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6 Critical Conversations About Disability Studies Within Sociology (Heather Albanesi)

6 Critical Conversations About Disability Studies Within Sociology (Heather Albanesi)

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24 Infusing Feminist Disability Studies in Our Teaching


and culturally constructed (like race and gender). They then consider how the same

discursive binaries critiqued by feminist theory as locating women and racial minorities in culturally devalued positions (mind/body, rationality/irrationality, intellect/

emotion, independence/dependence, agency/passivity, competent/incompetent,

public/private spheres) parallel work in the denigration of people with disabilities


• I have found that students tend to be more familiar with feminist theory and gender research than disability studies, making analyses of the intersection of gender

and disability an effective entry point. For example, many of my students are

familiar with Connell’s theory of multiple masculinities (1987), which makes the

piece “The Dilemma of Disabled Masculinity” by Shuttleworth et al. (2012) an

opportunity to make connections between the theory of hierarchized masculinities and disability.

• An interrogation of the intersection of race and disability is a core theme revisited throughout the course. For example, starting with Jarman’s “Dismembering

the Lynch Mob” (2012) and “Unspeakable Offenses: Untangling Race and

Disability in Discourses of Intersectionality” by Erevelles and Minear (2010),

we discuss the histories of lynching, scientific racism, and eugenic sterilization

as well as what it means for the categories of race and disability to be


• This year, with the events in Ferguson firmly in mind, we have read a number of

blogs (e.g. Brown’s (2015) Autistic Hoya blog “Black Lives Still Matter”) that

look at how disability is both relevant and complicates our understanding of the

relationships between race and masculinity in cases of police violence/incarceration/the death penalty (e.g. Eric Garner, Neli Latson, Warren Hill). While media

and scholarly attention on race/policing has mostly focused on young black men,

we also look at the experience of young women of color with disabilities in the

criminal justice system reading “Disabling Juvenile Justice: Engaging the Stories

of Incarcerated Young Women of Color With Disabilities” by Annamma (2014).

• The co-constitution of race and disability is revisited in a discussion of citizenship and social justice with Erevelles’ (2011) article “(Im)Material Citizens:

Cognitive Disability, Race, and the Politics of Citizenship.” Race is also brought

into our discussion of disability and military experience with Drazen’s (2011)

“Two Sides of the Two-Sided Coin: Rehabilitation of Disabled African American

Soldiers.” Finally, in a unit on disability and the educational system, we read

“How does it feel to be a problem? Race, Disability and Exclusion in Educational

Policy” by Erevelles, Kanga and Middleton (2006).


Graduate Social Theory

In the past in my graduate social theory course, we considered the theoretical perspectives and counter-narratives of marginalized people, with an examination of

three particular themes: (1) a reframing that moves the experience of people of color


H. Albanesi et al.

and white women from the margins of theories of the social world to the center (bell

hooks 1984 and Du Bois 1999) (2) epistemological questions regarding how knowledge is produced and who is allowed to do that knowledge production (Smith 1987)

and (3) the shift toward intersectional theory (in particular, with Collins’ (2000)

work). I have now incorporated theoretical work from disability studies that contributes and furthers our discussion of all three of these themes.

• Using the article “Dis/ability Critical Race Studies (DisCrit): Theorizing at the

Intersections of Race and Dis/ability” by Annamma et al. (2013), we consider

how the authors’ theoretical framework—DisCrit—extends the conversations on

each of these three themes.

• For example, DisCrit directly addresses epistemological questions raised by

feminist standpoint theory: who can create knowledge and how does inclusion of

othered standpoints change the knowledge produced. Annamma et al. (2013)

include as one of the tenets of DisCrit, “DisCrit privileges voices of marginalized

populations, traditionally not acknowledged within research” (p. 11). As they

note, the disability activist slogan “Nothing about us without us” demands a shift

away from the patronizing dynamic of the nondisabled speaking for or about

people with disabilities, toward inclusive scholarship in which theory is grounded

in the experience of PWD and subsequent research questions center the experience of PWD.


Class, Stratification and Power

Class, Stratification and Power is a course that surveys the sociological literature on

the institutions and processes that contribute to the reproduction of economic

inequality. I reworked key themes to reflect the inclusion of disability studies


• In Class, Stratification and Power we now consider the rather obvious negative

material effects for PWD (such as high levels of poverty), both within the US and

globally, in the context of the dynamics of capitalism and the weight placed on

wage labor participation. We read research (e.g. Barnes and Mercer 2005) that

looks at barriers to wage labor participation for PWD and possible critical

reframings of what counts as work.

• Within a broad consideration of the role of education systems in reproducing

economic inequality, we discuss the “disproportionality” problem (discussed in

Emily Nusbaum’s section below) whereby students of color are overrepresented

in special education and with disability labels.

