Recognition in Special Needs Education, Inclusive Education and Disability Studies

  • Franziska FelderEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Springer Reference Geisteswissenschaften book series (SPREFGEIST)


Although recognition theory has not achieved much prominence in special needs education, inclusive education and disability studies, philosophers who focus on oppression, marginalisation or discrimination often rely on recognition-theoretical authors. These authors include Judith Butler, Nancy Fraser, Iris Marion Young and Michel Foucault. The article suggests that a model proposed by Heikki Ikäheimo is most useful for discussing important aspects of recognition in the above mentioned areas. Also, it suggests that both Axel Honneth’s and Charles Taylor’s theoretical contributions to recognition theory deserve more attention in the fields of special needs education, inclusive education and disability studies.


Inclusive education Special needs education Disability studies Disability Recognition Discrimination 

1 Introduction

Apart from a few exceptions (Danermark and Gellerstedt 2004; Ikäheimo 2009; Hanisch 2014; Hahn 1988; Shakespeare 2006; Stoppenbrink 2017), recognition theory has not gained much attention in the diverse disciplines that concern themselves with disability in one form or another. Particularly, recognition theory is rarely used to gain a deeper understanding of important topics in special needs education, inclusive education or disability studies – topics such as inclusion, the nature of (professional) care for disabled people or the relationships between teachers and pupils in an inclusive classroom. Often recognition theory functions as a “folk paradigm”, in the sense that it is used in a commonsense, generally accepted form without any further clarification (Bingham 1996). The most attention recognition theory has received in this context is from disability studies scholars. This is not altogether surprising, given the importance of concepts such as oppression, power or marginalization that are both shared by disability studies and certain schools of recognition theory, such as Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Nancy Fraser or Iris Marion Young (Abberley 2002).

In order to systematically outline the potential of recognition theory for the disciplines of special needs education, inclusive education or disability studies, I do not engage with the only marginally present discourses and debates within these disciplines in the following contribution. Instead, following a more systematic path, I highlight those aspects stemming from recognition theory that are important if we think about disability and the education of children with disabilities. In the first step, therefore, I clarify the basic assumptions behind two concepts of disability as this explains the different topics that are associated with the above-mentioned disciplines. In the second step, I briefly outline a theoretical frame that goes back to Heikki Ikäheimo’s influential introduction “Anerkennung” (2014) and which helps to shed light on some challenges and problems disabled people face when struggling for recognition. Turning briefly to specific prominent figures in recognition theory, I thirdly show that both Charles Taylor and Axel Honneth are marginalized, whereas especially the work of Nancy Fraser figures prominently among researchers of the above mentioned disciplines. The article then finishes with some concluding remarks that highlight again some of the important issues concerning recognition and disabilities.

2 Two Models of Disability

The challenge in asking what recognition theory means for disciplines occupied with the topic of disability is that disability itself is a very complex phenomenon and disabled people are too heterogeneous a category to be analytically defined as a collective on a social theoretical level. They do not represent one group sharing a common genetic feature or a shared cultural identity. Furthermore, disability affects people to differing degrees, both in terms of the individual pathology and the place of the person in the world. Consequently, each individual’s perspective and experience of disability is different. This makes it difficult to speak in general about the ‘nature’ of disability as well as finding a shared social response to disabilities. Likewise, there is not simply one single discipline that is concerned with disability. Rather, again, the relevant disciplines are as heterogeneous as disability itself, ranging from disability studies – highlighting a social understanding of disability and a reflection of power structures and systemic injustice – to ‘classical’ special needs education with its focus on the learning of the individual pupil with an impairment, historically mostly in special school settings.

