Learning to Read: Learning Disabled Post-Secondary Students Talk Back to Special Education

Jan. 29, 2009

Source: International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, Volume 22, Issue 1. January 2009. pages 85 - 98

The paper reveals the findings of a participatory ethnography with post-secondary students enrolled in a large West Coast University in British Columbia.

The students had previously been identified as 'learning disabled' and thus, the 'recipients' of special educational policy interventions. Instead of starting from the official meanings of the special education policy discourses, this study puts front and centre the meanings and experiences of the students themselves. It uncovers the performative work the students engage as they negotiate the contradictory ideologies of meritocracy and equal opportunity while living with the label and realities of various 'learning disabilities'. The students' discourses are read in relation to and against the dominant common-sense ideologies of special education. The study takes into account the students readings in light of their positionalities as racialized, classed, gendered, in addition to living with the label of learning disability.

According to the common claim, meritocracy and equal opportunity are merely superimposed myths internalized by the students. Contrary to this claim, the students' understandings demonstrate that both ideologies involve their active agency to claim 'abilities' and 'normalcy' as counter-hegemonic moments in relation to the larger special education and educational discourses that represent their learning disabilities as 'deficient'.

The implications of this study shed light on how the discourses of students with learning disabilities may be used to read in transformative ways the schooling practices, policies and pedagogies. 'Normal' is not so stable and taken for granted after all. 'Ability' is as much a claim to agency and capacity for learning disabled students as it is for the non-disabled.

Updated: Mar. 12, 2009