Scholars of disability studies (DS) who engage the topic of education tend to struggle with its chimerical nature: sometimes “schools” are abusive prisons, sometimes pathways toward greater social justice, and it is not always easy to tell the difference. While contemporary theories of DS education tend to point toward hopeful developments such as inclusivity and participatory design, scholars are also aware that certain features of asylums of the nineteenth century lingered in classrooms of the twentieth and even twenty-first centuries. This history and the wide variety of current educational theories lead DS scholars to conclude that “normality is a shifting social construction comprised of several competing interests” (Rogers and Mancini 2010, 100). Disability studies scholars and activists continue to debate just what those “competing interests” are, how they emerged historically, how their power should be addressed, and how positive change can be effected in educational settings.

In the modern West, disability has predominantly been figured as an individual, usually medical, “problem” that requires intervention and “cure.” As such, the classroom is often imagined as an important setting for those interventions and cures to take place. A medical/interventionist model of disability uses institutions of many kinds, including medical clinics, psychiatric hospitals and clinics, prisons, and schools, to effect a “solution” for disability. One strand of DS analysis focuses on the ways that different educational settings use the concept of disability in order to measure attributes such as intelligence, to track and predict performances in order to exploit the differences between “gifted” and “slow” students, and ultimately to achieve a variety of segregationist effects whose aim is to uphold existing power structures. In other words, “schooling operates as a field of application for disciplinary power” (Graham and Slee 2008, 282).

To a large degree, the conflation of school with the site of “cure” has its origins in the asylum. Asylums existed before the 1800s, but it was during that century that these “total institutions” (Goffman 1961) helped shape the modern conception of disability as any human variation beyond the imagined normal. Some asylums were simply punitive, particularly when designated for nonwhite inmates (Burch and Joyner 2007), but many claimed educational aspects. For example, insane asylums during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries claimed a progressive goal—to “repair those minds that had been broken by the modern world” (Reiss 2008, 3; see also Geller and Harris 1994). This apparently benign goal, however, was attached to a coercive and even violent practice. While methods of “repair” did include schooling and vocational training, they also included painful, humiliating, and at times permanently damaging “treatments” such as physical restraint, forcible drugging (often through the use of laxatives), and—by the mid-twentieth century—sterilization, lobotomies, and electroshock. And the remediation itself was invariably aimed at aspects of human difference that presented some challenge to the status quo: for example, as feminist scholars have pointed out, asylums were often used as a means to incarcerate women who failed to meet accepted standards of “feminine” behavior.

Early asylums for the deaf, like insane asylums, were popularly considered nothing more than pens to house “dumb Animals” (John Bulwer, qtd. in Wrigley 1996, 2). However, one significant difference in the trajectories of institutions for the d/Deaf and institutions for the mad is that in some cases deaf asylums morphed into schools for the d/Deaf. These became among the first institutional spaces in which Deaf and disability culture flourished. This was not a simple transition, however, since both asylums and schools were often places where “interest in cure and in exclusion coincide[d]” (Foucault 1965, 10). For example, while early “deaf and dumb” asylums in nineteenth-century Europe and the United Kingdom promoted sign language, later oralist “schools” for deaf children, established in an attempt to eradicate Deaf culture, were often cruelly abusive, using tactics such as tying students’ arms to their sides to prevent them from signing. Through the mid-1800s, however, Deaf culture continued to resist this oppression, and signing schools appeared in countries including France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Capital-D Deaf schools grew in number and popularity through the early twentieth century and foreshadowed the efforts of early twentieth-century schools to provide cultural and physical space for what would become radical organizing among advocates for disability and Deaf rights. Some of the efforts that emerged from schools included the establishment of the Rolling Quads in 1970 and the Center for Independent Living in 1972, both at the University of California at Berkeley, and the “Deaf President Now” protest at Gallaudet University in 1988.

Although (arguably) less violent than asylums, special education programs for students with a wide range of disability labels, developed through the middle to late twentieth century, were similarly aimed at both physical separation and discipline. In the United States, the emergence of special education as practiced today followed the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975. While these laws, and the programs that arose in response, were genuine attempts to increase accessibility, many problems resulted. Designating some forms of education as “special” meant that in practice schools became preoccupied with “classifying, labeling, and sorting so-called deviant behaviors” (Rogers and Mancini 2010, 90). Unsurprisingly, the deviance of disability overlaps with other categories of difference; for example, black males are vastly overrepresented in certain diagnostic categories, including ADHD and oppositional defiant disorder (Erevelles 2005; Rogers and Mancini 2010; Stubblefield 2009). Whether intentionally or not, programs in special education often uphold the oppression of particular groups of students—those who are perceived to deviate from an illusory norm—by casting their educational challenges as arising from “disability.”

In response to problems with the special education model, teachers and scholars began to move toward an “inclusion” model in the 1980s and 1990s. Inclusive education is meant to redress the segregationist qualities of special education. It represents an important philosophical shift, namely, the realization that separate educational experiences are rarely equal, and thus the creation of more flexible programs is needed. In practice, however, this goal is not always successful. One difficulty is that programs claiming to be inclusive may offer only “cosmetic adjustments” that preserve the status quo. (Graham and Slee 2008, 277–278). Another problem is the vagueness of the term itself, which has been used to designate changed policies in settings as specific as classrooms, and as general as the educational system at large (Artiles, Kozleski, and Waitoller 2011, 3). A somewhat more specific approach within inclusive education is “universal instructional design” (UID), sometimes also called “universal design for learning” (UDL) or simply “universal design” (UD). The “universal” part of the term is generally understood to be aspirational rather than descriptive: this approach sets as its ideal a learning environment that is accessible to all learning styles, abilities, and personalities but also acknowledges that such efforts must always be understood as partial and engaged in a process of continual revision.

Contemporary theories of education in DS are moving further away from the “universal” in UDL, even in name; some authors, such as Palmeri (2006), instead are exploring “participatory design” (sometimes referred to as “human-centered” or “inclusive” design). This approach recognizes that the access needs of various users in a single space (whether physical or virtual) cannot be reliably predicted and may indeed conflict with one another; therefore, there can be no “one-size-fits-all” approach to creating accessible infrastructures. For example, scholars including Catherine Kudlick and Jay Dolmage have led efforts at conferences (the Society for Disability Studies and the Conference on College Composition and Communication, respectively) to demonstrate a crowdsourcing model of audio/visual description. In this model, the audience describes an image collaboratively, in real time; then discusses what elements of the image went unmentioned; and, finally, reflects on the political choice to leave some elements of a visual image “invisible” to an audience member who does not see it, or sees it differently from other audience members. The point of such presentations is to demonstrate that access measures such as captioning and image descriptions are not value-neutral but rather political and power-laden choices.

The future of disability education will be increasingly interdisciplinary, as “education” as a field of study incorporates principles from areas including architecture, communication, and human-computer interaction. At the same time, “disability” as an educational concept is broadening to include more emphasis on mental disability (Price 2011; Stubblefield 2009), as well as intersectional concerns including race and class (Artiles, Kozleski, and Waitoller 2011; Erevelles 2005). While the promise of new approaches is always appealing, scholars and practitioners in disability education must also acknowledge the historical legacy of the asylum. Efforts in disability education must continually strive to avoid the oppressive and normalizing tendencies that endanger any institution, moving recursively toward the hope of a more just world.

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