Harvard Educational Review
  1. (Un)Learning Disability

    Recognizing and Changing Restrictive Views of Student Ability

    AnnMarie D. Baines

    New York: Teachers College Press, 2014. 192 pp. $34.95 (paper).

    Too often, conversations surrounding the academic and social abilities of students with disabilities are dominated by deficit orientations; instead of focusing on ways to optimize students’ strengths and individuality, assumptions regarding students’ weaknesses and limitations prevail. AnnMarie Baines confronts these dangerous deficit orientations in her new book (Un)Learning Disability: Recognizing and Changing Restrictive Views of Student Ability by encouraging readers to reflect on the negative ways in which labels influence perceptions of students with disabilities.

    In her book, Baines reveals findings from an ethnographic study that explores identity development for students labeled as having social and learning disabilities. Her rich description uncovers the “disabling practices”—the stigmatizing barriers, expectations, and assumptions that are ingrained in the education system—that students confront in their daily experiences. Yet, she also uncovers the ways in which students actively resist these practices and reposition themselves as they construct their own identities. Drawing from rich case studies of eight high school students, Baines challenges readers to see beyond disability labels and to instead empower students as individuals with their own unique talents, beliefs, and dreams.

    (Un)Learning Disabilities comprises an introduction, seven chapters, a conclusion, an epilogue, and an appendix that offers detailed information about the study’s ethnographic methodology. These sections together develop Baines’s powerful argument for the need to explore and confront the disabling practices inherent in today’s schools and to more fully facilitate students’ academic and personal development. The seven chapters are grouped into three thematic parts: Part 1 provides readers with background on the many subjective assumptions and beliefs that contribute to determining what a child can and should be able to do; Part 2 digs deeper into the various ways in which students defy deficit-oriented beliefs; and Part 3 offers readers concrete examples and tools to begin the process of “unlearning disability.”

    Baines brings the themes presented in each of the three parts to life by drawing from detailed case studies of eight high school students labeled as having social or learning disabilities, many of whom are labeled as being on the autism spectrum. Baines also uses the case study of one of these students, Anthony Gustafson, as a “driving narrative” (p. 3); each of the three parts is introduced by an “interlude” (p. 4) that conveys a piece of Anthony’s story, and further details about his experience are woven throughout the book.

    Baines collected these case studies as part of a two-year ethnographic study in which she and three fellow researchers closely examined the ways in which the students experienced their disability and their identity formation across multiple contexts. Baines and her team recruited students from three high schools in California and Washington State and selected them based on preliminary classroom observations as well as the students’ responses to an initial informational survey that asked questions about their disability label, interests, and extracurricular activities. This recruitment strategy allowed the research team to explore the daily lives of students with disabilities both inside and outside of school. The findings presented in this book are a result of two thousand hours of classroom, home, and community observations as well as “monthly interviews with each of the students, their peers, families, teachers, and instructors” (p. 9). Drawing from this wealth of fine-grained data, Baines’s book offers readers a vivid and authentic window into these eight students’ realities. Her rich descriptions reveal how these young adults are so much more than what the stereotypical view of their disability labels might suggest.

    In Part 1, “Positioning and the Production of Disabled Identities,” Baines introduces the notion of the “social processes of disablement” (p. 22) and describes how entrenched assumptions regarding ability and intelligence negatively influence stu-dents’ identity development and feelings of self-worth. Simultaneously, Baines paints a picture of how these processes motivate students to play a proactive role in their own identity formation. The story of sixteen-year-old Anthony Gustafson is one case that brings these powerful themes to life. Anthony was labeled as having Asperger’s syndrome at age thirteen and continuously experienced low academic and social expectations from his teachers and his peers. These low expectations contributed to a “self-fulfilling prophecy” in which Anthony began to assume the role of the class clown and to think of himself as “the guy who gets thrown out of class” (p. 4). Yet, outside of school, where these restricted views of his ability did not exist, Anthony was a different person. After visiting Anthony’s home for the first time, Baines reveals how “the class clown transformed into the bookworm and collector” (p. 47). At home, Anthony was a voracious reader of military history and boasted a carefully curated collection of military paraphernalia. As former members of the military, Anthony’s parents supported his deep interest by providing him with “access to inside knowledge of his desired world, in terms of both formal connections as well as informal conversations at the dinner table” (p. 31). Anthony’s passion and his parents’ support inspired him to join a Young Marines program, to enroll in a local police-shadowing program, and to spend hours researching his dream of one day joining the US Air Force. Safe from the negative forces at school, Anthony could reposition himself to take control of his life and to develop into the person he wanted to become.

