Voices in Education

Knowledge Citizens? Intellectual Disability and the Production of Social Meanings Within Educational Research
Not long ago, I explained to a gathering of education scholars that portrayals of individuals labeled with intellectual disabilities within academic research have often been reductive and even inaccurate. I argued that one reason for this is that academic researchers are themselves unlikely to have an intellectual disability. Many people laughed. But I wasn’t making a joke. Rather, I was pointing to a complicating fact about the lack of ability diversity among academic researchers, such that individuals with intellectual disability labels aren’t active participants in the creation of social meanings about them. So why was this comical?
What struck me after this conference presentation was how it was simply assumed that researchers aren’t going to have cognitive impairments, or at least not to the degree that is attached to the label of intellectual disability. This view is certainly not limited to academic researchers. Indeed, many take for granted that those with intellectual disability labels aren’t going to be producing academic research because of their disability. But why not? It has been easy, I think, to gloss over this tacit exclusion as an insignificant problem for knowledge diversity in educational research. But this seems to me both dangerous and false.
In my article appearing in the Spring issue of Harvard Educational Review, I challenge what I see as an unexamined belief about intellectual disability that is behind the laughter of my colleagues. I argue that able-minded people have significant, and unjust, power in defining who counts as a producer of knowledge. Within this climate, the voices and first-person experiences of people labeled with intellectual disabilities are at risk of being minimized, misinterpreted, and even dismissed outright.
People with intellectual disability labels frequently experience what Miranda Fricker (2007) calls “epistemic injustice,” or injustice that undermines a person’s status as a knower and that prevents them from producing social meanings about their own lives and existence. In some cases, a person’s behavior that is associated with their disability—speech patterns, bodily comportment, or nonverbal communication—is taken as evidence of their intellectual incompetence or inability to make credible testimonial contributions. As a result, they are treated as a non-knower and dismissed. In other cases, labels themselves—e.g. “intellectual disability”—are taken as descriptions of total incompetence, such that a person is dismissed as an active participant in research simply because of their label. What makes this epistemic injustice more entrenched, I argue, is that existing social meanings about people labeled with intellectual disabilities, such as that they are childlike, reinforce the notion that their exclusion is benign. And yet, such silencing undermines individuals’ ability to influence social meanings and, indeed, to change perceptions of them as non-knowers.
A motivating problem in my paper is the material consequences of this kind of knowledge exclusion. The material effects, I argue, include continued second-class citizenship, and even noncitizenship, of labeled people. This is because educational research that is conducted within social contexts of exclusion legitimate educational practices that deny civic opportunities to people labeled with intellectual disabilities. Consider that people with intellectual disability labels are rarely represented in social studies curricula (Baglieri & Shapiro, 2012), nor are they granted substantive opportunities to learn about regular practices of citizenship (Agran & Hughes, 2013). When children and youth with intellectual disability labels are not taught to regard themselves as future citizens, nor as potential contributors to educational policy, practice, and theory, then their education is reproductive of their disempowerment and marginalization.
In light of these material implications, I invite educational scholars to evaluate their research practices. Certainly our research can work to disrupt the patterned injustice that people with intellectual disability labels regularly experience. But it requires us to commit ourselves to the view that ethical educational research cannot take place in a context wherein the notion of people labeled with intellectual disabilities as researchers is outright laughable.
Agran, M. and Hughes, C. (2013). You can’t vote—you’re mentally incompetent: denying democracy to people with severe disabilities. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 38(1), 58–62. https://doi.org/10.2511/027494813807047006
Baglieri, S. and Shapiro, A. (2012). Disability studies and the inclusive classroom: critical practices for creating least restrictive attitudes. New York: Routledge.
Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic injustice: power and the ethics of knowing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

About the Author: Ashley Taylor is an assistant professor of educational studies at Colgate University. Her research focuses on the role of able-mindedness in conceptualizing civic participation and knowledge production, in the classroom, and beyond. Her article “Knowledge Citizens? Intellectual Disability and the Production of Social Meanings within Educational Research” appears in the Spring 2018 issue of Harvard Educational Review.