It is with considerable humility that I thank David Connor and Beth Ferri for organizing this special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly, and inviting me to respond. At the time I wrote my critique of learning disabilities (Sleeter, 1986, 1987a), I knew I was throwing a salvo into the special education establishment (with some encouragement by James Ysseldyke, then editor of Exceptional Children and also a critic of the categorization of children). Although at the time, my work built on existing critiques of tracking (e.g., Oakes, 1985) and was informed by social reproduction theory (Bowles & Gintis, 1976), there was little available that applied such perspectives to special education. No longer interested in obtaining a job in special education, I began to exchange ideas and papers with other critics of learning disabilities, most of whom are acknowledged by authors in this issue.

Although I published a handful of additional articles retheorizing learning disabilities (Sleeter, 1987b; 1988; 1995; 1998), I moved away from concern with special education per se. My intellectual pursuits shifted toward examining workings of the interlocking structures of race, class, gender and disability, how these structures are reflected in inequities in schools and universities, and how teachers, teacher educators, and communities might resist. It was not until Connor and Ferri contacted me about this special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly that I had any idea of the impact my work had on new scholars in disability studies. Reading the articles for this special issue caused me to reflect on the power of a counter theory of disability, and the immense strides that have been made to that end over the last twenty years. As I will briefly discuss, while some problems have not changed and others have deepened, conceptual tools for addressing them are much richer today than they were twenty years ago. This issue of Disability Studies Quarterly offers a powerful example of that development.

I moved away from understanding disability as a way of categorizing people based on presumed conditions, and toward understanding it as a standpoint from which to view schools and society, a view that is well-reflected in this journal. As Harding (1998) explains, a fundamental assumption of standpoint theory is that "the activities of those who are exploited by [dominant] social hierarchies can provide starting points for thought — for everyone's research and scholarship — from which otherwise obscured relations that people have with each other and with the natural world can become visible" (p. 150). To be sure, people differ considerably, and Ginsburg and Rapp (this issue) point out that differences among students in classrooms have widened with increased survival rates of medically challenged children who remain with their families. But human differences do not, themselves, dictate social responses. Residential segregation, for example, is not a product of racial, ethnic, and class differences among families, but rather how those with power make sense of such differences. Differential opportunities afforded to students in schools are not determined by the variety of children and youth who attend, but rather by how that variety is understood and responded to.

To understand and interrogate such responses to human and community differences, I increasingly used critical theory, feminist theories, postcolonial theory, critical race theory, queer theory, and the emergent critical disability theory. For me, these related theories are not reducible to one theory, but rather, they offer a valuable conversation across marginalized standpoints. As a conversation, the theories inform each other when used to interrogate problems more deeply and build alliances, as Garland-Thomson's (2003) work in feminist disability theory does. I also increasingly situate attempts to silence or discredit these theories in an analysis of neoliberalism.

I concur with Skrtic and McCall's (this issue) perceptive analysis and argument that bringing learning disabilities into the present requires confronting neoliberalism that undergirds school reform today. Neoliberalism, by converging with neoconservatism, has become a tool for restoration of elite power, fueling rapidly escalating inequalities and increased impoverization of marginalized communities (Gabbard & Atkinson, 2007). For example, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, 2008) recently reported that "the gap between rich and poor has grown in more than three-quarters of OECD countries over the past two decades," that "the economic growth of recent decades has benefitted the rich more than the poor", and that in several countries including the United States, the gap widened between the middle class and the rich (see Harvey, 2005). Pothier and Devlin (2006) point out that neoliberal policies of downsizing and retrenchment "have resulted in increased marginalization and impoverishment of many persons with disabilities" (p. 6). One can add others including people of color, working class and poor people, and single female-headed households.

