Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Intersections of Gender and Ability/Disability in Education

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_428



The educational study of gender is incomplete without an analysis of the intersection of gender and ability. As this entry discusses, gendered schooling structures and practices, schooling expectations, student and teacher experiences, as well as theoretical analyses of gender in schooling are always at once shaped by discourses and material practices surrounding what it means to be able or disabled. This entry explores the entanglement of gender and ability/disability within educational theorizing and the material practices of schooling, drawing especially from the work of critical and feminist disability studies. Gender is always intricately tied to ability/disability and understanding the role and impact of these social identities or constructs, including within educational systems, necessarily involves understanding their relationship with one another.

This entry consists of three parts. First, it describes how gender and ability are entangled as constructs relevant to educational theory and practice. Second, it discusses how normalizing practices within schools that structure inequalities among students in relation to their gender identities must also be understood as informed by a paradigm of “compulsory able-bodiedness” (Robert 2013) (and able-mindedness) that simultaneously structures inequalities among students in relation to their ability status. Finally, it develops an understanding of how theorizing about and practitioner responses to gender differences in educational achievement and classroom behavior are informed by and interpreted through notions of ability and disability. The entry focuses on a specific schooling phenomenon: the gendered and racialized interpretation and framing of “problem” behaviors and intellectual competence through special education labeling and discourses. In exploring these examples of the intersections of gender and ability/disability in schools and educational discourses, the entry aims to highlight new and promising avenues for gender studies in educational philosophy and theory.

The Entanglement of Gender and Disability

A number of disability studies scholars, and in particular those who identify with the growing field of feminist disability studies, have worked to illustrate an important intersection between gender and disability (Hall 2011; Garland-Thomson 2005, 2006; Wendell 1996). Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, whose work on the intersections of gender, race, and disability has been widely influential in disability studies, describes what she calls the “disability system” as a complex web of cultural norms and expectations, modes of representation, and forms of political power that mark some bodies as normal and others as abnormal (Garland-Thomson, “Integrating Disability;” Garland-Thomson, “Feminist Disability Studies”). Says Garland-Thomson, “The disability system functions to preserve and validate such privileged designation as beautiful, healthful, normal, fit, competent, intelligent – all of which provide cultural capital to those who can claim such status, who can reside within these subject positions” (Garland-Thomson, “Integrating Disability,” 260). Thus, one can understand how the aesthetic policing of women’s bodies and behavior, perhaps especially by and through schooling and related institutions, is enacted through notions of ability and normalcy. Practices of bodily conformity, including surgical interventions, consumer products, and fitness regimes, then, are all upheld by a bodily ideal that is a function of what Robert McRuer has called “compulsory able-bodiedness” (2013); that is, they are upheld by the ability-disability system (McRuer, “Compulsory Able-Bodiedness”). For McRuer, compulsory able-bodiedness emerges as a gendered and sexualized imperative of social and political membership as it is comingled with heteronormativity or the social imperative of heterosexual sexuality and gender-binary normalcy. Being able-bodied is a state of healthfulness, normalcy, and virtue that is displayed through gender normative behavior (McRuer 2003).

Two examples, separated by close to a century, are especially apt in illustrating the entanglement of gender normativity, heteronormativity, and able-bodiedness. The first is highlighted in Douglas Baynton’s “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History” (Baynton 2013) in which he argues that historical rationalizations and arguments for perpetuating unequal social relations – between men and women, between whites and people of color – have drawn heavily on constructs of naturalized disability. Baynton describes how, in challenging Western suffragists’ arguments for democratic equality, anti-suffragists drew on arguments about women’s natural cognitive and physical inferiority and presented these in propaganda campaigns:

A popular theme in both British and American suffrage posters was to depict a thoughtful-looking woman, perhaps wearing the gown of a college graduate, surrounded by slope-browed, wild-eyed or “degenerate” men identified implicitly or explicitly as “idiots” and “lunatics.” The caption might read, “Women and her Political Peers.” (Baynton, “Disability and the Justification of Inequality,” 44)

In this example, the rhetorical work of arguing against women’s political equality operates through fears and anxieties provoked by disability. Not only does the comparison between women and so-called “idiots” and “lunatics” mark women as disabled – and in particular as intellectual incompetence – but it also perpetuates the idea that those labeled with cognitive or psychological impairments are democratic unequals. Moreover, the juxtaposition of a woman’s educational achievement against disablement suggests distrust in women’s educational pursuits (perhaps especially because educational attainment threatens the gendered social order).

