Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters

Dewey and Philosophy of Disability

Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_452



The democratic faith in human equality is belief that every human being, independent of the quantity or range of his personal endowment, has the right to equal opportunity with every other person for development of whatever gifts he has. (Dewey 1939/1981, pp. 227–228)

In recent years, humanities scholars, social scientists, and educators have turned to what is often called the social model of disability, an orientation that begins with an intense appreciation for the lived experiences of disabled persons and culminates with a barrage of critical questions about the construction of ethical communities. Scholars have toiled to craft new theories that replace oppressive traditions of stigma and exclusion with fresh intellectual and practical pathways seeking dignity and participation. Although John Dewey never wrote about disability, it is not surprising that scholars are now looking to his philosophy for resources to inform efforts to develop inclusive schools that accept and value students of all bodies and minds. His naturalistic understanding of human growth, pragmatic and pluralistic orientation to knowledge, and devotion to egalitarian democracy offer rich resources to educational philosophers examining issues of disability in contemporary education.

Education and Growth

Individual growth, a gradual expansion of capacities and competencies, is both social and biological, cultural and physiological. Dewey strongly opposed the hereditarian strand in psychology that reduced human learning and growth to physiology and genetics. The development of the concept of individual intelligence, in Dewey’s view, was an illogical attempt to consolidate and calcify the widest variety of human activity across time and context into a single entity stripped of the actual content and processes of human living. The common notion that some essential aspect of human nature stands prior to development and continues as a static force over the course of individual growth denies the actual experience of learning and change over many lived situations and contexts. Dewey held that there is no such thing as an original essence of an individual’s thought or actions that can be distinguished from all that a person acquires and learns during the course of living.

Rather than viewing biology as fixed factuality that precasts the limitations and potentials of human activity, Dewey observed biology as motion and change itself, as continuous unfolding such that “it is fruitless to try to distinguish between the native and the acquired, the original and the derived” (Dewey 1932a/1981, p. 32). At any point in the development of an individual, one can speak of what was original by explaining some feature of the current moment as an artifact of a prior essence. Yet this proposal is always an artifice that denies both the constancy of change in living organisms and the modifying influence of the continuous interactions of the individual with his or her surroundings. What is natural, by Dewey’s analysis, is not a fixed nature but the constant process of change that we customarily call growth, learning, and development.

The current preoccupation in the American education system with objectified types of disabilities demonstrates the failure of psychology and education to appreciate the forms of idiosyncratic and context-focused growth occurring in specific individuals. Educators have become distracted by assumptions about what young people should be and should become in reference to comparative timetables of normality. What is undeniable, in Dewey’s philosophy, is not the existence of a nosology of defective types but a wide variability in how and when individuals grow. The human capacity to grow, taking on a multitude of situational, novel, and surprising forms, progresses in each unique life course. It is misleading to accumulate instances of failed learning or into an overall portrait of incompetence that denies the reality of human growth (Dewey 1916).

Dewey (1916) considered growth the end aim of an education which is ideally a “constant reorganizing or reconstructing of experience” (p. 76). Growth occurs along an “experiential continuum” that proceeds with – and is guided by – education (Dewey 1938). Dewey defined growth as an essentially natural human process which is simultaneously biological and social (Danforth 2008). This contrasted significantly from views of biology as scientific fact, framing human potential as fixed and devoid of context. Dewey (1916) specifically identified two conditions which foster growth: the need for social interaction and “plasticity,” or the ability to learn from experience and thus develop habits of mind and behavior. Specifically, Dewey appreciated growth in habits and capacities that promote social integration, which further enhances learning. The goal of education is the growth of the whole child, including “adaptation to group relations” (Mayhew and Edwards 1965, p. 20), a fundamental skill for democratic community life. To support this goal, Dewey felt that curriculum should be interactive, dynamic, and responsive to the changing needs and interests of students (Mayhew and Edwards 1965). His conception of growth is intrinsically based and not via comparisons as measured between individuals or groups. Growth is viewed strictly on an individual basis, based upon one’s unique attributes and capacities.

