Disability Studies Quarterly Blog

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Review by  Art Blaser, Chapman University, Email: blaser@chapman.edu

Keywords: education; law; families; children

The editors of this text, Jacqueline Rodriguez and Wendy Murawski, are two of the 37 contributors. They co authored the last [sixteenth] chapter and each co authored one of the first two chapters. In this reviewer’s judgment all contributors’ chapters are uniformly good. The page numbers listed in parenthetical references were written by different authors, but other reviewers might “cherry—pick” excerpts to support different conclusions.  

Many Disability Studies scholars are skeptical about “special education,” and about textbooks for good reason. In both, unquestioned common principles of treatment/reform sanctioned by authorities are too common. Nevertheless, for some people, teaching courses within traditional academic silos, texts are a necessary evil. For these people, Rodriguez and Murawski’s Special Education Law and Policy will be especially welcome. It fosters consideration of many concerns, among them the four related and overlapping concerns are introduced below: the special education purview, perspective, “hot button” politics, and advocacy. With each concern, there’s both continuity and change.  These concerns (as presented and reviewed) are related to the pleas with which this review concludes.

First, its purview is special education, although several authors imply that with a “free and appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment,” teachers and aides can be advocates of inclusive, integrated classrooms. There is a common recognition that special education policy is rife with problems and needs to be improved. Many of the most useful critiques of special education have come through writings of legal scholars like Ruth Colker and Mark Weber, and from within, through conferences and writings on Disability Studies in Education, including many Disability Studies Quarterly articles.

Special education has often taken deficit approaches. This has led many scholars to distinguish Disability Studies from a special education approach. Rejection of a deficit approach is implicit in many of the chapters, but explicit in advocacy of a shift to a strength-based approach (245). However, as acknowledged elsewhere, what strengths are apparent to whom is always an effect of sociocultural, economic, and political factors.  At best, education is viewed as interdisciplinarity.  Students, authors, and other readers will question categorical statements like “laws were designed to prevent individuals from infringing upon each other’s freedoms” (2).

Some of the important specifics on disability law might draw connections with other topics. “Substantial limitation” (108) in the Rehabilitation Act, Section 504 discussion needs to be considered in the context of the Ameicans with Disabilities Amendments Act (ADAAA), ( 138). An excellent section on institutions which should have provided education could be strengthened by mentioning Wyatt v. Alabama. 

It is a text for a standard course.  At their worst, textbooks stifle change and reform but, at their best, texts can foster constructive change and reform. (The instructor as well as the text will be instrumental in determining the outcome.) This text’s 560 pages (well over 1000 if the reader follows the hyperlinks) will be too many for some teachers and students. The abundance of objectives, key concepts, cases, resources, “Questions to Ponder” and “Advocacy Matters” sections either will result in instructors and students ignoring some sections, or treating them all superficially.  One particularly frustrating technical aspect is the very small pitch in many tables (199, 302, 436, 437, 503).

Second, the editors and several contributors often mention the importance of perspective. One example is the importance of including varied perspectives on the individualized education program (IEP) team. Authors acknowledge that disability history too often comes through a nondisabled lens (8). The great importance of familiarity with context is sometimes provided with the help of parents or guardians, but at other times not. It is not clear that in a context where balancing innumerable tasks, budget constraints, and more, practice will extend beyond a plea that other decision makers discount as “impractical” and moralistic.

The imperative of bringing disabled people, particularly disabled students “to the table” at Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings is mentioned by several contributors. However, mere presence “at the table” does not ensure effective contributions. The lived experience of disabled people may be given some recognition but not enough. 

Several authors address intersections of disability and race, sexuality, class, ethnic identity, and socioeconomic status (SES). Unfortunately, as is common in texts, mention is sometimes cordoned in a few sections when it would also apply to other sections. Sections on LGBTQ students and people experiencing homelessness do this well. Authors might have mentioned that although disability is present in every societal group, it is greater among LGBTQ and Black people than among the general population.