The concept of disability can be seen from – broadly speaking – two analytical perspectives. One is called the ‘medical model of disability’, the other the ‘social model of disability’ (Oliver 1996). The ‘medical model of disability’ is often seen as an inappropriate way of conceptualizing disability as it associates disability with impairment, cure and defect, and is generally seen as taking an overly individualized view on disability. Proponents of the ‘social model of disability’, on the other hand, argue that whereas impairment is a physiological condition, disability is largely socially constructed through exclusionary policies and practices. They contend that once the disabling attitudinal, architectural, and socioeconomic barriers are removed, most people with impairments will be included in the fabric of social, economic, and political life (Oliver 1996, p. 33). The ‘social model of disability’ conceives disability as an instance of social oppression or marginalization and in that respect as a social and structural form of misrecognition. It argues, for example, that disability can stem from or reflect economic marginalization, such as a marginalized position in the workforce or the exclusion from the labor market. Such exclusion is seen as closely related to the capitalist mode of production, rooted in the social structures of capitalism. In contrast to the ‘medical model’, the ‘social model’ favors a structural rather than individual, impairment-oriented focus. Often, the ‘social model’ is accompanied by post-modernist theories. They take it that disability is constituted in and through specific socio-political arrangements. Such approaches endorse deconstruction as well as decentring the subject, and culture is given a vital role (Danermark and Gellerstedt 2004). Post-modernist ideas figure prominently in feminist recognition theory (Butler 1990, 1993) and in Foucault’s work (1972). Not surprisingly, researchers within disability studies often refer to one or the other of these authors (Goodley 2017; Tremain 2015; Sherry 2004).

3 A Helpful Analytical Frame to Structure the Debate About Recognition and Disability

Heikki Ikäheimo (2014) has developed a useful analytical frame that helps to structure the debate about recognition and special needs or disability in different disciplines. He distinguishes three broad families of meaning regarding recognition. First, there is the conception of recognition as identification. Of interest in this respect is for instance the question of ‘who’ someone is, and who has the discursive power to decide. This is largely an epistemic question that gains momentum, for instance, in Miranda Fricker’s (2007) work that reflects upon hermeneutical and testimonial justice as instances of a broader framework of epistemic justice. Second, there is recognition as synonymous with acknowledging, accepting or admitting. It is applied to normative and evaluative entities and includes, for instance, the acceptance of norms. Recognizing disabled people’s rights reflects, for example, such an understanding of recognition. Third, there is the family of recognition of persons. Here recognition functions as it is commonly understood and mostly used in special needs education, inclusive education and disability studies. Honneth’s threefold distinction of forms or dimensions of recognition concerns this third family. According to Honneth, the three forms of recognition are, first, love or concern for someone’s wellbeing; second, respect and third, esteem for the contribution to a common good (Honneth 1995). Ikäheimo (2014) suggests distinguishing between two further axes within this family: a vertical and a horizontal one. The vertical axis includes both a downwards and an upwards oriented perspective. The downwards oriented perspective includes the state recognizing disabled people in granting them rights, prominently for instance via the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD (2006). The upwards oriented perspective includes persons recognizing social institutions, for example the school, including people inhabiting different institutional roles in it, such as teachers and headmasters. The horizontal axis can be either mediated by norms, for instance when we recognize someone as a bearer of rights; or be genuinely intersubjective. This is where the three forms of recognition of Honneth (1995) – love or care, rights and esteem – come into play again. Often, of course, forms of intersubjective recognition are conditional, but what Honneth really is aiming at, according to Ikäheimo (2014), is a conception of the unconditional forms of recognition in their purest form: concern for the well-being of someone for his or her own sake; taking somebody as an authority and granting them rights; and appreciating his or her contributions to a common good. The first form of recognition is permanently present in practical relations to assistants, caregivers and teachers; and yet there is not much theoretical reflection upon this dimension. Most prominently, the history of recognition through law – most recently with the almost global adoption of the UNCRPD – stresses the varying conditions under which disabled children and youth are to develop self-respect (Rioux 2002). Yet, although the UNCRPD has been ratified in many countries, evidence indicates that disabled children and youth do not get the individual support they would require and remain largely unaccepted in regular school settings (Smyth et al. 2014). This not only highlights the fact that rights or recognition as respect do not automatically ensure other forms of recognition, such as recognition that concerns well-being. It also shows the limits of rights such as those declared in the UNCRPD, and for systematic reasons. Rights need to be enforceable and within the power of the bearer of duties to fulfill, both requirements only partly met in care relationships. In terms of social standing and appreciation for one’s contribution to a common good, disability is reflected in studies focusing on stigma (Grue 2016; Goffman 1963).