Critics of Dewey’s approach might argue that growth is something that happens to us and is not self-directed. However, Dewey is clear in stating that growth occurs individually when we participate in meaningful experiences. Growth is also manifested as self-realization achieved by successfully exercising capacities and realizing one’s potential. Therefore, growth is not quantifiable through, for example, standardized testing. Instead, Dewey advocates that growth is first based upon personal experience from the student’s perspective. Growth can also be appraised through individual contributions in communities where each unique social context determines what counts as growth. Echoing Dewey, Lekan (2009) sees growth as an element of well-being and an entirely individual concept, impossible to measure through comparisons. In this view, though individually defined, growth is best attained by developing capacities and potential through participation in communities. Growth, like many concepts in a Deweyan philosophy of disability, is viewed in regard to two aspects – the individual and society – seemingly distinct, for which Dewey takes great care to illustrate the relationships and connections. Growth as individuals facilitates growth of communities, while individual growth itself is supported by the “modifying influence of the continuous interactions of the individual with his or her surroundings” (Danforth 2008, p. 53). This idea of growth as concurrently biological and social frames disability as but one natural aspect of individuality. Education should be responsive enough to support and guide all students in the growth of social skills, communication, and competence in decision-making. Beyond these skills, even more critical is providing a social context in schools which nurtures growth through participation in shared learning activities.

Supporting Democracy Through Education

For Dewey, the formulation of a philosophy of education lies in his broad conceptualization of democracy and the challenges and opportunities inherent in building democratic communities. Although Dewey never wrote specifically about disability, his philosophy is sympathetic to special education programs and supplies theoretical and practical support for inclusive, democratic schooling that actively values all students of all backgrounds and abilities. Rather than envisioning individuality and community as opposing forces, Dewey framed individual growth as seeking fulfillment within positive contributions to a diverse, changing society. Throughout his writings, specific themes consistently emerge as foundations for a democratic way of life, including participation, communication, associations, individuality, growth, and equality. According to Dewey, participation is a form of collective action in which all who take part have a stake (Biesta 2013). All contribute from whatever interests and talents they have, seeking satisfaction and fulfillment in those preferred activities and all are supported as equal collaborators within the ongoing, practical decisions and deliberations that solve community problems and enrich community life. Education provides opportunities to experience community through mutual participation in shared activities that have personal meaning for participants and facilitate intellectual and practical growth for all students. Education involves collaborative participation in a common activity. These shared activities simultaneously allow each individual to contribute to the practical well-being of the group while also supporting the development of each student forward in her own talents, skills, and knowledge.

Instruction, in this light, is not done to or for students but with them, as a mode of interaction and experience that engages students intellectually and emotionally, tapping into and extending individual desires and interests (Westbrook 1991). Common understanding is not a prerequisite for cooperative activity. Rather, Dewey suggests the opposite; cooperation in action leads to common understanding. This runs counter to traditional thoughts on teaching and learning. It is not merely participation in an activity; it is the quality of the participation that takes priority. Traditional education has concentrated on individuals revising schemas as evidence of learning, not the construction of new and shared perspectives.

Communication, as reciprocal and interactive, is the basis of human community and knowledge. Dewey understood communication not as transmission of information from person to person but rather as transactional meaning-generation, “a process of sharing experience until it becomes a common possession” (Dewey 1916, p. 14). For Dewey, communication through action results in meaning-making that is commonly understood by all, a critical aspect which supports growth and, on a larger scale, democracy. Communication then is action-oriented; it is something people do. More importantly, it is something people do together (Biesta 2013). The concept of communicative and relational participation is central to Dewey’s view of education and a philosophy of disability. Education does not simply occur through mere presence in a social environment. Rather, students must participate in the “embryonic community” (Dewey 1899, p. 19), the social relationships of growth and friendship which are the developing micro-society. Here education occurs through participation in shared activities which transform ideas, habits of conduct, and moral reflection.

