Monday, December 28, 2009

The Discursive Practice of Learning Disability

One of the things I do when studying a research article is to go through the references of the article and see what catches my eye. When reading the Social Construction of Learning Disabilities, I was drawn to the work of Ray McDermott and Herve Varenne and in particular, their article Culture as Disability. What is culture as disability? The following passage provides a definition:

"The world is not a set of tasks, at least not of the type learned, or systematically not learned, at school, but made to look that way as part of political arrangements that keep people documenting each other as failures. Over the past forty years, school performance has become an exaggerated part of established political arrangements, and, by pitting all against all in a race for measurable academic achievement on arbitrary tasks, school has become a primary site for the reproduction of inequality in access to resources. The use of the term LD to describe, explain, and remediate children caught in a system of everyone having to do better than everyone else is a case in point. Even if used sensitively by people trying to do the right thing for the children apparently disabled, the term has a political life that involves millions of people operating on little information about the consequences of their work."

This, in turn, led me to the essay The Discursive Practice of Learning Disability: Implications for Instruction and Parent-School Relations by D. Kim Reid and Jan Weatherly Valle. The following excerpt describes things perfectly (my emphasis added):

"In current practice, teachers assign academic tasks deemed “grade appropriate” and hold expectations for a specified range of responses that represent mastery. The child who responds consistently outside this specified range eventually will, in most cases, be noticed as “a person with qualities to be discovered by agents of the school” (Varenne & McDermott, 1998, p. 215). The child then becomes the object of intense observation and documentation, a process reserved only for children who perform outside of the anticipated range of response but whose capacity for learning is suspected to be “normal.” In order to confirm or rule out the possibility of LD, a knowledgeable teacher makes a referral so that a psychologist (and perhaps other experts) can administer a battery of psychoeducational tests to the child to generate an individualized psychoeducational report based largely on the results. Soon, a special education committee meets to discuss the test results and to determine the child’s eligibility for individualized special education services. If the child is deemed eligible on the basis of “really being” a special education student, an Individualized Education Program (IEP) is developed. The transformation from ordinary schoolchild to disabled individual is now complete.(page 469)"

Why does it appear that I am so bitter about special education and LD?  I don't know. I think it started a dozen or so years ago. During a conference with the parents of one of my students, it was suggested by someone in the room that the parents should explore different medication options for their child. The parents never questioned it! I was dumbfounded. There is obviously something wrong with my school that would require a student to be medicated just to make it through the school day. 

It was at roughly the same time I stumbled upon John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing us down: The hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling and in it, The 7-Lesson School Teacher. This sort of started it all, and I have been trying to fight it from the inside ever since.

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