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Review by David J. Connor, Hunter College, City University of New York, Email: dconnor@hunter.cuny.edu

Keywords: education; essays

What does it mean to be a ground-breaking thinker in your profession who goes against the grain? What are the risks that your thinking poses to the field in which you teach, research, and publish? What are the ways that your field mobilizes to marginalize or ignore you? Regardless, why can your influence be seen decades later? In this volume of essays, editors Linda Ware and Emily Nussbaum celebrate the work of scholar Lous Heshusius who changed the lives of those who knew her personally and professionally. 

The book is part of a series titled Critical Leaders and the Foundation of Disability Studies in Education, edited by Linda Ware. Volume 1 is dedicated to the work of Ellen Brantlinger (Ware & Slee, 2019) and Volume 3 to Steve Taylor (Ware & Sauer, 2021), with others scheduled to follow. Ware’s initial vision and subsequent mission has been to chronicle the radical thinkers about disability whose work in the field of special education laid the groundwork for the evolution of Disability Studies in Education (DSE). In collaboration with Emily Nussbaum, fellow career-educator and disability activist, Ware illuminates the brilliance of Heshusius through featuring six essays by DSE scholars (including themselves), who all acknowledge how indebted they are to her work. 

The title, “The Strong Poet,” is a homage to Heshusius’ undeniably exquisite writing. Take, for example, her article “Freeing Ourselves from Objectivity: Managing Subjectivity or Turning Toward a Participatory Mode of Consciousness” (1994), in which she deftly argued the impossibility of objectivity. This work was not merely a rock dropped into the pond of special education, but rather a boulder, sending ripples that are felt to this day. It meant the field’s previously unquestioned adherence to a positivist paradigm for understanding disability and education, applying laws and rules of “pure” physical science, no longer existed unchallenged.

Indeed, until the emergence of DSE, the field of special education held a monopoly on all things pertaining to education and disability. One shared characteristic of all contributors was a sense of deep unease, even alienation, they felt upon entering the field. Heshusius often wrote about this alienation. She attributed it to the artificial separation of our bodies, minds, feelings, and thoughts as the expected norms of our profession—first as teachers, then as researchers and teacher educators. In brief, she focused upon implications of how the “scientific” way of thinking impacted individual and collective consciousness. Heshusius saw how the field of special education’s claims of “true” knowledge yielded by specific methods to arrive at that knowledge, along with its subsequent material manifestation of a bureaucratic system with mechanistic pedagogy, was actually detached from the people it ostensibly served.

A pull of this book is how all featured scholars connect to Heshusius’ compulsion to change the ways we understand human differences and respond to them. Contributors share how Heshusius’ work directly spoke to them, shaping their thinking about issues such as: rejecting of deficit-understandings of disability, conducting research in a radically different manner, and transforming how we teach in more humanizing ways. The strength of this text is its essays, diverse enough to allow readers to clearly witness how Heshusius’ ideas moved each person to: make choices for best ways to teach disabled students, craft their research and publications, shape their pedagogical choices in teacher education, and generally reframe their ways of thinking about education. In the first chapter, Ware writes of being a young teacher, becoming interested in alternative paradigms such as Holism—the idea that all are interconnected, unable to exist outside of the whole as discrete parts—that countered the reductionism prevalent in atomistic approaches. She saw how standardizing teaching into discrete elements reduced teachers to being technicians of dehumanized students. Ware writes, “Increasingly, I witnessed how special education had gotten it all wrong” (p. 17), and was therefore drawn to Heshusius’ (1984) desire to advance a “non-mechanistic, holistic, participatory view of knowledge in which facts, values, ethics, and meanings are no longer artificially separated” (p. 367). 

In Nussbaum’s chapter, the author details selected early career experiences in advocating for children at Individualized Education Program (IEP) meetings. She is aware of how these meetings serve as the nexus for manufacturing student identity through test scores and other largely quantitative evaluations. Nonetheless, she details her disappointment when her efforts to support Juan by placing him in a general education setting are overruled by IEP committee members. After coming to know Heshusius’ work, Nussbaum better understood how teachers’ “ways of seeing” ironically did not view Juan in his full humanness. Later, Nussbaum describes another IEP meeting with a student named Leila in which her humanness was measured by “brainwaves and age-equivalent scores” resulting in the label of “severe mental retardation” (p. 31). The positivist paradigm, Nussbaum notes, is at fundamental odds with her own interpretation of the world as organic, fluid, and unfixed. 

