Disability and the Meaning of Social Justice in Teacher Education Research: A Precarious Guest at the Table?

March 1, 2021

Source: Journal of Teacher Education, Volume: 72 issue: 2, page(s): 237-250

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The authors undertook an inquiry to shed empirical light on the status of disability within social justice by systematically investigating how the research literature on social justice in teacher education treats disability.
Three questions drove their analysis:
(a) How frequently and in what ways does disability appear in the empirical literature on preparing teachers for social justice?
(b) How integrated is disability within the study of social justice in teacher education?
(c) How is disability treated in this literature with respect to intersections with social identity markers of other marginalized groups?

To identify studies for this systematic review, the authors sought research in which teacher education scholars used the language of social justice to frame their inquiries, rather than terms and concepts that function as subsets of or synonyms for social justice.
They identified empirical studies that included the term social justice in the title or abstract—suggesting that the authors regard themselves as social justice teacher educators.
They targeted studies at the preservice level, incorporating those examining the first year of teaching only when researchers followed graduates of their own social justice-oriented programs.
They limited their review to U.S. studies but included one joint study between an American and Canadian researcher.
They targeted studies appearing in peer-reviewed journals between 1990 and 2016.
Fifty-three studies met their search criteria.

Findings and discussion
The limited presence of disability across this literature suggests that much work needs to be done to assure that disability is taken into account in consistent and meaningful ways in preparing teachers for the practice of social justice.
When disability is mentioned, it is isolated as a discrete social marker of identity—essentializing it as simply another item in this “inventory.”
When studies casually mention disability, as opposed to mentioning it substantively, some authors use terms such as ability, dis/ability, or (dis)ability.
Invoking terms like these begins to acknowledge disability as a socially constructed phenomenon, yet these same terms can also represent limitations, as they can reify the medicalsocial construction binary, and fail to validate intersectional identities (e.g., Artiles, 2013).
Not only is mention of disability generally lacking, but opportunities to prompt deeper engagement with disability can go unexploited.
When disability appears in lists of social identity markers, it is often included inconsistently—raising questions regarding the purpose and meaning of such lists in the first place (Pugach et al., 2019).
Opportunities for more consistent disability-related discourse are likewise squandered when disability is acknowledged as important in one section of a report (e.g., citing research that prominently features disability in justifying a study) but ignored elsewhere in the same report when its consideration would be fitting.
In addition to problems with the mention of disability, intersectionality is also largely ignored.
McDonald (2005) and McDonald et al. (2013) acknowledged interlocking oppressions and intersectionality, but failed to probe how social justice teacher education programs might address these issues.
The authors are left wondering why disability seems to be such an uncomfortable fit in this literature.
They do not make the assumption that teacher education researchers committed to studying social justice are purposefully disregarding, discontinuously addressing, or under-engaging with disability.
Rather, its limited presence suggests that even with the best of intentions, and despite the growing national and international emphasis on restructuring education to foster inclusive educational practices across the full array of social identity markers, uncertainty exists about the place of disability within the arc of social justice teacher education.
They propose two explanations that might account for such benign neglect.

The Instructional Dominance Explanation
One explanation is that disability is viewed narrowly as an instructional challenge, decontextualized from the very structural and intersectional oppressions that impact education.
Exacerbated by legal mandates, teaching students who have disabilities may be singularly perceived as challenging teachers’ pedagogical skills, compelling a narrow focus on questions of how, for example, to differentiate instruction— which often appears to function as a code word for solving everything instructional related to disability.
Viewing disability as uniquely urgent instructionally suggests that a typology like McDonald’s (2005, 2008), for example— where special educational needs are differentiated from needs generated by structural social oppressions—may be routinely operating within teacher education in ways that are not being clearly articulated at the level of everyday teacher education practice.
Essentializing disability as a decontextualized instructional matter can feed into the belief that special education teachers alone have the instructional expertise to address students labeled as having disabilities—implying confidence that the prevailing special education infrastructure, which to date has not been able to ensure the academic success of many students with special needs, is adequate for addressing the problem.
It may also suggest that special education teachers alone should take primary responsibility for fighting against the marginalization of students who are labeled as having a disability—posing problems for building alliances across, and beyond, existing practices in special and general education to transform the educational system.

