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7 Critical Conversations About Disability Within Special Education (Emily Nusbaum)

7 Critical Conversations About Disability Within Special Education (Emily Nusbaum)

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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.”

24 Infusing Feminist Disability Studies in Our Teaching



Introduction to Special Education

Introduction to Special Education is a required course in both the special education

and general education licensure program. I ground the course in teaching the principles of Universal Design for Learning as a way to think about accessible pedagogy, broadly, thereby shifting the focus from the articulation of deficit in individual

students to developing more nuanced ways of knowing all students.

• The key assignment in this course works to shift meanings about student disability. State and national standards require that students in this course learn about

the 13 Federal disability categories that qualify a student to receive special education services. My assignment then requires that students summarize this information and investigate a minimum of three, additional sources developed by

individuals who identify as disabled and/or their family members/allies. Students

are asked to compare/contrast the representation of disability between categorical definitions and other sources developed by individuals and to specifically

look at markers of identity (such as gender) that are absent from the Federal

categories, as well as articulate the implications for this in K-12 schools.


Consultation and Collaboration

Consultation and Collaboration is one of the final courses I teach in the licensure

program. It is framed in an examination of the power of educational professionals in

the lives of students labeled with disability and the ways that identities of students

and families are constructed.

• Conceptions and experiences of mothering and children with disabilities such as

Valle’s (2009) What Mothers Say About Special Education: From the 1960s to

the Present and the Lewieki-Wilson and Cellio’s (2011) edited volume are used

to support students considering the intersections of gender-based expectations of

parenting and normative ideas about disability-as-deviance that are pervasive.

• Considerations of power and privilege across issues of gender, class, race, and

access to education are also central to the course. Students are supported to question ideas of “expertise” and understand how many school processes reify and

reinforce traditional notions of expertise. We use texts such as the ethnography

Ability Profiling and School Failure by Kathleen Collins (2013) to support teachers’ interrogation of their own ideas about race, “smartness,” and what “good”

parents and students do, and the ways in which teachers’ ideas are played out in

the classroom, and in their interactions with students and families. Other sources,

such as Nusbaum (2010) and Ware (1994), illuminate many of the power inequities that are exercised in spaces such as Individual Education Plan meetings,

based on access to the kinds of knowledge that “count” in the eyes of many education professionals.



H. Albanesi et al.

Critical Conversations and Reproductive Justice (Abby


My portion of this essay focuses on one concrete example of how disability studies

has transformed the way I teach a specific gender unit: reproductive politics. I have

taught about reproductive politics from a Reproductive Justice (RJ) framework, an

intersectional perspective created and advanced by women of color. First introduced

by SisterSong in 2003, RJ focuses on “the right to have children, not have children,

and to parent the children we have in safe and healthy environments. Reproductive

Justice addresses the social reality of inequality, specifically, the inequality of

opportunities that we have to control our reproductive destiny” (SisterSong).

The RJ framework addresses many of the gaps in the traditional feminist prochoice framework, which tended to focus on white women’s needs. The pro-choice

movement emphasized the right to abortion and contraception. However, the history

of women of color in the U.S. requires that we also focus attention on the right to

give birth and parent given that women of color have faced a long history of forced

sterilizations. Women with disabilities have faced both similar and unique experiences that further advance the reproductive justice framework.

In my classes I introduce some of the specific issues at the intersection of reproduction and disability. A fully inclusive feminist pedagogy must look at the diversity of women’s experiences.

1. Sexuality: Society typically defines disabled women as asexual and dependent.

Women and girls with disabilities often do not receive sex and reproductive

health education or screenings because it is assumed that they have no sex lives.

This has led to many misdiagnoses of women with disabilities.

2. Limited Access to Services: Women with disabilities may have limited access

to health care services and information. Women with disabilities may not have

access to transportation and may face dependency on caregivers, language barriers, and lack of access to on-line resources. According to Mingus (2015)

“Caregivers (partners, nurses, family members, doctors) may withhold medication, medical care and information, or transportation as an expression of power

and control.”

3. Sexual Violence: Women with disabilities are significantly more likely than

women without disabilities to experience domestic violence and have a history

of unwanted sex with an intimate partner (http://www.wcsap.org/disabilitycommunity). “Power imbalance and isolation can create special vulnerability

(domestic violence, sexual assault, abuse) for disabled women dependent on

caregivers” (Mingus 2015).

4. History of Eugenics: The history of eugenic thought demonstrates the ways in

which the oppression of people with disabilities and people of color has been

intertwined in the service of white supremacy. People of color have faced immigration restrictions and forced sterilizations to limit their numbers in the U.S.,

while people with disabilities have been sterilized in the interest of improving the

24 Infusing Feminist Disability Studies in Our Teaching


health and vitality of the white race (large numbers of people with disabilities

were killed by the Nazis before they began targeting other populations). Women

with disabilities have a long history of forced sterilization, are often seen as

“unfit” mothers, and are discouraged from having children or not allowed to

adopt children. Like women of color, many women with disabilities face an

ongoing struggle to protect their right to parent. (Frederick 2014)

5. Reproductive Technologies: Many parents feel they are encouraged by the

medical establishment to use ultrasounds and amniocentesis to abort fetuses with

disabilities. Popular language often describes keeping a fetus with disabilities as

“cruel,” “an act of harm,” and contributing to “a drain on society.” Feminist disability scholars and activists argue that we need to reframe issues of fetal health

to include human variation. “The continuing power of eugenic thought in the

U.S. justifies population control measures for women with disabilities and disabled children. The medical establishment pathologizes ‘disabling traits,’ associates these traits with ‘social problems,’ and defines them as targets to ‘cure’ and

‘conquer.’” (Mingus). While many pro-choice feminists argue for the right to

abortion, many disabled feminists question the inherent ableism that surrounds

the social pressure to abort in such cases.

Women with disabilities have embraced and advanced the RJ framework, which

“shifts the discussion away from individual and private family decisions…to a

broader debate about the kinds of services, education, and supports families and

individuals need to embrace disability as part of the human experience” (Jesudason

and Epstein 2011, p. 542). Research on parents of children with disabilities, for

example, refutes the assumptions about raising a child with disabilities as “cruel” or

a “burden” (Piepmeier 2013).

Disability studies scholars have critiqued the traditional pro-choice/anti-choice

political framework because neither “side” fully represents the needs of people with

disabilities. Pro-choice proponents often use disability as a justification for why

women need to have the right to choose abortion. However, once a child with disabilities is born, it is pro-choice activists who advocate for the rights of the mother

and child to have access to quality health care, social supports, etc.

They have also challenged the narrow focus on abortion and individual rights.

For example, the “right to privacy” does not represent the realities of women with

disabilities’ lives. As Mingus points out, “For many women with disabilities, the

right to privacy is not a privileged experience in relation to one’s body. Disabled

women and girls’ bodies have long been invaded and seen as the property of the

medical industry, doctors, the state, family members, and care givers” (2015). This

perspective has been based on able-bodied white women’s needs, and does not

address the differing histories and relationships to the State for women of color and

women with disabilities.

The literature by women with disabilities and feminist disability studies scholars

adds further complexity and nuance to the reproductive justice framework, and a

wide range of other issues commonly examined in teaching gender.

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