A second example is drawn from C.J. Pascoe’s ethnography on gender and sexuality in high school, aptly entitled Dude You’re A Fag (Pascoe 2007). Pascoe describes a scene in which a group of teen boys are working outside on lawnmowers during shop class:

A group of boys grabbed rubber mallets and began pounding away at the tires and other parts of the mowers instead of quietly dismantling them with screwdrivers the way they had been instructed to do the previous week…I laughed along with the boys, who had formed a circle around those who were ferociously beating a lawn mower. Colin, standing next to me in the circle, said, “We have a whole class of retards who hit like girls.” (Pascoe, Dude, You’re a Fag, 37)

In this second example, a put-down operates to position women and people with disabilities in the same group of undesirables. By manifesting physical weakness and mental weakness, respectively, women and so-called “retards” (a highly prejorative word very much still in circulation) are positioned as social others, all the while upholding the physically and mentally strong (read able-bodied and heterosexual) male as the social center. Doing the work of theorizing gender within these examples requires understanding the entanglement of ability/disability and gender.

“Compulsory Able-Bodiedness”

In her Reclaiming a Conversation: The Ideal of the Educated Woman (1985), educational philosopher Jane Roland Martin writes, “Philosophers do not construct theories of education in a vacuum. Viewing education as preparation for carrying on societal roles, they tie their proposals to some vision of the good society” (Jane Roland 2000). Martin’s purpose is to show how educational philosophy and theory have been dominated by a presumption of masculinity, the male mind, and the male student and have neglected the lived experiences and cultural contributions of women. When women’s experiences and social roles are marginal in this way, the picture of education that is produced tends to naturalize those ways of knowing, learning, and doing that are articulated and experienced by men.

Many feminist theorists and philosophers have decried the emphasis on the male subject in theorizing societal institutions. This has been perhaps especially clear in the feminist (and poststructuralist) critique of the humanist subject, characterized by reason and rationality, autonomy, and independence (Mohanty 2014; Erevelles 2002; Foucault 1965). According to the feminist critique of the concept of reason, reason and rationality – objectivity, judgment, philosophical logic – have been seen as the purview of men, while emotion – the affective, the subjective, the everyday – has been conceived of as the purview of women. This has left women as the philosophical and academic Other to men, not only because it denigrates the affective expressions attributed to women but also because it couples femininity with compromised intellect. To bend a phrase from the example quoted in the introduction, women’s “educational peers” are cognitive incompetents. Nowhere is this coupling more evident than in attributions of “craziness” that are lodged against women and girls who fail to conform to or tolerate social expectations. Pathologization of women’s minds thus occurs through the attribution of mental illness and “the construct of mental disability is deployed as a gendered tool of oppression and social control that positions the labelled subject as incompetence, incredible, and in need of management” (Taylor 2015).

Nevertheless, while the feminist critique of the concept of reason has been the subject of considerable debate within philosophy, (For discussion, see Nagl-Docekal 1999) only a few have acknowledged that what is at stake in these discussions is not only the demotion of the feminine subject but equally the demotion of the cognitively “impaired,” dependent subject (Carlson 2001; Kittay 2005). Eva Kittay, for example, discusses how philosophy has long regarded an individual’s place in the moral community – their status as a person – as dependent on the possession of particular psychological capacities, especially rationality and autonomy (See Kittay, “At the Margins of Personhood,” 100). For those who are unable – or regarded as unable – to posses such capacities, their personhood and status as a social subject are precarious. Thus, the privileging of traditional conceptions of rationality and autonomy leaves both women and people with disabilities on the margins social institutions, including education.