Alicia Broderick’s chapter reveals how she was down an “epistemological rabbit hole” (p. 41) when she discovered Heshusius’ work. Broderick’s story can be seen as the embodiment of From Positivism to Interpretivism (Heshusius & Ballard, 1996), as she struggled to reconcile her own style of teaching autistic children with the “regime” of discrete trials, task analysis, and checkmarks that constitute Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), ultimately rejecting that regime. Years later, she describes another period of disequilibrium due to her son’s experiences in school in which the rules, boundaries, routines, and rituals were destroying his spirit, recognizing Heshusius’ observation that there comes a time when we can “no longer be forced to pretend that the unreal life was real” (p. 52).

In Julie Allan’s chapter she shares an exercise with pre-service teachers, suggested by Heshusius, called “purposeless listening” (p. 57). The aim is to allow teachers the opportunity to engage with their students, and practice reflexivity by self-examining unconscious biases they hold about children, disability, and teaching. Allan’s students note how hard it is to really listen, causing them to step out of their comfort zone in order to establish authentic connections with children. Simultaneously, students were required to seek knowledge shared by experienced teachers, becoming shocked to find their comments were “at best unhelpful and at worst were profoundly negative and this was particularly apparent to disabled students” (p. 63). Juxtaposing sources of information, students came to understand the call: “To hear youngsters we must get ourselves out of the way” (Heshusius, 1995, p. 122).

In her chapter titled “The Illusion of Our Separativeness,” Deborah Gallagher explores Heshusius’ concept of participatory consciousness in disability research and education. She encourages educators seeking answers about that which troubles us in our profession of teaching students with disabilities to have a default position of reflexive analysis. Gallagher believes in freeing ourselves from objectivity within the field of special education as crucial in establishing a participatory consciousness with those we serve, via teaching and/or research. As Gallagher notes, “People, after all, are not things that can be brought under scientific prediction and control—even if such prediction and control were ethical, much less desirable” (p. 74). Teaching, she asserts, comes from within as it is primarily a way of being—not a way of doing.   

The final chapter is in the form of an open letter from Danielle Cowley to Lous Heshusius in which she describes, a generation later, having similar experiences in researching young people with intellectual disabilities. Benefitting from Heshusius’ insistence of working closely with participants and valuing their knowledge and perspectives, Cowley honors and amplifies the voices of the young women in her study. Simultaneously, she critiques the apparatus of special education where she has seen the cooption of terms such as freedom, autonomy, and independence writing, “I’ve seen freedom turned into task analysis, autonomy into a checklist, and liberty as something requiring pre-requisites or evidence” (p. 97). Cowley exemplifies the work of DSE scholars as they seek to foreground the lived experiences of disabled people, humanizing them against the bureaucratic, technocratic, and pseudo-scientific nature of special education. 

Collectively, these six chapters convey the lasting impact of Heshusius’ work, whose words and actions played a significant role in creating the momentum to initially develop DSE. It is no exaggeration to say that her ideas were revolutionary. Thankfully, Ware and Nussbaum have ensured many educators will know her legacy. 

References:

Heshusius, L. (1984). Why would they and I want to do it? A phenomenological-theoretical view of special education. Learning Disability Quarterly, 7(4), 363-368.

https://doi.org/10.2307/1177221

Heshusius, L. (1994). Freeing ourselves from objectivity: Managing subjectivity or turning toward a participatory mode of consciousness. Educational Researcher, 23(3), 15-22.

https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X023003015

Heshusius, L. (1995). Listening to children: What could we possibly have in common? From concerns with self to participatory consciousness. Theory Into Practice, 34(2), 117-123.

https://doi.org/10.1080/00405849509543668

Heshusius, L., & Ballad, K. (Eds.). (1996). From positivism to interpretivism and beyond: Tales of transformation in educational & social research [The mind-body connection]. Teachers College Press. 

Ware, L. & Slee, R. (Eds.) (2019). Ellen Brantlinger: When meaning falters and words fail.

Ware, L., & Sauer, J. (Eds.) (2021). Steven J. Taylor: Blue man living in a red world. Brill Sense.

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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