Yet, there is underexplored terrain here. When explicit or implicit evaluation attached to children and youth with disability is negative, this can have negative consequences for them, both in terms of their self-conceptions and by affecting how they are treated by others, for instance by teachers or peers. First, it can be argued that the criteria of recognition and thus the “recognizability” of individual children and youth are dependent on the norms that reflect or reenact the power structures of society. For instance, if being able to navigate securely as a blind person in a foreign city is something not recognized as a special skill in a society, then this blind person will suffer not only from a lack of social esteem concerning her skill, she also suffers more broadly from a society that has a narrow and confining view of abilities and skills. Second, as examples of disabled people living “happily” with comparatively small degrees of self-determination show, the role of recognition in the development, constitution and maintenance of subjectivity is eminent. It is only when recognition is accompanied with the capabilities to build one’s own identity that one can speak of “true” self-recognition.

4 Recognition Theory in Special Needs Education, Inclusive Education and Disability Studies

Although Charles Taylor’s theory of recognition (1989), with its focus on the importance of caring relationships for personal identity building, seems to be an ideal theory in the context of school education for young people, Taylor is hardly taken as a theoretical source and is – in the context of disability – even accused of representing disabled people in a “language which is both limiting and depreciating” (Arneil 2009, p. 219). Honneth, on the other hand, although more often taken as an inspiration – at least in short forays into recognition theoretical terrain – is criticized for being too psychological and for focusing exclusively on interpersonal relationships (Garrett 2010). More frequently and thus more prominently acclaimed is Nancy Fraser’s account of ‘participation parity’ which is often conceived as a proxy for inclusion (Knight 2015). ‘Participation parity’ requires both objective preconditions of a just distribution of resources as well as ensuring that disabled children’s voice is heard. Additionally, the intersubjective preconditions of cultural patterns of interpretation and valuation, institutionalized to express both equal respect and social esteem, are required. Although Fraser does not herself focus on disability, her approach is often seen in consonance with the social model of disability (Calder 2011). The point they both share is that it is not enough to allocate resources to disabled children and youth. What is important is to examine how society regards them.

Recognition theory in this respect not only gives justification for the empowerment of those children and youth, but also argues for the provision of social arrangements that grant them a social status equal to that of others. Although Fraser does not disagree with the psychological importance of recognition, she suggests that we should reconstruct recognition not in its psychological fabric, but as claims for justice, and that a just order can be understood as one where everyone enjoys the status of a “full partner in social interaction” (Fraser and Honneth 2003, p. 29). Misrecognition, according to Fraser, means social subordination in the sense of being prevented from participating as a peer in social life (Fraser 2001, p. 24). In the case of disability, negative recognition or misrecognition is experienced in the sense of “not seeing beyond the disability” or of “being of less worth”, not only in terms of rights and with the means of (dis)respect, but also in social interactions, and in encounters with socio-material conditions (Hanisch 2014).

5 Expanding the Conversation: Taylor’s and Honneth’s Potential Contribution

Whereas for a large part in the history of public education, disabled children and youth were not seen educable at all, the origins of special needs education in the mid to late nineteenth century begin with an accentuation of differences: Disabled children and youth were recognized as objects of (religious) healing and in terms of their social usefulness (Winzer 1993). It is only recently and in the developed and wealthy Western societies that it is recognized that further steps need to be taken to ensure that disabled children have the same opportunities to learn as others and that their educational provision is equal to that of other children. However, their education is often still marked by a precarious social situation in schools, by being labeled or called names. Given the misrecognition disabled people in general often experience via language that represents cultural and social stereotypes, it is surprising to see how absent Taylor’s and Honneth’s accounts are in special needs education, inclusive education and disability studies. Taylor, for instance, emphasizes the importance of “significant others”, people who are central both for the genesis and the maintenance of self-identity and can thus clarify the interplay between subjective and intersubjective dimensions of recognition (Taylor 1989). And Honneth (1995), although he bases much of his account on psychological findings (especially Mead and different theoretical strands in psychoanalysis), is far from being focused solely on psychological aspects, taking the structure of society that opens up and closes down possibilities for human beings into account. His theory is thus able to highlight the subtle interplay between – for instance – granting rights and thus showing vertical recognition, and horizontal recognition in its purely intersubjective form and different layers: love or concern, respect, and social esteem (Ikäheimo 2017). Theoretical work that concentrates – for instance – on the preconditions for inclusive education for all children, including those with disabilities, could thus shed light on the difficult and subtle interplay between subjective, intersubjective and structural conditions that often hinder the successful inclusion of disabled children and youth into regular schooling.


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Copyright information

© Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden GmbH, ein Teil von Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Universität ZürichZürichSchweiz

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