Neoliberalism also lies behind reforms that solidify education as a resource for global competition and private wealth accumulation by linking schooling more directly with corporate needs, standardizing curriculum, cutting public education funding and privatizing as much as possible, and rolling back earlier democratic reforms such as school desegregation (Hursh & Martina, 2003). If we are to critique and challenge not only how young people are classified and taught in school, but also how schooling itself is becoming increasingly segregated and privatized, it is important to connect race, class, and disability with their formations under neoliberalism. Tomlinson (2008) — also an early critic of learning disabilities — points out that, increasingly under neoliberalism, "the 'best' education [has become] a prize to be competitively sought, not a democratic right" (p. 178).

Several articles in this issue of Disability Studies Quarterly show how competition for access to the best education plays out across the fault lines of race and social class, and how disability is used in that competition. Elite families draw on ideologies and options available to them, using their power to protect their own children. Hale's case study (this issue) of a class-privileged mother's deployment of LD discourse offers a powerful example. Young's analysis (this issue) of the creation of "highly gifted and talented" programs to keep children of elite parents in the public school system, under terms the parents demand, offers an important harbinger of the remaking of categories in the context of increased diversification of the population, pressures for inclusive education, and rapidly escalating inequality. It is important to recognize that since schools help to allocate young people within an unequal system, the more unequal it becomes, the more strongly elite communities will use their resources to protect their children's privileged position. Creating categories of (dis)ability is one such strategy.

Families who are marginalized on the basis of race and class also try to protect their children, but do so in the face of obstacles created and maintained by those with more power. Disability categories, especially the "soft" categories that require subjective judgment in making referrals and diagnosis decisions, cannot be separated from other mechanisms through which professional class whites continue to segregate children of color (Ferri & Connor, 2006). Ginsburg and Rapp (this issue) depict the tremendous amount of social labor that parents, especially mothers, exert in attempting to access services for their children, and how access differs sharply across lines of race and class. Blanchett (this issue) skillfully details the racial shift in who has been classified as learning disabled, demonstrating that African American students — now overrepresented in learning disabilities — have qualitatively different experiences from white students who share the same label. Lavine (this issue) clearly illustrates racist treatment that African Americans parents and children receive within (as well as outside) the special education system. Rather than overrepresentation of students of color in special education being just a special education problem, it is a problem of the education system as a whole, and is aggravated by standardization of approaches to teaching and assessing student learning that renders them less, rather than more, context-sensitive. As Ferri and Connor (2006) put it, "it is clear that special education, despite being designated to meet the needs of individual learners, has nonetheless been used to create and perpetuate the marginalization of students based on the interconnected discourses of race and ability" (p. 181).

Having been away from the LD literature for a few years, I was surprised to see the same search continuing for a firm definition and organic etiology of learning disabilities, with so little change. In this issue, Gallagher's tracing of the failed history of efforts to do so is brilliant, and would lead one to wonder why learning disabilities continues to flourish in practice, if its only function were to address specific kinds of teaching and learning problems. Writing with respect to Britain, Tomlinson (2008) directs us to the ideological function of popular beliefs about students' problems in school. She notes that while "the institution of education has been and continues to be a crucial element in the absorption of minority young people into the socio-economic structures.… the system is one that employs a rhetoric of meritocracy and equal opportunity to disguise a system of increasing inequalities" (p. 178). Soft categories of special education and beliefs surrounding their meaning play a role in disguising the inability of schools to accommodate a wide variety of young people, and learning disabilities continues to exist as a category of difference largely because of its role in shoring up a meritocracy based on dominant conceptions of "normal" learning and classroom behavior. Baker (this issue) helps us to see how ambiguous "exceptions" that could cause us to question meritocracy and the organizational structures and ideologies on which it is based, end up, in a context that is increasingly stratified, becoming new categories and rules that maintain existing hierarchies. Dudley-Marley and Paugh (this issue) show the power of the dominant ideology that locates children's school success or failure in their individual characteristics, even when novice teachers are offered an alternative way of seeing their students, one that focuses on strengths rather than deficits.

