Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Disability Studies in Education (DSE) and the Epistemology of Special Education

  • Justin E. Freedman
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_451


Introduction: Disability Studies in Education as Critical Special Education

Disability Studies in Education (DSE) is an international academic research field that is a subdiscipline of the larger field of Disability Studies. DSE was formalized as an independent field in the United States in 1999, when a group of Disability Studies scholars formed a special interest group in the American Education Research Association. Although there is no singular theoretical framework used in DSE, a theme undergirding the scholarship is to critically examine practices at the intersection of disability and schooling (Baglieri et al. 2010).

This focus on disability and schooling aligns DSE scholars with the existing research field of Special Education. While there is overlap between the fields, the critical orientation of DSE is a key element that distinguishes the field from Special Education; DSE scholars are critical of many school practices promoted by the field of Special Education as well as of the knowledge base of the research field. DSE can therefore be understood as a form of critical special education in that researchers in the field are highly critical of the theoretical frameworks and practices used in Special Education, yet many still locate themselves within the field of Special Education (Ware 2005; Connor 2013).

Epistemological Critiques of the Ontology of Disability

The rise of DSE over the past two decades is a direct response to long-standing ways of producing knowledge in the field of Special Education. Accordingly, many of the theoretical contributions of DSE scholars are epistemological critiques of the field of Special Education. Epistemology refers to the study of knowledge. Epistemological critiques question the knowledge base of disciplines, asking how we know and what we know about a given topic or what the assumptions are that underpin legitimate knowledge within a given field. DSE scholars have critiqued several aspects of the knowledge base of Special Education, including how disability is conceptualized and the effort to establish best practices that are linked to specific disability labels (Connor et al. 2011; Gallagher 1998, 2004).

A key impetus for such critiques is the perception of DSE researchers that the field of Special Education holds an epistemological monopoly on the intersection of disability and schooling (Connor 2013). This is of critical concern given the institutionalized knowledge that is produced in Special Education. To varying degrees, the research field of Special Education influences, and is influenced by, the institution of Special Education – governmental mandates regarding the provision of services to children identified as having a disability. Because legislation leaves many of the specific aspects of implementing Special Education up to local schools (in collaboration with parents and children), the knowledge and beliefs of trained professionals situated in the culture of schools largely dictate the meaning of disability and associated practices. Special Education researchers are thus uniquely situated to produce knowledge that impacts everyday school practices via the actions of these trained professionals.

Concerned about the history of Special Education dictating knowledge about disability and schooling, critiques by DSE researchers begin at the very foundation of Special Education knowledge: the ontology of disability. In the field of Special Education, the existence of disability is generally understood to emerge from deficits on or within the body. From this perspective, disability is an individual problem that exists in some students and not others. The task of researchers in Special Education is therefore to understand the nature of the deficit and to promote practices that will ameliorate it through remediation or treatment. Establishing this knowledge base involves a slow accumulation of scientific knowledge about what are presumed to be discrete conditions, coupled with a base of accepted “best practices” aimed at remediation. In this paradigm, disability is viewed as an unwanted and undesirable characteristic of certain schoolchildren.

Often referring to this conceptualization as the medical model, researchers in DSE generally reject the understanding of disability as a deficit within individuals that must be fixed or cured by professionals. Instead, many acknowledge physiological differences in students but view disability as primarily the result of the interaction of an individual student and an inaccessible or inflexible schooling environment. From this perspective, the disability is not something that exists on or within certain students; the existence of disability is a social phenomenon. Different physical or learning characteristics among children are often reframed as neutral differences that reflect diversity, not inherent disability.

Social Constructionism as a Response to Positivism

Differences in conceptualizing disability are indicative of the stark contrast of epistemological orientations between the fields of Special Education and DSE. The knowledge base of Special Education has long been rooted in a positivist empirical framework. Positivism refers to an epistemological orientation that posits that all claims about what is true (legitimate knowledge) can be scientifically verified. Empiricism refers to the belief that all knowledge can be discovered through sensory experience. Truth, in a positivist empirical framework, is therefore objective and singular. Determining what is true is a matter of refinement of a gradually accumulated base of knowledge using the scientific method.