• We then turn to a discussion of the flip-side considering the dynamics and

resources (social capital, cultural capital, economic capital, emotional capital) by

which parents with class privilege occupy advantageous positions from which to

negotiate/advocate for their children with disabilities (e.g. Ong-Dean 2009;

Sauer and Albanesi 2013).

24 Infusing Feminist Disability Studies in Our Teaching



Teaching Sociology

Finally, I have reworked my graduate course Teaching Sociology, which is designed

to help prepare graduate students in sociology to teach at the university level.

• I have integrated disability studies scholarship on pedagogy in a number of ways:

introducing the concept and practices involved with Universal Design for

Learning (UDL) and considering UDL within the broader framework of radical

pedagogy. Two of the relevant and related goals of radical pedagogy are (1) the

relationship of teaching to social justice; and (2) challenging/upsetting traditional power dynamics within the classroom. The concept and implementation of

UDL informs both of these goals.

• At a practical level, I believe that introducing UDL principles to future university

instructors early in their professional development (before they learn to teach in

traditional, inaccessible ways) capitalizes on the argument for original design vs

(more “expensive”) retrofit. In contrast to the more difficult task of convincing

seasoned professors to change the way they teach (a process for which I have

seen considerable resistance), with future university teachers we have the opportunity to expose them to possible ways to design their courses following the

principles of UDL from the beginning.


Critical Conversations About Disability Within Special

Education (Emily Nusbaum)

My position as an Assistant Professor in a special education licensure program at

UCCS ensures that my work in and around issues of disability, gender, and the

intersections of race and class is different than my co-authors. As an untenured

faculty member, the use of course evaluations figures significantly into my promotion and tenure reviews. This is complicated by teaching being a “helping profession,” and by critical frameworks from disability studies positioned in contrast to

traditional paradigms that inform the field of special education. Thus, engaging pre/

early-service teachers in conversations about disability that attempt to move waysof-knowing beyond deficit-based paradigms, and in ways that articulate how disability powerfully intersects with gender (as well as race and class) in the special

education system, offers the potential for student discomfort. I teach all of my

courses from a critical pedagogy stance, asking teachers to understand themselves

within a system in which they are simultaneously oppressed and also have tremendous power to potentially oppress the families and students with whom they work.

Moreover, I suggest to my students that through critical reflection they are able to

understand their own ideas, beliefs, and meanings about disability; and through this

understanding, work to integrate a more intersectional understanding of student and

family identity that moves beyond the definitions/characteristics of the 13, Federal

disability categories that qualify a student to receive special education services.



H. Albanesi et al.

Disability Studies in Education

Disability studies in Education is the first, required course taken by students in the

special education licensure program, and is also cross-listed with the Women’s and

Ethnic Studies Program, as well as being one of the core courses in the DS certificates on campus. Because Education majors have typically not been exposed to the

field of DS, I need to introduce core theoretical perspectives within disability studies; and then guide students in the applications to educational contexts, policy, practice, and research, as well as understanding the far-reaching implications for students

labeled with disability in K-12 schools.

• For example, I use Linton’s (1998) seminal text Claiming Disability to introduce/

give an overview of disability studies. I then use essays such as Erevelles’s chapter “Deconstructing Difference: Doing Disability Studies in Multicultural

Educational Contexts” to illuminate for students how the power of public education has been used to justify the segregation certain groups of students, across

gender, class, and ethnicity, as well as disability—despite, as Erevelles notes, the

hesitation of many theorists in these areas to draw connections between normalizing discourses that surround gender or race and the discourses of deficit and

deviancy that justify exclusion of students labeled with disability.

• In addition, critical works such as Baglieri and Shaprio (2012) and Valle and

Connor (2010) help students bridge disability studies theory, feminist theory, and

critical race theory within educational contexts and issues, such as the presence/

absence of disability from curriculum that addresses other markers of diversity.

• In this course, an essential space to explore the powerful intersections among

disability, gender, race and class in educational contexts is through an examination of disproportionality in special education. The issue of disproportional representation in special education, which is one of intense national focus and

research, has distinct parallels to the United State’s eugenics history and the

sterilization of certain groups of individuals (women, immigrants, and those

identified as “feebleminded”) in the mid-twentieth century. Readings from an

edited volume by Artiles, Kozlileski, and Waitoller (2011) support students in

developing an understanding of how gender, geography, race, ethnicity and class

intersect powerfully to construct certain categories of disability within systems

created to respond to student disability globally.

• Finally, we consider the issue of identity and construction of institutional identities for students labeled with disability. For me, this is an essential component of

the course, as students labeled with disability in K-12 schools lose almost all

other markers of identity beyond the label attributed to their “problems” with

learning and/or behaving. To examine other forms of identity construction I use

blogs from disabled female activists that powerfully take up the intersections of

disability, gender, sexual orientation, and ethnicity (see: Autistic Hoya, Just

Stimming (Bascom 2011), and NeuroQueer), as well as pieces such as Yergeau

(2013) and Adichie’s (2009) TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.”

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