I concur with Ginsburg and Rapp that despite the field's inability to discover a definitive organic cause for learning disabilities, a resurgence of brain research helps to maintain its popular credibility. Marketing oversimplified implications of this research has become a big business, despite concerns of neuroscientists about misapplication of brain research (Willis, 2008). Ideologically, brain-based explanations of differences in children direct analysis of classroom problems toward individual bodies and away from the social conditions of schools, such as chronic underfunding of urban schools or the continued presence of a disproportionately white teaching force, to name two examples.

And brain-based explanations of failure in school exert a powerful (and often negative) impact on those who are so labeled. Granger (this issue) writes eloquently about having learned to hate her body for what it couldn't do "normally" after being labeled as learning disabled, and the challenges she faced unlearning that hate and relocating the problem where it belongs — in social uses of power. As I read Burstein's poignant story of being persistently treated as intellectually defective despite earning good grades, I reflected on how some of my former LD students hid from their peers when they were in my classroom because of the stigma attached to the label. As an LD teacher, I recall feeling troubled that I had to help classify students who were failing in classrooms as disabled, and invoke a brain-based rationale, in order to teach them, when it seemed a better approach would be to help general education teachers learn to teach a wider diversity of students more effectively. Brain-based explanations of differences not only direct attention away from mismatches between young people and standardized, age-graded conceptions of learning, but they also disempower those who benefit least from standard classroom fare. In this way, Apple (2004) argues, special education categories serve as a means of social control by creating and reinforcing "patterns of interaction that not only reflect but actually embody the interests in stratification, unequal power, certainty, and control that dominate the consciousness of advanced corporate societies" (p. 141-142). Those who are taught to hate themselves rather than systems that oppress are unlikely to challenge the system.

What to do? I applaud the work of this and other disability studies journals: to expose connections between disability and power, to critique unjust systems, to reframe identity, and to show alternatives. Today, disability studies offers perspectives of those marginalized by social uses of and responses to disability that were almost unavailable twenty years ago. (At that time, I was not familiar with Disability Studies Quarterly, which was in its infancy, but I was familiar with Disability & Society, formerly known as Disability, Handicap & Society.) Recently, Pothier and Devlin (2006) elaborated on critical disability theory, which holds that "disability is not fundamentally a question of medicine or health, nor is it just an issue of sensitivity and compassion; rather, it is a question of politics and power(lessness), power over, and power to" (p. 2). Like other critical theories, critical disability theory questions core assumptions of liberalism (and neoliberalism). It does so from the standpoint of specific experiences of people with disabilities, or people who are defined as disabled in relation to dominant conceptions of "normal." Critical disability theory helps to interrogate not so much "whether the disability inheres in a particular person, but what is society's response to a particular person's circumstances?" (p. 5) It is my hope that those who work with other critical theoretical traditions will recognize critical disability theory as a needed voice at the table, and its adherents as needed allies in work for social justice.

By reframing and interrogating the locus of problems people face, disability theory offers a powerful reconstruction of identity. In her discussion of the impact of having been labeled as learning disabled on her feelings about her own body, Granger asks theorists to relocate the problem elsewhere. Disability theory does that. As Linton (2006) phrased the matter while discussing her work using the arts, "What I am concerned with are the things that constrain our bodies — I want to give disabled people's bodies every opportunity to imprint on the page, on the canvas, on the stage, on mounds of clay. Our bodies and senses as they are — making marks" (p. 212). In "my name is jay" (this issue), Moses uses poetry to powerfully reframe the identity of an African American male labeled as learning disabled, prompting his teacher Baglieri to rethink assumptions about race, disability, and teaching. Working through empowered identities, people who schools marginalize can push back.