The use of positivist empirical orientation in Special Education is owed to the influence of other disciplines on the field. As an independent field in the United States, Special Education only emerged in the 1960s, rising to prominence in the 1970s when specialized education and related services were mandated through federal legislation for all students identified as having a disability. Since its inception, Special Education has been particularly influenced by the fields of behavioral psychology and various branches of medicine. The influence of behavioral psychology explains the tendency of Special Education researchers to frame behaviors of students as a finite set of skills (e.g., social, academic) that can be altered through behavioral modification. Special Education overlaps with medicine in its aim to discover the etiology of certain disability labels as well as methods of treatment or remediation. In turn, the fields of medical science and psychology also largely influence Special Education as a system in countries around the world; by defining and setting the parameters of disability, these fields influence which children fall under the purview of Special Education professionals and researchers.

Psychometrics is another discipline that has significantly influenced the epistemological orientation of Special Education. Psychometric tools are used in Special Education research in an attempt to both objectively define the criteria for disability labels and to determine evidence-based instructional strategies for remediating deficits. In attempts to define disability, the influence of psychometrics can be seen in the use of the normal curve in Special Education. The existence of disability is predicated on identifying deviation from a set of normative criteria that are expected from school children at a given age. For example, deviation from expected social behaviors (framed as “skills”) serves as justification for the use of a number of deficit-based labels (such as Autism Spectrum Disorder [ASD] or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder [ADHD]) and in turn justifies the use of interventions aimed at modifying a child’s behavior.

Psychometrics is essential to the ontology of these disability labels and others in the field of Special Education because there is no definitive test to determine that these differences exist as discrete disorders. Rating scales and other psychometric tools are used as a way to establish differences as deficits. This approach also reflects developmentalism – a worldview based on developmental psychology that establishes normative criteria for how a child should develop. Children who exhibit behavior outside this trajectory are therefore apt to fall under the purview of Special Education professionals for the purposes of remediation.

Both DSE and Special Education researchers have acknowledged that despite its theoretical commitments, the field of Special Education has been unsuccessful in achieving its goals through a positivist empirical framework (Kauffman 1994; Gallagher 1998). Researchers have been largely unable to create the type of scientific knowledge that can serve as a basis for lawlike generalizations about the existence of disability. Furthermore, the field has been unable to establish a set of evidence-based practices that are linked to effectively remediating certain disability labels. Researchers in the field have responded with calls for incremental changes, including a stricter and more consistent adherence to a positivist empirical framework in research (Kauffman 1994).

DSE researchers have responded differently to the failure of Special Education in building a positivist knowledge base. They have questioned whether building such a knowledge base is desirable or even possible (Gallagher 1998). This critique stems from DSE’s rejection of the positivist epistemological orientation of Special Education. Rather, DSE researchers take a social constructionist approach to theorizing knowledge about disability and schooling. Social constructionism refers to a framework rooted in sociology, in which knowledge about a given topic is contingent on certain shared and evolving understandings that are specific to the cultural and political contexts of a society. From this perspective, disability is framed as a social construct. Following Hacking (1999), claims about disability as a social construction can be understood as a reaction to claims about its inevitability. More specifically, DSE’s use of social constructionism is a response to the idea that the meanings and practices associated with disability are inevitable. A social constructionist framework for defining disability takes a sociocultural view, highlighting the ever-shifting social, cultural, historical, and political contexts that give meaning to the existence of disability as a social phenomenon. As with social constructionist theories of gender and race, viewing disability through a sociocultural lens illustrates that disability, as it is currently known, is anything but inevitable.