For students with disabilities, inclusion defined narrowly by place alone cannot offer the opportunity for participation from a Deweyan perspective. What is required is an unabridged opportunity to be immersed within experiential fullness and richness of the social life of the school as a developmental microcosm of the larger society.

When the school introduces and trains each child of society into membership within such a little community, saturating him with the spirit of service, and providing him with the instruments of effective self-direction, we shall have the deepest and best guarantee of a larger society which is worthy, lovely, and harmonious. (Dewey 1899, p. 20)

The goal of the school is to develop each child’s intelligent and purposeful command over their own actions within a context of cooperation and social support. Individuality and community, in this light, are built through the shared activities of investigation, learning, and action.

Communicative and relational participation takes place within common, shared activity and is a natural consequence of human association (Westbrook 1991). Human potential is not strictly an individual endeavor; rather, it is only reached through associations, or common interactions, with others. In this perspective, the chief goal of the school is to support all students in reaching their fullest potential, to “secure a free and informal community life in which each child will feel that he has a share and his own work to do” (Mayhew and Edwards 1965, p. 32). The educative process itself – comprised of participation and its subsequent transformation of thought and practices – is the end goal of education and requires various modes of human association.

For Dewey (1916), separation of students during the educative process denies the valuable “interchange of varying modes of life experience” (p. 84), diminishing the opportunities for relationships, interactions, and learning. For example, segregating students with disabilities into isolated classrooms or schools creates a situation characterized by a “lack of the free and equitable intercourse which springs from a variety of shared interests” (Dewey 1916, p. 84). Heterogeneous interactions enrich intellectual development for every student; “Diversity of stimulation means novelty, and novelty means challenge to thought” (Dewey 1916, p. 85). Dewey therefore viewed schools as places where modes of associated living among diverse learners developed the practical capacities necessary for building and furthering democratic communities (Westbrook 1991).

In a democratic model, teachers support (and schools are structured to facilitate) students so that everyone makes unique contributions that benefit the community. A shared education prompts development of “social sympathy” and results in “collateral learning,” which is more important in many respects than the content matter itself. In order to accomplish this, educators must “presume competence,” where they bracket out preconceived stereotypes and stigma of disabled students in order to open up to the contributions those students can make (Biklen and Burke 2006). Dewey believed that a democratic design and perspective in education could transform society. Historically, however, the case has been that schools are not designed for that purpose but rather to reproduce society according to homogenized and standardized norms, or “mediocrities” (Dewey 1922a). The task for education, therefore, would appear to be to work within the existing structure of the educational system writ large but strive to create collaborative, democratic communities on a local scale.

Equality in Education and Society

Dewey (1922b) viewed equality as a precondition for freedom and used the concept of “moral equality” to frame student differences in more democratic ways that dispense with hierarchies. Moral equality therefore requires we accept humans as incomparable and that standardized measures (such as intelligence testing) which strive for comparison are decontextualized, ineffective, and even detrimental to the educative process. For Dewey, equality does not equate with sameness but with an equity of social valuing, an assumption that all persons are necessary to the community. To each student must be provided the resources and opportunities for each to fully develop his or her own capacities to contribute to a democratic society, in other words, equality of opportunity (Westbrook 1991). Equality is constructed in the everyday doing of living and not as an a priori philosophical or political ideal. Humans and their life’s activities are not comparable; instead equality is expressed by viewing a person’s unique qualities and capacities. In this sense, equality is not composed of hierarchies or any metric of comparison; it is about individual learning and growth within each unique life context where one is considered “morally equal to others when he has the same opportunity for developing his capacities and playing his part that others have, although his capacities are quite unlike theirs” (Dewey 1932b, p. 346). In this way, equality can be expressed as a collective equation, a reciprocal interaction wherein what each person provides the group in terms of unique contribution is returned to every individual through richness and quality of experience.

