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Beyond the Essential Other: Engaging Disability Intersections in Teacher Education

Alfredo Artiles of Stanford Graduate School of Education, Khiara Bridges, UC Berkley School of Law and Sonya Ramsey of University of North Carolina at Charlotte will join moderator John Blackwell of Virginia State University in presenting the 2021 Annual Meeting Deeper Dive session, “Critical-Race Theory and Countering Political Culture,” Thursday, February 25, 11:15 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. In this article, Artiles discusses the power of disability through its longstanding historical links with race, and outlines the transformations needed in teacher education so that future teachers are prepared to understand and engage thoughtfully with the complexities of disability and its intersections.

Disability touches the lives of all human beings in one way or another during their lifetime. It is not surprising, therefore, that most societies deploy protections and supports for people with disabilities. But just as disability constitutes an object of protection, it is necessary to remember that disability can also be used as a tool of stratification. This is most clearly observed in contexts in which disability intersects with other markers of difference, such as race. The dual nature of disability is a neglected consideration in the analysis and responses to this condition, particularly in the context of teacher education. Indeed, most preservice teachers are rarely exposed to the complexities of this duality and its implications.

I outline in this blog the stratifying power of disability, mainly through its longstanding historical links with race. My analysis is grounded in insights from Critical Race Theory as well as other disciplines. I ground my work in a framework I describe as critical cultural historical (C2H). In addition, I outline transformations needed in teacher education so that future teachers are prepared to understand and engage thoughtfully with the complexities of disability and its intersections. This discussion offers illustrations of needed changes but does not constitute an exhaustive list of reforms.

The persistence of disability—race entanglements and the formation of ideology—ontology circuits

Many historical narratives about disability offer a benign vision in which educational interventions are used to save these individuals. These historical accounts tend to erase intersections with other identity markers—with the exception of social class—and remove the landscapes of inequality in which people with disabilities live and are educated. These narratives remind us that poverty is associated with disability in complex ways and this correlation is used to justify interventions such as special education. What is often left out of this logic are considerations of resiliency or instances in which groups with high poverty rates—such as Latinx—do not exhibit disproportionate rates of disability at the national level (Artiles et al., 2010). On the other hand, a sizable body of research shows that race is a significant predictor of disability identification after controlling for social class (Skiba et al., 2008).

Indeed, race has been historically entangled with disability in complex and problematic ways. Disability—race intersections impose a double bind on minoritized groups due to the stratifying power of these markers. As historian Doug Baynton explained, “… not only has it been considered justifiable to treat disabled people unequally, but the concept of disability has been used to justify discrimination against other groups by attributing disability to them” (Baynton, 2001, p. 33, emphasis in original). For example, evidence from law documents efforts to regulate deviant bodies through measures like the “ugly laws” (also known as the unsightly beggar ordinances) in the late 19th and early 20th century. These laws dictated “who could be where, who would be isolated and excluded, who had to be watched, whose comfort mattered” (Schweik, 2009, p. 184). Disability and race have been entangled throughout history in legal discourses. As Schweik (2009) explained, “[i]t is not accidental that enactment of ugly laws, which peaked in the mid 1890s, emerged with intensity at the moment of statutory Jim Crow” (p. 189).

Similarly, there is a long history of efforts in medicine and public health to document biological differences, build inventories of mental abilities, catalogue illness predispositions, and tally the prevalence of diseases (e.g., mental illnesses) among African Americans for the purpose of confirming their inferiority in relation to White subjects (Krieger, 2011). In the education field, the racialization of disability has been discussed for over half a century. The framing of disability—race entanglements has been narrowly framed around identification patterns; thus, erasing the roles of racial exclusion and segregation that have hindered access to opportunities (Artiles, 2019).

The evidence on disability—race intersection across disciplines offers a compelling reminder of the dual nature of disability, particularly of its stratifying effects. A nefarious consequence is the formation of ideology—ontology circuits which are used to frame the racialization of disability (Artiles, 2011). I define “frames” as “the mediating structures that allow us to make sense of the world … determine what facts ‘make sense’ [and] what sense to make of the facts” … [Frames are] “pre-existing ‘systems of ideas’ or scripts that inscribe meaning into facts” (Harris, 2006, p. 914, 932). A favored ideological meta frame used to make sense of disability—race intersections is colorblindness, which is constituted by multiple racial scripts (Harris, 2006).  Colorblindness shapes the formation of ideology—ontology circuits following this logic:

  1. An emphasis on individual actors: Racism is reduced to intentional acts of bigoted individuals.
  2. Denial: There are few bigots now, thus, racism has lost significance.
  3. Scapegoat culture: Racial disparities in disability identification rates must be the product of culturally deficient bodies. Placement in special education is justified.

In short, ideology—ontology circuits crystallize by reasoning that because racism is now meaningless (ideological assumption), the historical racialization of disability can only be explained by the broken nature of Black people (their defective ontology). Hence,  “…racial inequality will only disappear when Black people are ‘fixed’ ”(Harris, 2006, p. 912).

This analysis means that future teachers need to understand the convoluted historical association of disability with race. Moreover, the next generation of teachers must develop a critical consciousness to understand these complex historical patterns and be prepared to interrupt ideology—ontology circuits in school practices. What are the implications of these demands for teacher education programs?