As evidence of this, DSE researchers point to the many disability categories whose definitions and methods of diagnosis are highly subjective and have been altered in accordance with cultural and political factors (Baglieri and Shapiro 2012). These socially constructed categories of disability include labels such as Emotionally Disturbed, Learning Disability, and Intellectual Disability. Often referred to as “soft” disability categories, DSE researchers have attempted to show how the emergence and maintenance of these labels over time primarily reflect changes in sociocultural factors, rather than discrete physiological differences. For example, race, class, and gender discrimination have long been documented in the use of certain disability categories. In several States around the United States, students of color and of low socioeconomic status have been found to be overrepresented in categories such as Learning Disability and Emotionally Disturbed (Harry and Klingner 2014). Critiques have not been limited to these “soft” disabilities. Disability labels that are based on more consistent, discrete, physiological differences (e.g., deafness, Down syndrome) have also been the focus of criticism that examines the types of knowledge and cultural meanings that are promoted by scientific research (e.g., Kliewer 1998). A key theme undergirding DSE critiques of the scientific knowledge of disability is the idea that science exists within culture, rather than in a vacuum. Thus, the knowledge produced by researchers in Special Education (and related fields) through framing differences and organizing research protocols to come to scientific conclusions is seen as a cultural by product, rather than as objective observations. Special Educators are becoming increasingly aware of these critiques and have responded, defending the use of a positivist empirical framework and critiquing the sociocultural approach to the ontology of disability (e.g., Anastasiou and Kauffman 2012).

A social constructionist epistemological orientation thus serves as the jumping-off point for reconceptualizing the epistemology of Special Education. In other words, if the goal of Special Education is incremental progress while maintaining the same epistemological framework, then the goal of DSE is to recreate the framework that guides the production of knowledge in Special Education. This effort is motivated by a belief that a positivist empirical framework is a self-imposed limitation that unnecessarily and detrimentally narrows what counts as legitimate knowledge regarding disability and schooling and limits how educators might respond to the diversity of abilities in children. The later issue – responding to the diversity of children – has been a chief concern of DSE researchers, who (along with other Special Educators) have largely advocated inclusive education as an approach to support diversity of all students in general education. DSE researchers have recently suggested that the knowledge base of Special Education – with its roots and ongoing orientation in psychometrics and behavioral psychology – is not suitable for the further development of inclusive education practices, in part because it was never intended to foster inclusive practices. Despite an increase in research and practices aimed at supporting all students in general education classrooms, the theoretical underpinnings of Special Education still ground the discipline in discourses of deficit and remediation and provide a scientific rationale to justify more restrictive learning environments for certain students (Danforth and Naraian 2015).

More broadly, DSE researchers have expressed at least two central concerns about the self-imposed limitations of a strict adherence to a positivist empirical framework in Special Education. First, a positivist empirical framework attempts to make claims about the objective and absolute truth about the existence of disabilities. The concern for DSE researchers is that in the search for this truth, Special Education researchers are apt to overlook the sociocultural influence on disability because it is incongruent with claims about the absolute existence of disability on or within certain individuals. DSE researchers have therefore framed the unwillingness of Special Educators to address sociocultural elements of disability as a form of self-imposed ignorance (Poplin 1987). Special Education researchers have rebuked this idea, arguing that a narrow epistemological framework is the best means to achieve the type of scientific rigor in the field that they believe will produce knowledge sufficient to remediate disability in students.

Secondly, DSE researchers have critiqued the epistemological orientation of Special Education for imposing unnecessary limitations on acceptable research methodologies. Research in the field of Special Education is rooted in a philosophical framework that is modeled on physical and behavioral science. As such, acceptable research methodologies in the field are those that reflect a positivist empirical approach, in which the research maintains neutrality and produces objective knowledge. DSE researchers have concurred with other scientific philosophers who argue that such a value-free research process is a fallacy. Instead, they argue that all research is value laden and influenced by the researcher, from the framing of research questions, to methodological choices, to interpretation of data (e.g., Gallagher 2004).

