Disabilities And The Politics Of Schooling Essay

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Discussions of disability in educational contexts commonly equate disability with individual tragedy, individual deficit, and individual dysfunction rooted in oppressive medicalized and clinical discourses that offer little space for alternative, empowering discourses of resistance and of possibility. In contrast, the field of disability studies has theorized disability as a social and political construct and theorized disabled people as a minority group engaged in a political struggle for civil rights. Disability studies’ scholarship foregrounds social difference as its central analytic and deconstructs the social hierarchies society creates between the normal and the pathological, the insider and the outsider, and the competent citizen and the ward of the state.

Similarly, some discussions on the politics of the everyday practices of educational institutions, in their functions of sorting, organizing, educating, and evaluating students, also serve to foreground the social, political, and economic impact of disciplining a diverse student population into conforming to a mythical but rigid norm. It is in this context, then, that a disability studies perspective is useful to the politics of education in foregrounding why and how the social construction of the disabled Other is used to organize social difference (i.e., race, class, gender, and sexuality) along the axes of normative ability in educational contexts. This entry provides a brief overview of that perspective.

Education As Control

The historical role of public education has been one of social control. Students are subject to a normative code of behaviors, attitudes, skills, and dispositions through the use of standardized, objective, and scientific evaluations that demand homogeneity from an otherwise heterogeneous student population. According to disability studies, those whose bodies challenge the norm are defined as “unruly bodies” and are subject to punishment, physical segregation, and/or exclusion.

Student populations that are designated as social outcasts of education are as heterogeneous as the identities they embody. Students of color from low-income neighborhoods are segregated on account of presumed academic and behavioral “deficiencies” that differ from White suburban aspirations and lifestyle. Pregnant teens, who may be seen as an embodiment of moral deviance, are often exiled to alternative programs outside the school, presumably because their pregnant condition is seen as socially contagious to other teenage girls. Legislation—for example, California’s Proposition 187 passed in 1994 to deny public benefits and therefore public education to the children of “illegal” immigrants—and the debate about the legitimacy of bilingual education programs across the country have made linguistically diverse students cultural outcasts in some public school contexts. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered students are often enshrouded in educational discourses of deviancy, isolation, and silence, even by those policy makers who have attempted to combat the violence the youngsters face in school on a daily basis. And last but not least, notwithstanding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), many students labeled as disabled continue to be ostracized and warehoused in self-contained classrooms on account of their significant physical/cognitive/behavioral differences.

From the disability-studies perspective, public education has used the concepts of difference, deviance, and disability synonymously to justify the exclusion of certain student populations in an attempt to adhere to demands of normativity, even while claiming that their practices are democratic. Disability therefore plays a critical role in contemporary educational politics.

Educational discourses may support their adherence to normativity by constructing disability as the antithesis of educational practice and therefore a condition that must be rejected, avoided, and (if need be) excluded. However, because difference (on the basis of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and disability) is also an integral part of public education in a democratic society, disability scholars assert that educational practices support difference if and only if difference can be controlled, disguised, or rendered invisible—in other words, if difference is “prostheticized.”

Disability-studies scholars David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder define a prosthesis as a device that accomplishes an illusion that enables people to fit in and de-emphasizes their differences so that they can return to a state of imagined normativity. In most educational contexts, they argue, students identified as different because of their race, class, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation are validated if and only if they can deploy “prosthetic practices” that enable them to “pass” themselves off as not really that different from the norm by hiding their “dis/ability.” As a result, disability becomes the discursive link that simultaneously explains and exposes the social construction of difference in education along the axes of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation, in this view.

How It Works

The logic of normativity is easily identified in the daily workings of the educational bureaucracy: the battery of standardized tests that students take, the detailed records of any infringement of school policy that teachers complete, the carefully spelled out and controlled curriculum, the codes of acceptable behavior even in extracurricular activities such as the school prom. These bureaucratic functions, from the disability studies perspective, are an effort to sort students out on the basis of their dis/ability to conform to the normative requirements of schooling.

Put more simply, to be labeled as disabled in an educational context implies that one is both a disruptive presence and an embodiment of deficiency, according to disability scholars. Disability, therefore, serves as the raw material that is utilized to make other differences visible by requiring all students to exhibit particular skills/behaviors/dispositions (prosthetics) that minimize their difference and distance from the norm, in this view. Failure to do so results in punishment, segregation, or expulsion and therefore relegation to the special education or alternative school bureaucracy.


  1. Danforth, S., & Gabel, S. (Eds.). (2007). Vital questions facing disability studies in education. New York: Peter Lang.
  2. Erevelles, N. (2000). Educating unruly bodies: Critical pedagogy, disability studies and the politics of schooling. Educational Theory, 50(1), 25–47.
  3. Gabel, S. (Ed.). (2006). Disability studies in education: Readings in theory and method. New York: Peter Lang.
  4. Linton, S. (1998). Claiming disability: Knowledge and identity. New York: New York University Press.
  5. Mitchell, D., & Snyder, S. (2000). Narrative prosthesis: Disability and the dependencies of discourse. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  6. Watts, I., & Erevelles, N. (2004). These deadly times: Reconceptualizing school violence using critical race theory and disability studies. American Educational Research Journal, 41(2), 271–299.

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