The Challenge of Complexity Explanation
A second potential explanation for the weak treatment of disability involves the complexity required to situate disability within the context of its companion markers of social identity.
Philosophically, few question that disability belongs in the social justice landscape—which may account for the disability-related chapters in the handbooks Connor (2012) stipulates as evidence of disability’s presence at the social justice table.
The reluctance to engage disability discourse in the research literature reviewed here, however, seems to indicate that disability does not hold parity with social identity markers regularly acknowledged under the umbrella of equity, which in teacher education routinely includes race, ethnicity, language, culture, gender, social class, and more recently, religion, and sexual preference.
Discomfort with where and how disability belongs illustrates uncertainty about how to situate disability within the practice of social justice, a lack of confidence regarding how to discuss disability in this larger context, and an absence of appropriate discourse with which to capture its relationship to all other social markers of difference.
This explanation underscores the need to complicate disability within teacher education, drawing on a discourse of complexity to assure that disability gains meaningful, productive status in relationship to social justice research and teaching practice.
From an intersectionality perspective, disability is never a student’s sole social identity marker, but co-exists with other equally salient markers that also jeopardize children and youth—markers too often discounted in the presence of a label of disability.
But as is the case with all markers of difference, disability sits both in the foreground and background of the full complement of identity markers all students labeled as having a disability possess.
Depending on the situation on any given day and given time in school, students’ multiple markers of identity can shift both in their prominence and their immediacy relative to teachers’ pedagogical decisions—but only if the intricacy of these intersectional identities is recognized and appreciated.
This does not minimize the meaning of any individual marker, nor its salient risk for jeopardy.
What it does suggest is that the danger of essentializing identity is much greater when students are not inherently viewed as multifaceted with respect to their social markers of identity.
Importantly, an intersectional view of identity is missing not only from the literature reviewed here, but also within the special education research literature itself (Artiles et al., 2016).
Sustaining a view of identity as inherently complex and multifaceted may be more difficult than we realize, however.
For teacher educators, the challenge of complexity explanation must go beyond looking intersectionally at student identity as a fluid configuration made up of multiple identities in relationship to the institutional structures that impact those identities.
In drawing upon intersectionality to problematize identity within social justice, instruction itself must constitute a central consideration.

This investigation illustrates that disability remains an intractable problem in relationship to social justice, requiring a need to engage far greater complexity—and plain hard work—to transcend its precarious status quo.
Assuring disability a consistent, unambiguous seat at the social justice table necessitates robust, innovative understandings of the full dimensionality of social justice to achieve the deep transformation of teacher education, predicated on collective ownership.
Located at the interstices of identity and instruction, disability may offer a unique site where transformational questions of identity and instruction can be challenged simultaneously and recursively.
As such, disability may hold the potential to serve as a pivot upon which teacher educators oriented toward social justice begin not only to address these ambiguities, but simultaneously help right long-standing wrongs with regard to disability, thus strengthening social justice as a common endeavor.

Artiles, A. J. (2013). Untangling the racialization of disabilities: An intersectionality critique across disability models. Du Bois Review, 10(2), 329–347.
Artiles, A. J., Dorn, S., & Bal, A. (2016). Objects of protection, enduring nodes of difference: Disability intersections with “other” differences, 1916-2016. Review of Research in Education, 40(1), 777–820.
Connor, D. (2012). Does dis/ability now sit at the table(s) of social justice and multicultural education? A descriptive survey of three recent anthologies. Disability Studies Quarterly, 32(3). https://dsq-sds.org/article/view/1770/3095
McDonald, M. A. (2005). The integration of social justice in teacher education: Dimensions of prospective teachers’ opportunities to learn. Journal of Teacher Education, 56(5), 418– 435.
McDonald, M. A. (2008). The pedagogy of assignments in social justice teacher education. Equity & Excellence in Education, 41(2), 151–167.
McDonald, M. A., Bowman, J., & Brayko, K. (2013). Learning to see students: Opportunities to develop relational practices of teaching through community-based placements in teacher education. Teachers College Record, 115, 1–35. http://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentId=16916
Pugach, M. C., Gomez-Najarro, J., & Matewos, A. M. (2019). A review of identity in research on social justice in teacher education: What role for intersectionality? Journal of Teacher Education, 70(3), 206–218. 

Updated: Jun. 03, 2021