Disability Studies in Education and Justice-Oriented Teacher Preparation: Understanding the Barriers and Possibilities of Integrating Critical Visions of Disability

November, 2021

Source: Studying Teacher Education, 17:3, 350-368

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The authors self-studied their integration of Disability Studies in Education (DSE) curricula that often ran counter to the dominant understandings of and approaches to disability in their teacher preparation programs and in K-12 education more generally.
When they completed their self-study, Marisa was an adjunct instructor teaching an introduction to special education course and Dana was an adjunct instructor teaching courses in the social foundations of education.
They were teaching at very different institutions (one small and private, one mid-sized and public), that both had thriving teacher education programs.
The addition of DSE content in these courses at both institutions was considered a novel development.
As they learned about DSE throughout their graduate studies, dialogued with each other, and began incorporating DSE curricula into their respective courses, they decided to engage in an in-depth collaborative self-study of the potential barriers they faced.
Yet because they believed that inclusion of such curricula could also contribute positively to their preparation of future educators who work for justice, they also took care to explore the potential possibilities afforded by their curricular changes.
In this paper, where they share authorship equally, they detail theoretical and methodological details about their self-study as well as reflective findings that they believe can inform practices around teacher preparation for justice. The authors both identify as justice-oriented educators and purposefully incorporated DSE content in their courses due to this identity.

The Self-Study
Neither of the authors were experts in the field of DSE when they were assigned to teach their courses in Special Education and the Foundations of Education.
As graduate students, their situation was unique.
As they were teaching, they were learning, and in a liminal space of understanding themselves as instructors (Berger, 2004).
Yet they found the integration of DSE content into their classes essential in moving toward their goals as developing justice oriented teacher educators.
When they began teaching at their respective institutions, they taught what they were asked to teach without much consideration about the development of the course or the placement of the content.
Being curious graduate students, they began to critically examine the content they were expected to teach and the context in which they were teaching.
They observed that their teacher education programs largely focused on student outcomes stemming from nationally recognized standards that instructors were required to meet.
A technical curriculum model (Flores, 2016; Posner, 1998) was evident across the institutions, with students completing a prescribed set of courses often with common curricula and assessments.
They realized that they had some freedom to enhance the curriculum of their courses and inserted concepts that related to the course objectives but were not integral aspects representative of the larger program.
In this vein, they began incorporating several key elements from the field of DSE into their courses while collecting personal narratives and dialogues in hopes of clearly outlining the barriers and possibilities for including DSE content in existing teacher education coursework.

The authors underwent their self-study collaboratively as critical friends and peers who were teaching different courses but learning from and supporting one another.
Self-study, as articulated by Pithouse et al. (2009), ‘involves using methods that facilitate a stepping back, a reading of our situated selves as if it were a text to be critically interrogated and interpreted within the broader social, political, and historical contexts’ (p. 45).
In this project they took the Pithouse et al. (2009) notion of reading themselves as a text quite literally.
After two semesters in 2016–2017 of instructing with DSE content in their respective courses, they completed this self-study of their experiences.
They independently developed written narratives about their recent experiences incorporating DSE content into their respective courses and constructed notes during dialogues with each other about their experiences.
These documents, as well as collected text messages, served as sources of data about their experiences integrating DSE curricula into their courses.
Their ongoing critical friendship (Fletcher et al., 2016) also marked how they analyzed their narratives as they collaboratively deliberated about how to interpret, understand, categorize, and explain their experiences.
This was a key component in their methodology, as they leaned on each other to support the changes they were making in their courses as well as the methodological rigor of their self-study.
Their collaboration was critical, because they guided each other in explorations of their emerging understandings about justice-centered teaching and disability, engaged each other in new ways of thinking about their curriculum and pedagogy in teacher education, and challenged each other’s analyses throughout the entirety of the self-study process (Fletcher et al., 2016).
This friendship, then, was foundational not only to their development as educators, but also to their development as self-study researchers.

