Disability studies (DS) is a transdisciplinary field of scholarly inquiry whose members seek to understand disability and disablement as cultural phenomena. Scholars who adopt disability studies in education (DSE) perspectives aim to understand how disability is conceptually configured in the research and practice that shape learning, education, and schooling. The DSE field strives to discern and theorize medical and social models of disability in order to promote critical examination of the cultural conditions in which educational practices are performed. The commitments and understandings that arise within DSE lead proponents to conceptualize inclusive education reform as a radical project, and call for the development of policy, teaching, and teacher education practices that acknowledge and resist ableism.
Susan Baglieri and Jessica Bacon
Critical autism studies (CAS) is an emergent field that challenges deficit-based thinking about autism. Early scholars of autism, such as psychologists Bruno Bettelheim, Leo Kanner, or Ivar O. Lovaas, adopted a biomedical or behavioral approach to the study of autism. Rejecting such an approach, critical disability studies and by extension CAS have developed robust theoretical frameworks to account for the sociocultural and embodied experience of disability, including the social model of disability, the cultural model of disability, and poststructural models of disability. These approaches to the study of disability challenge medical models of disability that understand disability as an individual experience of impairment. Disability is framed as a problem to be solved via biomedicine and helping professionals and instead conceive of disability as a web of sociocultural entanglements. In contrast, theoretical approaches to critical autism studies include critical discourse analysis (CDA), feminist theory, and critical race theory. Scholars using CDA explore how ableism is produced and sustained through discourses, particularly public discourses within the media, scholarship, non-governmental organizations, and schools. Critical autism scholars who employ critical race theory seek to understand the intersectional identities of autistic people of color and the compounding effects of racism and ableism. Feminist approaches to the study of autism trouble gender stereotypes about autistic people, most notably Simon Baron Cohen’s extreme male brain theory.
David Connor and Louis Olander
Ideological disputes about what human differences constitute disabilities undergird two very distinct positions that are known as medical and social models of disability. The positions significantly impact how inclusive education is envisioned and enacted, with proponents of each model holding fast to what they believe is “best” for students. Related areas of significant dissension among the two viewpoints include: (a) the concept of disability and “appropriate” placement of students deemed disabled, (b) the purpose of schools, (c) the nature of teaching and learning, (d) a teacher’s roles, (e) the notion of student success and failure, and (f) perceptions of social justice and disability. These interconnected and sometimes overlapping areas convey how medical or social models of inclusive education can vary dramatically, depending upon an educator’s general ideological disposition toward disability or difference.
Missy Morton and Annie Guerin
Sociocultural perspectives on curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment support teachers in developing and implementing inclusive pedagogies. Sociocultural assessment approaches disregard impairment as an identity in itself, privileging the strengths and knowledge evident in observed interactions. A sociocultural approach to assessment recognizes the dynamic interaction between teaching, learning, and assessment, spread across people, places, and time. Where traditional forms of curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment focus on a decontextualized individual, a sociocultural perspective pays close attention to contexts. Teachers’ practices, expectations, and understandings of learning and diversity form a key part of the contexts. In culturally responsive paradigms, learning is recognized as sociocultural—being informed through interactions with others. All students are recognized and valued as people who gain experiences and knowledge across many contexts. Multiple perspectives are valued as shared understandings and constructions of learning are developed in response to observations and interactions in a community of learners—where students and teachers learn with and from each other. Teachers who recognize themselves as capable of teaching everyone in the class are more likely to recognize everyone as a learner, to think critically about their positioning and understanding of disability, and to plan teaching, learning, and assessment in inclusive ways of working.