Accordingly, DSE researchers have called for broadening the parameters of acceptable research methodologies in the field. They have argued for a plurality of methodologies that will diversify highly quantitative state of the research field (e.g., Connor et al. 2011). These include the use of qualitative and mixed-methods studies that bring forth the lived experiences of individuals labeled as having disabilities. Additionally, DSE researchers point to the need to depart from the focus on strictly defining disability labels, which are often used as a departure point for research studies that make claims about the reality of a specific disability. They argue that if disability labels are shifting sociocultural constructs, then beginning a research study by framing a disability label as an objective, static characteristic of certain individuals avoids the cultural influence and value-laden nature of the research. Therefore, useful as disability categories may be in organizing research protocols for positivist science, DSE researchers argue that such methodological tendencies do little to produce valuable knowledge, nor do they illustrate the complex truths about lives of the populations under study. Broadening the parameters of methodologies in Special Education therefore involves both expanding how research is done (e.g., quantitative, mixed-method, single-subject research) but also altering the framework of research such that it acknowledges and embraces the value-laden nature of research and the sociopolitical realities of disability.

Learning Disabilities as an Example

The phenomenon of Learning Disabilities (LD) provides perhaps the most comprehensive example of the epistemological differences described thus far. LD is first and foremost a political category. In several countries, LD (or some variation) is a label that provides students access to specialized instruction and services. In the United States, LD is the largest of all disability categories in K-12 public schools, representing approximately 41% of all students who receive Special Education services (Learning Disabilities Association of America 2015). LD is also a disorder within the psy-sciences, though under different names and which differs to varying degrees with the institutionalized definition and criteria of LD in schools. The research field of Special Education draws in part from the research of these behavioral and medical sciences, as well as from the field’s own traditions and research base, to build knowledge about LD.

For decades, researchers in Special Education have attempted to prove that LD exists as a discrete disability, which manifests itself in a minority of schoolchildren. Stemming from a long-held presumption that LD is a disorder of the central nervous system, this effort has involved an ongoing hunt to locate LD inside the brain. Such an effort focuses on the deficits of certain children (i.e., what they are presumed to be unable to learn) and has been proposed as an attractive explanation for the “unexpected” or “unexplained” failure of children to learn. Over time, Special Education researchers have used a positivist empirical framework to frequently redefine the definition of LD and the criteria determining who does and does not have LD. In the absence of a test of “hard” proof about the discrete presence of LD, the parameters of LD have been a moving target. Nevertheless, this has not dissuaded Special Education researchers from attempting to develop a scientific knowledge base that will uphold the existence of LD. In fact, several researchers have argued that despite a lack of clear understanding about what exactly LD is, it is best to agree on some criteria in order to disseminate information about detection and remediation, which can support teachers, parents, and children (e.g., Hammill 1990; Scanlon 2013). This perspective is reflective of the aforementioned “medical model” in which learning differences are understood through the lens of pathology; LD is viewed as a deficit that must be remediated.

While acknowledging differences in learners, DSE scholars have been highly critical of the medical model of LD, as well as efforts to build a scientific knowledge base about LD. Many DSE researchers view LD as a sociocultural and political category (e.g., Gallagher 2010; Skrtic 2005; Sleeter 1987). They understand the birth of LD and its evolvement over time as more of a reflection of the cultural practices on how schools respond to differences, rather than about differences within children. For example, the economic reality of limited resources in schools may encourage teachers to use a one-size-fits-all approach, rather than cater to differences in their students. DSE researchers further argue that the very concept of LD is based on invented concepts about how children should learn, relative to their supposedly non-disabled peers. Thus, LD is seen as a category that upholds a mythical normal child, while pathologizing differences among children. DSE researchers seek to disrupt the concept of normalcy and reduce its influence in school practices, rather than support school practices that uphold it.


LD is but one example of many that illustrates the stark epistemological chasm between Special Education and Disability Studies in Education. In the past quarter-century, there have been increasing critiques of special eduction, cementing the emergence of a vocal minority of “critical special educators” who find serious faults in the positivist empirical framework employed in Special Education research. Ultimately, however, the tradition that has been the knowledge base of the field – rooted in a medical model of disability – continues to be the dominant epistemological orientation espoused by the vast majority of Special Educators.



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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Syracuse UniversitySyracuseUSA