Findings and discussion
Throughout the analysis of the self-study, the authors continually came back to the foundational curriculum theory concepts of the implicit, explicit, and null curriculums.
In particular, when paired with the notion of M. W. Apple’s (1979) ‘official knowledge’ they became increasingly aware that DSE was null in the realm of established teacher education curricula and ideology.
This held them back in very concrete ways.
For Marisa the prescribed course standards were embedded in every aspect of her course from content to assessment.
These standards, as she noted, adhered to medicalized notions of disability that were foundational to the official framework in special education and took up so much time and space in the explicit curriculum, that finding room for DSE content was difficult.
For Dana, DSE was similarly ‘elbowed out’ of the explicit curricula of her social foundations courses, which, although developed from the work of critically minded scholars seeking to contest injustice, suffered from a lack of clearly developed curricular resources and theory addressing disability.
The authors found that these experiences highlighted just how much the field’s official knowledge and explicit curricula mediated their ability to enact their justice-oriented values and integrate DSE content into their courses.
In spite of this clear barrier constructed by explicit curricula, they also recognized the possibilities gained from analyzing their experiences of integrating DSE content through the lens of the implicit curriculum.
They discovered that in many ways they became the DSE-inspired curriculum through giving life to DSE principles in their pedagogy, their practices, and their identities.
They reflected that the common expression ‘teaching is the best way to learn,’ was particularly meaningful to their experience as these DSE principles became a part of their identities as they undertook the act of teaching them.
Additionally, they found great promise, particularly for justice-oriented teacher education, in the possibility created by embodying DSE principles in the presence of future teachers.
As self-identified justice-oriented teacher educators, they learned that they felt they had to explore the history of who assessments were developed for in order to avoid engaging in an ableist pedagogy through omission.
In the preparation of special educators in particular, Marisa found that the absence of content centering the role of Disability Rights activists in achieving state and federal educational protections often obscured the context for the Disability Justice movement that has continued disability activism into the present-day (Sins Invalid, 2016).
This includes the ongoing efforts toward full inclusion for disabled students (Baglieri & Bacon, 2020).
As expressed by Marisa reflecting on her own teacher preparation, ‘can you appreciate my astonishment that I had learned nothing about the Disability Rights Movement . . . and I was working with kids in special education for years and years, without a clue about any of that!’
Their narratives unearthed that implementing DSE was not a casual choice to update their curriculums, but a decision to uphold a shared moral responsibility to contend with the ethical omissions of the traditional teacher education curriculum.
Thus, as they reflected on the ways in which the absence of DSE material preserved many of the status quo assumptions of pedagogy and practice, they expressed a powerful ethical obligation to remedy the curricular silences as justice-oriented instructors.
In this sense, their integration of DSE content was an attempt to ‘un-null’ DSE theories, concepts, and content in the curriculum of their courses and their programs.
This un-nulling, of course, was a somewhat subversive act that challenged the established order of teacher education, something they intuitively felt as unprotected adjunct instructors and early career scholars.
In spite of this, they found that they grew more committed to the ‘creative noncompliance’ (Deborah Meier as cited in Hinnefeld, 2017) of their DSE content integration, recognizing that justice-oriented work first begins at the margins of the status quo.
Thus, while they recognize the organizational structures that teacher educators must work within (i.e. accreditation and standardization bodies that rarely uphold commitments to justice-oriented curricula), they believe that their reflections show how instructors can initiate curricular changes for justice and navigate sensitive contexts, particularly when they take up these changes in community with other teacher educators.
While they were two lone graduate students making curricular changes in their individual sections, they believe that much more could be accomplished, and many of their experienced barriers ameliorated if teacher educators collectively made commitments to including justice-oriented curricula in their institutions.
As the field of education navigates calls to center justice in the wake of widespread social movements, they hope that communities of teacher educators will take up or continue this type of curricular boundary pushing both within their classrooms and within their programs, and advocate for governing bodies to adopt values that will create space for justice-oriented curricula.
It is a crucial first step in problematizing, disrupting, and changing the many fundamental inequities in education.

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Berger, J. G. (2004). Dancing on the threshold of meaning recognizing and understanding the growing edge. Journal of Transformative Education, 2(4), 336–351.
Fletcher, T., Chróinín, D. N., & O’Sullivan, M. (2016). A layered approach to critical friendship as a means to support pedagogical innovation in pre-service teacher education. Studying Teacher Education, 12(3), 302–319.
Flores, M. A. (2016). Teacher education curriculum. In J. Loughran & M. L. Hamilton (Eds.), International handbook of teacher education (Vol. 2, pp. 187–230). Springer.
Hinnefeld, S. (2017, April 10). Meier: ‘We need to teach creative noncompliance’. School Matters. https://inschoolmatters.wordpress.com/2017/04/10/meier-we-need-to-teach-...
Pithouse, K., Mitchell, C., & Weber, S. (2009). Self-study in teaching and teacher development: A call to action. Educational Action Research, 17(1), 43–62. 
Posner, G. J. (1998). Models of curriculum planning. In L. E. Beyer & M. W. Apple (Eds.), The curriculum problems. politics, and possibilities. State University of New York Press.
Sins Invalid. (2016). Skin, tooth, and bone: The basis of movement is our people (2nd ed.). [Digital Version]. sinsinvalid.org 

Updated: Apr. 25, 2022