Implications for teacher education

Teacher educators must design curricula and formative experiences so that future teachers are able to

  • Understand that race is both a social construction and a structural force that shape access to resources and opportunities.
  • Interrogate colorblindness and ideology—ontology circuits on a routine basis. This entails learning to identify contemporary mechanisms such as deficit thinking, micro-aggressions and liberal explanations that attribute educational inequities solely to poverty (Bobo, 2011; Darity, 2011).
  • Develop new analytical mindsets that start with end-state macro patterns (e.g., disability identification rates, academic outcomes) and follow with analyses of social structures, institutional contexts, and decision-making processes that shape end-state patterns. This critical mindset will provide future teachers a more nuanced understanding of disability—race intersections. This new mindset will facilitate deeper analyses of complex problems such as racial disparities in special education. This mindset will also empower teachers to shift their analyses from merely changing program enrollments to restructuring the meritocratic structures and colorblind nature of schools.
  • Conduct situated analysis of student learning relying on multiple representations of competence. This requires tracing student performance across contexts and situations, and situating analyses against the backdrop of learners’ participation in the cultural routines and practices of their communities, (Artiles, 2019; Nasir et al., 2020).
  • Name and critique rhetorical strategies such as Black abstraction—”the refusal to depict blacks in any real and vividly drawn social context” (Ross, 1990, p. 2). The contextualization of the educational experiences of students of color will enable teachers to embrace a strength-based approach and craft counter narratives that dispel abstractions and ideology—ontology circuits that misrepresent this population. In addition, this practice will prepare teachers to identify the ingenuity of students and families that live under tight circumstances.
  • Use a historical epistemology that traces the lineage of categories and practices, asks “whose perspectives are embodied in concepts and ideas,” and use this epistemology to guide the envisioning of better futures for their students (Artiles, 2019; Gutierrez et al., 2017).
  • Craft critiques of disability—race intersections (Artiles, 2013). Intersectional critiques must focus on the structural weight of the disability and race categories as applied to various groups and in different contexts and times. Future teachers need to understand that power clusters and is used differentially around these categories (Crenshaw, 1991). Intersectional critiques are also mindful of the political locations that racialized and disabled groups have across contexts and times. Groups occupy disparate socio-historical and cultural locations which shape their unique experiences—i.e., a black boy with learning disabilities have qualitatively different experiences than a white girl with the same disability. It is not uncommon for students of color to inhabit identities that pursue conflicting political agendas. Intersectional critiques can shed light on the consequences of these conflicts. The same logic applies to teacher candidates who inhabit different identities.

In turn, teacher education programs must be reconfigured to nurture preservice teachers’ learning of the mindset, practices, and habits outlined above. Specifically, teacher education programs should

  • Infuse reflexivity about the ways in which disability—race intersections are taken up in the curricular, pedagogical and assessment systems of the program. These self-critiques should be guided by the fundamental question: What is the “professional vision” of the program? which defines what Goodwin (1994) described as “structures of intentionality;” that is, the structures of perception and action that mediate a program’s views of disability—race intersections. Of significance, teacher educators must acknowledge that programs have traditionally relied on professional visions that privilege White, monolingual, able-bodied, heterosexual, middle class views. This normative professional vision underlies the curriculum, pedagogy and assessment structures, practices and artifacts of programs, including the design of classroom observation protocols, behavioral checklists, templates for lesson plans, and other bureaucratic forms and conventions. The goal of reflexivity should be to put in conversation the program’s official raceless epistemological ecologies about disability with the epistemological orientations of communities of color that have been historically invisible regarding foundational ideas such as learning, competence, critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, articulateness, respect, and good behavior, among others. Reflexivity is also needed to interrogate the racialized and gendered nature of the teaching profession that has mediated the epistemic ecologies of teacher preparation programs and influenced funding, prestige, policymaking, and political support.
  • Reduce program curriculum fragmentation that is reflected in the compartmentalization of key domains to study learning, disability, teaching methods, educational diversity and racial equity. The traditional approach is to study these key topics in separate courses (e.g., educational psychology, exceptional learners, diversity in education, methods courses) with poor integration and limited cross-fertilizations. Program curricula should create learning spaces to integrate disability with learning, race, and teaching methods. This can be done with cross-thematic integration across courses, coordination of learning experiences across key assignments throughout a program, and seminars that connect field experiences with course contents in the context of design-based partnerships with K-12 schools.
  • Design learning environments and program experiences (across courses and field requirements) to nurture the development of identities aligned with the professional vision of the program. A sociocultural view of identity that comprises relational, motivational and affective components (Nasir et al., 2020) should underlie efforts to promote the acquisition of knowledge, a shared vocabulary and new forms of praxis.
  • Build multidimensional information infrastructures to document teacher learning over time. Teacher educators should analyze candidates’ current practices in the context of information on what candidates brought to the program (e.g., cognitively, emotionally, socially, culturally, politically) and what is already there—i.e., institutional requirements, ideological assumptions of policies and rules, implicit routine expectations (Artiles, 2015).


Alfredo J. Artiles is Lee L. Jacks Professor of Education at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education. His interdisciplinary scholarship examines the dual nature of disability as an object of protection and a tool of stratification. He aims to understand how responses to disability intersections with race, language, gender and social class advance or hinder educational opportunities for disparate groups of students.



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