What is disability studies?
Disability Studies (DS) is an interdisciplinary field of inquiry and forum for activism, in which the experience of disability is understood as situated in historical, political, social and cultural factors (Linton, 1998; Davis, 2006). DS scholars and activists reject traditional conceptualizations of disability as biologically determined and universally defined. Furthermore, they reject the notion that disabilities necessarily need to be remedied or “fixed,” adopting instead a view of disability as a natural and inevitable form of human variation, and as an aspect of human diversity.
Disability studies uses the conceptual lens of the social model (Oliver, 1990). Here, a distinction is made between the terms impairment and disability; whereas impairment is a biological condition or a predisposition of the body, the term disability is understood as an interaction between a person’s impairment and the environment. That is, the experience of living with a disability is not determined solely by the presence of an impairment; rather it also encompasses the political, economic, social and attitudinal barriers that limit or marginalize people with impairments. In other words, it is recognized that impairments may often pose fewer restrictions than those imposed by society (Smith, Gallagher, Owen and Skrtic 2009) and that the biggest “problems” for people with disabilities may not result from the impairment per se, but rather, from the negative attitudes and institutional barriers they are likely to encounter(Hosking, 2008; Hahn, 1997)
Disability studies (DS) draws attention to and aims to confront the pervasiveness of ableism in society. Ableism refers to the persistent devaluing of disability, or viewpoints in which disability is understood as an inherently negative state of being (Campbell, 2009). Similar to other “isms” (e.g., racism, sexism, classism, and so on), ableism is rooted in beliefs about the inherent superiority of certain ways of being (in this case, “normal” ways of moving, learning and communicating), and unfolds as a system of oppression that operates at individual, cultural and institutional levels (Rauscher & McClintock, 1997). As such, DS questions and confronts socioculturally constructed parameters of “normalcy” itself.
What is disability studies in education?
Disability studies in education (DSE) uses the central tenets of the social model as a lens for approaching the education of students with disabilities. Whereas traditional special education aims to remediate impairments and, to the extent possible, “normalize” students, DSE focuses on removing environmental and attitudinal barriers for students with disabilities, reducing the stigmas attached to disability, and creating learning environments conducive to the full acceptance and participation of heterogeneous students in schools.
DSE emerged in response to a collective opposition to the labeling, sorting and segregation of children in schools (Brantlinger, 2009). DSE scholars advocate for radical changes in schools with regard to the dismantling of ableist attitudes and practices. In these ways, the premises and goals of DSE are not only fundamentally different from, but often at odds with those that drive special education.
How is inclusive education conceptualized and how is it different from traditional special education?
From a DSE stance, inclusive education refers, broadly, to the philosophy and practice of educating diverse students in classrooms which are heterogeneous in terms of ethnicity, class, culture, gender identity, (dis)ability and various other identity markers, using strategies that are responsive to each students’ strengths and needs for support.
Whereas from a special education perspective, inclusive education is viewed as one option along a continuum of educational placements for students with disabilities, DSE scholars view inclusive education as a matter of educational equity; they argue that the practice of educating children with disabilities in separate learning environments is oppressive, and as such, fundamentally inconsistent with any agenda for education in a democracy (Beratan, 2006; Oliver, 1996; Slee, 1996). Based on these grounding beliefs, DSE aims to shed light on fundamental inequalities for students with disabilities, and on the institutional sanctioning of the practice of ability-based segregation in schools.