While teachers working in their classrooms cannot dismantle macro-level power relations, teachers can engage in practice that matters to children and youth. This issue offers examples. Wong's (this issue) portrayal of Pedro becoming a writer vividly contrasts the impact on a student of teachers who adhere to a deficit perspective compared to a teacher who adheres to and enacts a strengths view. Her article clearly portrays what it means for teaching to disable students, or to enable the very same students. The dialog between Baglieri and Moses represents a teacher-student effort to problematize the dominant discourse about underachievement, and in this case, it is the student pushing back and raising the teacher's awareness. Young (this issue) points out that even programs that stem from assumptions that some students are qualitatively different from others can be enacted in highly inclusive ways. While I would not claim that every classroom can accommodate an infinite array of difference well (for example, immigrant children need a place to learn the new language, and students with severe reading problems benefit from focused efforts to teach skills they struggle with), an inclusionary, strength-based approach to teaching accepts differences as normal, and builds from strengths that each student has. Such an approach empowers learning rather than disabling it.

This special issue has prompted me to reflect on many things related to schooling, disability, and the work of teachers. But what I have reflected on the most is the richness and power of counter theory that has been built about disability over the last twenty years, and the enormous practical value empowering theory has. I am grateful to have been able to play a useful role in that building process.

Works Cited

  • Apple, M. W. (2004). Ideology and curriculum, 3rd ed. New York: Routledge Falmer.
  • Bowles, S. & Gintis, H. (1976). Schooling in capitalist America: Educational reform and the contradictions of economic life. New York: Basic Books.
  • Ferri, B. A., & Connor, D. J. (2006). Reading resistance: Discourses of exclusion in desegregation and inclusion debates. New York: Peter Lang.
  • Gabbard, D. & Atkinson, T. (2007). Stossel in America: A case study of the neoliberal/ neoconservative assault on public schools and teachers. Teacher Education Quarterly 34(2), 85-110.
  • Garland-Thomson, R. (2003). Integrating disability, transforming feminist theory. NWSA Journal, 14(3), 1-32. Retrieved January 1, 2010, from: http://iupjournals.org/nwsa/nws14-3.html
  • Harding, S. (1998). Is science multicultural? Postcolonialisms, feminisms, and epistemologies. Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press.
  • Harvey, D. (2005). A brief history of neoliberalism. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Hursh, D. & Martina, C. A. (2003). Neoliberalism and schooling in the U.S. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies 1(2). Retrieved June 3, 2007 from http://www.jceps.com.
  • Linton, S. (2006). My body politic: A memoir. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.
  • Oakes, J. (1985). Keeping track. New Haven, NJ: Yale University Press.
  • Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (Oct, 21, 2008). Income inequality and poverty rising in most OECD countries. Retrieved December 31, 2009 from http://www.oecd.org/document/25/0,3343,en_2649_201185_41530009_1_1_1_1,00.html
  • Pothier, D. & Devlin, R., Eds. (2006). Critical disability theory: Essays in philosophy, politics, policy, and the law. Vancouver, British Columbia: University of British Columbia Press.
  • Sleeter, C.E. (1986). Learning disabilities: The social construction of a special education category. Exceptional Children 53: 46-54.
  • Sleeter, C.E. (1987a). Why is there learning disabilities? A critical history of the birth of the field. In T.S. Popkewitz (Ed.), The formation of the school subject matter: The struggle for an American institution (pp. 210-237). Barcombe, England: Falmer Press.
  • Sleeter, C.E. (1987b). Definitions of learning disabilities, literacy, and social control. In B. Franklin (Ed.) Learning disability: Dissenting essays (pp. 67-87). Barcombe, England: Falmer Press.
  • Sleeter, C.E. (1988). The social construction of learning disabilities: A reply to Kavale and Forness. Remedial and Special Education 9: 53-57.
  • Sleeter, C.E. 1995. Radical structuralist perspectives on the creation and use of learning disabilities. In T. Skrtic (Ed.), Disability and democracy (pp. 153-165), New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Sleeter, C. E. (1998). Yes, learning disabilities is political; what isn't? Learning Disability Quarterly 21 (4): 289-296.
  • Tomlinson, S. (2008). Race and education: Policy and politics in Britain. New York: McGraw Hill.
  • Willis, J. (2008). Building a bridge from neuroscience to the classroom. Phi Delta Kappan 89 (6), 424-427.
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Copyright (c) 2010 Christine Sleeter



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