Bringing Disability Rights and Justice to Special Education
Lindsey Chapman became aware of the importance of disability justice early in her career as a teacher educator. “One of my light-bulb moments was when I was working with grad students—all special educators—who had no historical, legal, or cultural context of disability in society,” she says. “They think that disability is over there and special ed is over here—they see them as separate.”
Despite a vibrant disability justice movement, over 40 years of disability rights legislation, and the extensive body of disability studies research that has developed over the past few decades, many aspiring special education teachers still do not learn about the political, cultural, or social aspects of disability.
Chapman, a lecturer in special education at BU Wheelock, aims to change that in her teaching. According to her, the training of special education teachers often focuses on clinical aspects of disability—and that does their future students a disservice. To teach students with disabilities equitably, teachers must understand that their experiences cannot simply be reduced to entries in the DSM-5.
In her teaching, Chapman seeks to help her students develop a richer, more nuanced view that goes beyond the medical. Her class, Disability, Public Policy, and Education, is often the first place where students encounter such questions. “Disability is a medicalized concept for many students. A lot of them haven’t really thought about this,” Chapman says.
Understanding disability justice
In her work as a teacher educator, Chapman incorporates principles of disability rights and disability justice. Disability justice, a framework introduced by the Sins Invalid performance troupe, goes beyond disability rights by focusing not just on policy, but on the systemic societal influences that lead to the exclusion of people with disabilities.
Understanding contemporary issues in disability rights and justice requires a thorough historical grounding. Chapman interweaves disability history throughout her teaching. For instance, she shows the film “Crip Camp,” a retrospective documentary that focuses on the lives of disability activists who came to know each other at a camp geared toward children with disabilities. After the film, Chapman and her students discuss ableism—prejudice, hostility, and discrimination against people with disabilities—and its long-term effects.
“I focus on ideas that cut across both disability rights and justice,” Chapman says. “They guide the way I teach, the way I structure my courses—they’re ways that I can reflect my values.”
Facing the root causes of inequity
Chapman doesn’t flinch from covering the darker side of disability politics, such as the fact that students of color with disabilities are disproportionately suspended, expelled, or otherwise removed from the classroom. Although schools have started to track these classroom exclusions, the problem remains endemic.
She and her students also discuss historical and modern abuse at institutions such as the Willowbrook State School and the Judge Rotenberg Center. Opened in the mid-20th century, the now-defunct Willowbrook State School became notorious for its squalor and systematic abuse directed at its residents, while the Judge Rotenberg Center in Canton, Massachusetts, is internationally infamous for its use of painful electric shocks to control its “students.”
“It makes the students uncomfortable,” Chapman says. “But if they don’t see it, sometimes they don’t think it’s real, that it didn’t really happen.”
Preparing students to make a long-term impact
Chapman encourages her students to apply what they are learning and challenge settled ideas in their practice as teachers. For example, a new early literacy initiative in Massachusetts is designed to prepare all “early childhood, elementary, and moderate disabilities teacher candidates” for “evidence-based early literacy.” Although the target students are wide-ranging, it omits students whose disabilities are deemed “severe,” and Chapman and her students discuss the implications of this omission.
“Students who are designated as ‘severe’ may not be taught to read, or they may be less likely to have access to a highly qualified special education teacher who is prepared to teach them how to do so,” she says.
Chapman hopes that by understanding educational inequities within the school system, future teachers can help advocate for students’ right to a free and appropriate public education. She stresses that combating these inequities requires thoughtful strategies that must go beyond developing regulations. “We can’t policy our way out of this,” she says. “We’re not addressing the root cause.”