Ideally, intersectionality will be reflected in the classroom. Disabled students will not only be the targets of special education but represented in the IEP conference, among “highly qualified” instructors. The importance of “lived experience” cannot be overemphasized.

Many “hot button” issues make it into the text. It would be nice to have more, with authors clearly taking and defending alternative points of view, and offering comparisons. Instructors and others with lived experiences who are acquainted with disability related social, economic, and political issues will find themes to amplify.  

Isolated parts might reinforce a misconception of uniform social progress: “students with disabilities would continue to struggle for educational equality for several more decades” (51). (The context was the aftermath of Brown v. Board: struggles for racial and disability equity are ongoing, and circumstances are worse than ever in some areas).  The “school to prison pipeline” is effectively described in the thirteenth chapter, (392 et seq). Several contributors explore inequitable funding and state differences (46, 65, 66, 181, etc.).

Bullying is described in several sections, although it might mention situations in which both the perpetrator and victim are disabled, and further victimized by authorities. Several contributors address restraint and seclusion, e.g. “Without federal action, states are able to ignore the consequences of restraint and seclusion practices” (374).  Curiously, it’s missing from the glossary. 

Contributors give scant attention to Applied Behavior Analysis, a frequent “related service” for which some policymakers seek coverage under IDEA. Debate on abuse might be covered in texts, but seldom is. There is only one mention in this text (247). It’s part of several contributors’ credentials but not discussed.

Although some political realities are mentioned, others are not. Former senator Tom Harkin, sponsor or cosponsor of much recent disability related education legislation is not mentioned. Hugh Carey (57) and Harrison Williams, primary sponsor of 94-142, along with  the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, (63) are mentioned, however.  The significance of PARC [the court case] is discussed but with no mention of Thomas Gilhool. There needs to be more recognition of the politics of education, but there is some. There is mention of former president Obama, there is not any mention of Donald Trump or Betsy DeVos (Trump’s education secretary). 

Several authors seek to compensate for students’ abysmal background in history and politics. Such statements as “Only 13 American colonies existed at the time the U.S. Constitution was signed in 1776″ (12) are not helpful. (The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776; the Constitution more than a decade later.)   The San Francisco sit-ins were in 1977, not 1976 [107]. 

Contributors also emphasize the importance of advocacy. Students and prospective teachers are encouraged to advocate for students who are underrepresented. The “advocacy matters” sections are a repeated theme; teachers will often create the conditions for students’ self-advocacy. The Arc and TASH are mentioned several times. Public interest law through the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, and others should be given more attention.

We need to explore how alternative dispute resolution (implicitly and explicitly discussed throughout) works in practice. The great advantage of rich parents in hiring lawyers (sometimes eventually reimbursed) and experts (not reimbursed) cannot be underestimated. The special education classroom can be the epitome of structural violence: multiple hierarchies converge.  

In a section on “Collaborative IEP Meeting Participation” (466) a responsibility of parents and advocates [but curiously not of school districts] is: “DO be respectful and civil.” In many contexts, authorities misperceive advocating change and pointing out discrimination as uncivil. Is the idea of cooperative proceedings sometimes illusory? With resource constraints, will school districts forego their great advantages to listen to parents and also to students?  Several contributors show keen awareness of conflict and its management, sometimes resolution.  Discussion of concepts such as restorative justice (407) is promising.

Texts’ contribution can be enhanced. The disability studies-education nexus is fruitful for continuous exploration of concepts of the bodymind, disability justice, and critical disability studies, and awareness of person-first vs. identity-first language (only person-first on 84),lived experiences, open access materials, and school-community linkages are essential.

Fortunately, the nature of modern publishing is that texts are constantly updated, and readers should look forward to subsequent editions. 

This review was published as part of Disability Studies Quarterly, Spring/Summer 2022.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated.

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

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