Dewey’s stance on equality was based on values and differs from the typical definitions of societal comparison based upon a variety of attributes (socioeconomic status, opportunity, intelligence, social capital). Dewey, however, was very aware of social groups and problems of hierarchies in society. His response was to focus on supporting idiosyncratic growth of each student while creating social processes whereby students work together, accept and value one another, and collaborate to solve concrete human problems. Public education, historically and currently, operates systems that classify and segregate students with disabilities into one-dimensional learning communities. In Dewey’s view, such isolating, marginalizing, and classifying run counter to the democratic values of associated living and moral equality. At its core, Dewey’s notion of equality depended upon an education that afforded all students the opportunity to “make the best of themselves as active participants in the life of their community” (Westbrook 1991, p. 94).

Individuality as Educational and Social Attribute

In Dewey’s view, democracy itself depends upon the realization of individualized capacities. “Democracy will not be democracy until education makes it its chief concern to release distinctive aptitudes in art, thought, and companionship” (Dewey 1922b, p. 300). Dewey (1922a) denounced the “classificatory submergence of individuals in averaged aggregates” (p. 292) as represented by intelligence testing and other standardized assessments of ability or achievement. Education of students with disabilities has been characterized by standardized diagnostic testing and curricula based upon an array of needs that represent actions a particular disability category might exhibit, both of which negate the value of individual capacities. The mindset of focusing on measured deficits instead of valuing the wholeness of complex individualities has implications far beyond the educational setting in terms of the vision for a truly democratic society. Therefore, education’s great task is to discover and encourage the “unique service” (Dewey 1922b, p. 300) of individuals by asking questions involving real human problems that confront society, uniting young minds to be creative, collaborative, scientific, and practical.

Dewey cautioned that individuality should not to be confused with individualism, the valuing of detached independence or self-reliance. In contrast, individuality recognizes and celebrates the unique capabilities and contributions offered by individuals as part of a reciprocal interaction within a social situation. Indeed, Dewey (1916) stresses that:

every individual has grown up…in a social medium. His responses grow intelligent, or gain meaning, simply because he lives and acts in a medium of accepted meanings and values…the self achieves mind in the degree in which knowledge of things is incarnate in the life about him; the self is not a separate mind building up knowledge anew on its own account. (p. 295)

Not only do individual minds grow within a social milieu; consequently so does society insofar as it “counts individual variations as precious” (Dewey 1916, p. 305). Certainly, the value of individual differences in education and society is a common thread throughout Dewey’s writings, one that also frequently connects to his conception of moral equality as incommensurability. As played out in the school setting, individual students, regardless of ability, grow through assuming their own unique roles within the collaborative experiences of the class (Danforth 2008). For schools to succeed in their task of developing social and democratic values, they must be organized as cooperative communities where each student feels as if he or she contributes and can achieve their full and unique potential.


Dewey clearly supported the potential of education to allow every individual to contribute to the democratic ideal in unique ways. Dewey’s concepts of growth, democracy, equality, and individuality are interconnected elements of an overarching, egalitarian perspective. The educational implications of these concepts are best represented through an examination of strategies to create and sustain schools, classrooms, and other learning environments which recognize, affirm, and involve individual voices of students with disabilities as equal contributors in shared communities. Democratic modes of education which promote communication, participation, and human association include removing barriers to shared participation, providing opportunities for students to be socially integrated and contribute to the shared work of the classroom and creating social environments that are mutually enriching. A focus on growth as individuals in a Deweyan perspective requires working on incorporating individual ways of communicating, thinking, and learning actively into educational communities and assessment based upon growth within each individual, not according to an extrinsic or predetermined grading scale. Equality can be fostered through cultivating interpersonal relationships within classrooms which focus on respect, the value of individual contributions, and an inclusive community of caring (Danforth and Naraian 2015). As viewed through a democratic lens, Dewey’s educational philosophy of disability contrasts markedly from a charity-based approach and stresses doing well with, rather than for, diverse others.



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© Springer Science+Business Media Singapore 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Washington University in St. LouisSt. LouisUSA
  2. 2.Chapman UniversityOrangeUSA