The entanglement goes further still. Not only does the emphasis on psychological capacities privilege the historically constructed male subject, it also privileges the educational emphasis on the mind at the expense and neglect of the body. Yet bodies populate classrooms and, in many ways, frustrate the processes of schooling. Bodies get sick, they can be hurt, they must fit into schooling spaces, and they are, quite simply, uncooperative with the frequently rigid norms of behavior, teaching practice, and educational structure that characterize schools. In her institutional ethnographic study of women with chronic illnesses enrolled in postsecondary educational institutions, for example, Karen Elizabeth Jung (2011) describes how her participants were forced to reveal and expose their bodies – both literally and through physicians notes, and so on – in order to receive accommodations (Karen Elizabeth 2011). While Jung’s participants were positioned so as to reveal themselves and “claim disability,” instructors and administrators were permitted to occupy an “investigative stance” in which they were the deciders of who is authentically disabled and who is not (Jung, “Chronic Illness and Educational Equity,” 276). Yet being on the receiving end of this empowered gaze leaves disabled women exposed to the conditions of erasure – both as they become their bodies and as they face the possibility of having their body’s needs denied (Jung “Chronic Illness and Educational Equity,” 282). Chronically ill women’s “social invisibility” “makes it difficult to incorporate the realities of chronic illness into both mainstream disability and feminist disability research, effectively reinforcing mistaken beliefs that people with disabilities are unable to make significant contributions to traditions of learning in the academy” (Jung “Chronic Illness and Educational Equity,” 282–283). Educational spaces of the university are naturalized as able-bodied spaces – by or through design, in fact (Lennard J. Davis, “Why is Disability Missing from Discourses on Diversity,” Chronicle of Higher Education (September 25, 2011).) – and this means that bodies that fail to “fit” (Garland-Thomson 2011) whether in virtue of their disability, their gender, their sexuality, or their race are seen to threaten the natural order of things.

Nirmala Erevelles (2000) uses the term “the unruly body” to signify that bodies, in their materiality and imperfection, are uncontainable and always, to some extent, outside of our control (Erevelles 2000). Yet the fear that we cannot control our bodies is precisely what leads to the kinds of bodily interventions that enforce gender and ability perfectionism: fitness regimes, diets, beauty products, plastic surgery, and so on. The imperative of the able body is always gendered because it imposes a disciplinary system that is binarized male–female. As shown in the earlier example from Pascoe – and as her book’s title suggests – displays of strength and destruction help boys to distance themselves from the pathologizing attribution of homosexuality. For girls, displays of femininity – make-up, high heels, hair treatments – afford power and social status (think Mean Girls) even as they maintain women’s powerlessness within patriarchal structures. (Indeed, it is interesting to think about the physically disabling and immobilizing effects of high heels, even as they are used as gendered markers of beauty). The maintenance of “compulsory able-bodiedness” thus operates not only as a social and political injunction to power but also as a material constraint against disturbing the social order of the schooling system.

Gendered Pathologization in Schooling Practices

The entanglement of gender definitions, identity, and experience with the social phenomenon of disability shapes how educational theorists and philosophers respond to gender in education, whether implicitly or explicitly. The growing understanding of ability/disability as a social organizing construct and a complex social system can help us to better understand how and why gender is framed as a problem in schools, how students’ gendered and sexuality differences and experiences are pathologized, and, perhaps especially, how institutions of education organize themselves around gender.

Of the many gendered schooling phenomena that educational researchers have focused on in the last several decades, the notion of the disparate social behaviors and success of boys and girls (The presentation of a gender binary here – boys and girls – is not meant to advocate a view of gender as binary. Rather, gender binaries can be understood as in fact reinstated in schools through discourses and practices of ability and disability.) has been prevalent. Beyond important analyses of how girls and boys are socialized into different roles through and by schooling practices, researchers have also been fascinated by the changing educational attainment patterns that occur between boys and girls’ educational achievement both in K-12 schooling and higher education. Among the many areas of focus within this research is the differing social behaviors of girls and boys in schools as well as the different ways in which these behaviors are interpreted. Returning to the earlier example from Pascoe, it is possible to imagine how teachers might interpret the behavior of the boys with the lawnmower as simply “boys will be boys” behavior, as does one of the teachers in Pascoe’s study (Pascoe, Dude, You’re A Fag, 37). On the other hand, the “boys will be boys” interpretation can take on a whole new meaning when attached to particular racialized interpretations of ability/disability. How might this interpretive difference account for why poor black, Latino, and indigenous boys are disproportionality more likely to be labeled with disabilities in school, for example? (Harry and Klingner 2014) How might it explain gender differences in disciplinary and behavioral intervention practices in school that break down along the lines of race and disability label? (Skiba et al. 2002; Lopez 2003).

