Disability, curriculum and social justice

Last week I attended a half day course on Disability Awareness, which was interesting because it connected with a lot of the ideas we’re reading and talking about on the EdD. During the session, the course facilitator presented the social model of disability as the dominant paradigm of the moment. This focus on one single ‘correct’ perspective was at odds with what I’ve been learning about social science, and I was immediately skeptical about one single perspective being the best route to equality of opportunity. It could be argued that, as someone who doesn’t consider herself disabled, I’m bound to be skeptical about the social model as it puts the onus on me to make adjustments for those who do. But I do appreciate the social model – and have acted in accordance with it for my own students (as I will explain) – I just had a hunch that there might be other tools in the toolbox.

I am interested in ‘difference’ in a broad sense, the pervasiveness of one’s own perspective and experience, and practices for overcoming this. I’m currently grappling with some real-life dilemmas around disability, ability, cultural capital and coping strategies; where/how these overlap and what this means for curriculum design, learning outcomes and assessment. For example, the course I teach is about engaging with pedagogic theory and applying it to teaching practice, and my cohort of 63 students I have PhDs, professional writers, dyslexics, programme directors and studio technicians in every creative discipline from Hairdressing to Narrative Environments. The ease with which they get meaning from academic texts – and produce their own – varies wildly and according to a range of factors; enjoyment of reading/writing, past education and experience, dyslexia, cultural background, ability to focus, desire to learn, family/work distractions… I could go on forever. And the questions I find myself asking are: If I avoid pushing (through the curriculum) certain aptitudes that will benefit my students in the professional world, am I making an effective stand against an unequitable world, or doing my students a disservice? To what extent is it fair or right to adjust the course curriculum and requirements? Is it possible to design an assessment instrument that provides a pure measure of learning, unpolluted by existing and/or inessential skills, attitudes or cultural capital? Personally I think this last one is definitely something to aim for, and I was just warming up to this point at the Disability Awareness workshop when the facilitators closed down the conversation; I actually got the sense that some people felt we (the teachers in the room) were being prejudiced and defensive. The facilitator asked me if I would equally defend the preparation of students for a racist industry. I thought that was an unnecessarily emotive comparison to make, given that race is one of the nine protected characteristics and ‘ability to present a clear written argument’ is not.

The little conflict I describe above illustrates perfectly one of the challenges of ‘difference’; academics have to hold a number of different perspectives at once in order to understand and address the dilemmas we face, get as near to the truth as we can, or have confidence in our actions. But others might not share or even understand this approach. At the start of the session we were asked to list some assumptions about disabled people (participants dutifully fed a list of one-sided assumptions like ‘disabled people are lazy and get loads of free stuff’), which were, of course, swiftly debunked. I was expecting a second sheet of flipchart paper with assumptions that disabled people might make about teachers (e.g. ‘teachers want an easy life and are slaves to industry’). There wasn’t one. Surely we can’t address these issues of ‘otherness’ without explicitly examining opposing perspectives? One of the first activities I get my students to do is to consider how teacher’s perspectives influence their approaches to teaching and how students’ perspectives influence their approaches to learning.

Back to the real-life example from my own practice: I’ve been experimenting with a new curriculum this year that aims to legitimise engagement with a variety of content formats – from full research papers to websites, summaries, videos and diagrams – and different types of synthesis & communication. It does appear to be ‘working’ in the sense that everyone is engaging in depth with the topics, fewer people are falling behind, and those who are struggling to keep up are attributing this to factors external to the course rather than there being ‘too much to read, too much to write’ (as has sometimes been the case in previous years). But on the other hand I feel there is an argument for pushing my students to learn to ‘talk the talk’ – for funding bids, further professional recognition etc., – and when I talk to graduates from the programme they often tell me they were glad, with hindsight, that I ‘forced’ them to do ‘proper’ academic writing. This is my dilemma.

David recommended I look at the following paper for a critical realist perspective on disability; the next post will summarise my thoughts on this:

Bhaskar, R. & Danermark, B. (2006). Metatheory, interdisciplinarity and disability research – A critical realist perspective. Scandinavian Journal of Disability Research, 8, 278-297.

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