Historically, disability has been understood as a strictly individualized medical experience and considered a deficit. The person with a disability needed to be treated or rehabilitated by professionals. Recently, the social model of disability has offered a different perspective, one that situates disability within a social context. The "problem" of disability does not reside within an individual but instead within the social structures, policies and environment that create unnecessary barriers for a person. These barriers certainly can be found in our schools, and this study explored how one rural middle school, recognized regionally as "doing great things for students with disabilities," responded to the social and academic needs of its special education population. This year-long ethnographic study began in the summer of 2011 when I began meeting with school personnel to learn the norms of the special education program. During the school year, I was present four to five full days per week. Data collection methods included participation observation in formal spaces (classrooms) and informal spaces (cafeteria, hallways, recess and field trips), individual and small group interviews and document collection and analysis. While many students and staff made this study possible, my focal participants included 18 students in grades five through eight, four parents, many teachers and aides and two school administrators. I focused on three areas of interest. The first was related to the school's use of formal curriculum for educating "about the other" (Kumashiro, 2002) that took the form of a disability unit. Students "put on" disabilities during simulations, completed research and gave speeches related to the medical nature of disability. This succeeded in reaffirming traditional stereotypes of disability as a strictly medical problem or personal tragedy. A second focus was on the ways expectations for students with disabilities were communicated through the students' access to meaningful, high quality instruction and in the ways staff talked to and about students with disabilities. In many instances, students experienced "dumbed down" instruction, if they received instruction at all, that did not meet their individual needs. In other situations, students were talked about in violent ways that indicated some teachers' perceptions that students with disabilities were not capable of a meaningful existence. A final area of focus explored the unlikely safe space that occurred in a detention classroom. Students gathered, by choice, to support one another and figure out what it meant to be marginalized in this school. This work responds to a call for research done by researchers who are themselves disabled with children and teens who are disabled and has implications for how we think about and teach students with disabilities in our schools.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. May 2014. Major: Education, Curriculum and Instruction. Advisor: Timothy J. Lensmire. 1 computer file (PDF); vi, 312 pages.
Johnson, Lisa Ann.
Expectations, socialization and safe spaces: an exploration of the experiences of middle school students with disabilities.
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