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Susan Baglieri and Jessica Bacon

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.

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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.