Certainly, race and gender on their own form a complex web in studying the achievement of boys and girls in schools. In her qualitative study of race and gender disparities in urban education, Nancy Lopez (2003) observes that “notwithstanding the fact that men were generally more rambunctious than their female counterparts, teachers were generally less understanding of young men and more likely to discipline them harshly for the same infractions committed by their female counterparts” (Lopez, Hopeful Girls, Troubled Boys, 88). These race and gender complexities are of particular interest to scholars who study the phenomenon of overrepresentation in special education as well as the discursive coupling of femininity with cognitive incompetence that can position women and girls as educational others.

Overrepresentation refers to the disproportionate number of students of color who are identified within and through particular disability categories in special education (Ferri and Connor 2005). Where an analysis by race and class markers does go a long way towards explaining this disproportionality, Beth Ferri and David J. Connor point out that “within-group gender differences in identification rates confound attempts to explain racial differences as primarily due to race and class” (Ferri and Connor, “In the Shadow of Brown,” 95). Gender plays a significant role in how students’ racial identities are interpreted and in how they are constructed as disabled. Educational scholars who apply a disability-conscious analysis to understanding the pathologization of behavior have focused not only on how diagnostic and identification practices in special education assessment lead to imbalanced identification along the lines of race but also how the interpretation of social behaviors influences the way that students are seen as able and disabled. To understand these phenomena, some disability studies in education theorists have focused in on understanding how unwanted or unwelcome behaviors are interpreted in the classroom. Fernanda Orsati and Julie Causton-Theoharis (2013), for example, describe how classroom behaviors are interpreted as not only challenging or disruptive but also as evidence of an internal student deficit or disability (Orsati and Causton-Theoharis 2013). These authors argue that the interpretation of behavior – and subsequent assessment of impairment – depends greatly on what they call a “discourse of control” that teachers and other educational professionals draw upon to interpret students. Importantly, these responses focus less on interpreting students’ behaviors as they do on interpreting the students themselves. For example, the authors describe the phenomena of teachers grouping students whose behaviors are unwanted: “‘they scream’, ‘they run’ ‘you need to chase them’” (Orsati and Theoharis, “Challenging Control,” 516). These kinds of grouping descriptions imply that teachers see these students as “other” and, moreover, that the behavior is evidence of an inherent pathological deficit rather than a social experience (Orsati and Theoharis, “Challenging Control,” 521). Disability becomes that marker of internal deficit.

Thus, for many young men of color the “boys will be boys” adage works not to excuse unwanted behavior but rather to mark it as pathological – as emotionally troubled or disturbed. Susan Baglieri and Arthur Shapiro (2012) describe the disability category of emotional disturbance as a “soft disability” because of the subjective nature of its identification: “soft disabilities” are ones that lack any known or discernible physical or biological markers and are thus based solely subjective methods of assessment and identification (Susan and Arthur 2012). In the case of emotional disturbance, teachers’ expectations of correct or normal behavior – and their reports of apparent abnormal and disturbing behavior – account for much of the identification process and likely much of the phenomenon of overrepresentation of students of color carrying the label of emotional disturbance (Baglieri and Shapiro, Disability Studies, 119). Indeed, “being a boy, being Black, and/or poor increases one’s likelihood of being identified as emotionally disturbed” (Baglieri and Shapiro, Disability Studies, 119). These theoretical analyses of behavior and pathology-attribution illustrate the intersecting components of gender and ability in schooling. Importantly, in the above examples, one’s perceived or experienced gender identity is significant in determining how one is interpreted relative to disability in schools.


The purpose of this entry is twofold. First, it uses specific examples to describe how ability/disability and gender are entangled as social identities. Whether it is the normalizing practices in schools that maintain gender binaries and reward heteronormativity or it is the disciplining and pathologization of behavior, interpretations of gender are always entangled with “compulsory able-bodiedness.” Second, it discusses how these examples illustrate the necessity of an intersectional approach to studying gender in educational philosophy and theory. The entry began with the strong claim that the educational study of gender is incomplete without an analysis of the intersection of gender and ability. The purpose of this strong claim is to encourage educational theorists and philosophers who study gender and disability to attend to these important intersections and the complexities they raise for theory, policy, and practice in education.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Colgate UniversityHamiltonUSA