    In Part 2, “Disabling Practices and Youth Resistance,” Baines explores further the ways in which students react to and confront the deficit-oriented beliefs that they face in their daily lives. She artfully incorporates the stories of several participants to highlight the danger of academic stereotypes and the ways in which students respond to the notion of disability. Mark Browning’s case is one such story. From a young age, Mark sought to defy the label of autism that he received as a two-year-old. In his mind, having autism and being intelligent were at odds, and he actively sought to prove to his teachers and peers that he was “smart” and “the best in the class” (p. 78). As an elementary school student, he worked diligently to receive good grades and to be a respected contributor to class discussion; he even created a system of studying and organizing the day’s news in order to develop vast historical and political knowledge. By eighth grade, Mark refused to attend his special education classes, and by high school, he began referring to himself as “recovered or cured” from autism (p. 77). He was “always thinking about controlling people’s impressions” (p. 78), and this preoccupation often led Mark to put enormous pressure on himself to maintain his image as an intellectual. Baines highlights Mark’s story as a way to emphasize the theme of students needing to “position themselves in ways that gave them power over the perceptions of others and to expand what was possible in their lives” (p. 82).

    In Part 3, “The Power to Reposition Youth,” Baines explores “ways to disrupt disablement and ‘unlearn’ disabling practices” (p. 12). In this section, readers are introduced to an alternative school—referred to as Pathways Academy—that actively seeks to empower students with and without disabilities by “constructing a culture that supports diverse youth identities” (p. 94). At Pathways, educators embedded flexibility and supports into the learning environment in order to “create a place where students could be proud of their identities, be comfortable with themselves, and have opportunities to develop confidence” (p. 94). While Baines makes it clear that this school is not perfect, there are nonetheless important lessons to draw. The story of Colby Simpson highlights Pathway’s potential to support students not just as learners but as full individuals. Colby’s label of epilepsy and a “non-verbal learning disability on the autism spectrum” prompted bullying from his peers and reluctance on the part of his elementary teachers “to deal with such a high mainte-nance kid” (p. 100). In eighth grade, Colby transferred to Pathways. While he still experienced difficulty fitting in with peers, the school’s music workshop provided a space in which his confidence and his developing self-advocacy skills could ultimately thrive. The workshop’s teacher envisioned musical performances as a means for celebrating students’ individuality and sought to cultivate a sense of pride in her students. Colby described the music workshop as his “CPR for the day” (p. 105), and Baines uses his story to show how developing a school culture that takes pride in students’ identities can change students’ self-perceptions and trajectories.

    Baines uses these student cases not only to offer vivid descriptions of students’ experiences but also to inform the development of useful resources for practice. She dedicates the chapter “Supporting Ability Development in Classrooms” to providing educators with supports for “establishing a mindset to reposition and empower youth” (p. 109), offering three concrete tools for educators as “suggested examples” (p. 112): a matrix that prompts teachers to draw connections between instructional barriers, student accommodations, and assessment; a lesson-planning template that encourages teachers to address students’ varied needs and to empower students in the learning process; and a “reflection and recording grid” designed to support teachers in collecting rich student-level data over time (pp. 112–113). These three tools provide teachers with tangible resources, and Baines encourages teachers to make ad-justments to them according to individual classroom contexts.

    Yet, these resources alone may not bring about the profound change in practice and beliefs that is needed. One cannot help but wonder about the range of comprehensive supports such as mentoring, coaching, and observation that could potentially complement the tools Baines offers. Further, although Baines chose to focus on developing tools for educators, it is true—as she emphasizes in the first part of her book—that the roots of disabling educational practices and the “social processes of disablement” extend well beyond the classroom and into the very fabric of our educational system. The tools inspire one to contemplate other broader, institutional-level resources that would support the field in making the imperative cultural shift that Baines describes. Nevertheless, the tools she offers are a valuable starting place; their development is built on a wealth of rich ethnographic data documenting students’ experiences across academic and extracurricular contexts, and they provide the field with concrete ideas as to ways to commence the challenging and urgent work of acknowledging and disrupting negative beliefs regarding student ability.

    In (Un)Learning Disability, Baines weaves the experiences of eight students into a convincing, powerful call to the field: confronting the deep-seated disabling practices in today’s schools and empowering students to gain ownership of their identity development must become a priority. These students give voice to countless other students in schools across the nation who encounter barriers based on negative assumptions and yet are able to succeed despite them. The time has come for educators, peers, and community members to join these students—to break down barriers, to redefine notions of ability, and to “unlearn disability” right along with them.
    j.w.g.
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    Book Notes

    (Un)Learning Disability
    AnnMarie D. Baines