing a broader understanding of disability resulted in a heightened awareness of the need to questioned their teaching practices and frameworks, and implement changes by weaving in the Disability Studies framework and language into their everyday professional interactions.

Looking back to when they were exposed to Disability Studies for the first time, the participants strongly suggested to others who may consider pursuing a similar course to be open minded, be ready to be challenged, and to engage in critical reflection. For example, Ashley shared, "…enter it with an open mind and be willing to be challenged to think beyond what you've already been taught or what you think the way things are or the way things were." In spite of the intellectual disequilibrium, it appears that most of the transformations were positive, as Jessica described:

Disability Studies has added depth and complexity. It also elevated the way that I think about things to a degree that I never knew existed. My thinking about the world and how large the world is has just been expanded beyond anything that I could ever imagine.

At the same time, there is a need for a space that enables and encourages the transformation. This may involve further reinforcement, support, and/or assistance as one continues to integrate the new framework into their framework (Mezirow, 1978, 1997; Wade, 1998). As part of the process is heavily dependent on dialogue, this indicates that transformation is not a solitary activity; therefore, transformation that leads to social change involves structuring alliances with others as a means of working towards social justice, inclusion, and social change (Freire, 1998, 2010; Mezirow, 1992, 1997; Jaffe, 1985; Wade, 1998).

Whereas there was a common agreement that having a group of individuals undergoing the same process eased the process through additional support, the diverse perspectives among the individuals also contributed to a more complex understanding. For example, Edith noted that:

There is also seeing concepts through other people's eyes and hearing them explaining things. If you just had your teacher trying to do that, I don't think that would work as well, so it's not only the support, but it's the five other eyes and five other perspectives that really give flesh to the ideas that you're trying to grasp, so it's not just nice to have friends… It's intellectual stimulation and perspective that really helps you get a handle on some stuff that you wouldn't ever pick just on your own.

The opportunity to engage with other individuals contributes to a collaborative transformational process where there is continual support, reinforcement, reassurance, and shared or contesting understandings and frameworks that pushes towards a deeper and complex understanding of the context and its relationship to self and society (Mezirow, 1978, 1997).

Given the results of this study discussed above, there is certainly a need to provide a space for educational professionals pursuing graduate degrees to continuously and critically (re)examine and (re)conceptualize disability. In addition, programs should incorporate spaces where educational professionals can collaboratively work/support each other if they encounter tension or resistance within their employment as they are gaining exposure to Disability Studies. This reflects the need to continually reevaluate Disability Studies programs in higher education that seek to create these spaces (Danforth & Gabel, 2008).

Whereas Disability Studies places emphases on problematizing the notion of disability, there is a need to understand the students and their backgrounds and needs of those who opt to pursue a higher degree that embodies a Disability Studies framework. Understanding the backgrounds of those who pursue a degree with a Disability Studies framework may provide clarity in terms of how to support individuals in their process of navigating between their current framework and the new framework. Drawing upon the participants' experiences within the program enables a means of gauging how Disability Studies is being understood and intertwined within their philosophy, research, and practices. Understanding how Disability Studies is being incorporated into the participants' framework also provides insight on what spaces and opportunities need to take place in order to ensure continual critical engagement, reflection, and collaboration within their line of work of inclusion, social justice, and social change.

Although this study lends to the current research on Disability Studies and teacher preparation in a number of ways, it is important to recognize limitations such as sample size and demographics. As a private institution, the students therein may not be representative of students who select a public institution. This circumstance may or may not speak to the socio-economic status of participating students. Additionally, a bias may exist within the program itself, assuming that this private graduate program attracts certain types of students, that is, largely established, female educational professionals. A final limitation to selecting participants solely from one university is the lack of diversity within the professorial group as the majority of the participants either work as special educators or obtained their education within special education. It is assumed that scholars within Disability Studies share basic philosophical similarities in the areas of social justice and civil rights; however, content delivery and more importantly, theoretical paradigms may differ from program to program affecting how students acquire, react, and utilize the knowledge acquired. For example, in this study, the individuals were able to undergo a process of transformation, which is reflected in their efforts to synthesize the Disability Studies framework within their professional practices. However, there is a possibility that individuals are not able to engage or grasp the Disability Studies lens; thus, they are not able to incorporate the framework within their philosophy and practices, and consequently, cannot shift out of the realm of intellectual disequilibrium. Therefore, there is a need for further research to grasp the implications of the Disability Studies framework on practices, approaches, and philosophies.


As evidenced by the results and discussion of this study, Disability Studies offers an alternative way of thinking about disability and society that contributes to a personal transformation "roller coaster" that challenges individuals to reexamine their practices, approaches, and philosophies. Through their perspectives, the participants offer their personal experiences and insights for future educational professionals. With recognition of the potential generalizability of this study (i.e., the limited number of participants and the single institutional from which they came), this study provides a starting point for further research into the potential role that Disability Studies and educational professionals have within educational institutions and practices on both a macro and micro level. There is also a need to understand the experiences of students who are pursuing a degree with a Disability Studies foundation in order to meet their needs as they undergo this transformational process. Further research is necessary that will provide resources and bodies of literature to help future educational professionals navigate their way towards achieving their objectives, whether they be in inclusion, social justice, and/or social change as the Disability Studies framework is incorporated into their daily work in education.

It is important to consider how future educational professionals are engaging with and incorporating Disability Studies in their philosophies and approaches. Similarly, it is critical to recognize that these individuals may be influential frontrunners who will have a considerable impact on the lives and outcomes of individuals with disabilities, one of the largest minorities in the world, within the context of their practices, policies, and research. Individuals with disabilities experience extreme disparity within education, financial income, employment, housing, transportation, and citizenship (Barnes & Mercer, 2010; Oliver, 1996). Therefore, to uphold the essence of Disability Studies, it is not sufficient to structure spaces only for individuals within doctoral programs; it is also critical for individuals outside of academia to have access to knowledge and research as a means of increasing their understanding and ownership of their lives within the context of social justice, inclusion, and social change. This reflects the importance of dialogical engagement among all individuals, especially individuals who have much at stake in the practices, policies, and research that will shape their life opportunities and outcomes.


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