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Focus on Student Disabilities Adds to Educational Deficits

According to a New Article in the Harvard Educational Review

A deaf child struggles to read lips and speak instead of communicating with American Sign Language. A visually impaired student is instructed to read large-print books or listen to audiotapes instead of learning Braille. Expected to read at the same speed as their classmates, many learning-disabled students avoid reading altogether, according to an article published in the Harvard Educational Review.

Ableism, "the devaluation of disability," can "result in societal attitudes that uncritically assert that it is better for a child to walk than roll, speak than sign, read print than read Braille, spell independently than use a spell-check, and hang out with nondisabled kids as opposed to other disabled kids." In "Eliminating Ableism in Education," Harvard Graduate School of Education lecturer Thomas Hehir describes the effects of ableism in education and outlines ways to begin improving educational outcomes for students with disabilities.

Hehir examines ableist practices through a discussion of the history of and research pertaining to the education of deaf students, students who are blind or visually impaired, and students with learning disabilities, particularly dyslexia. While the combined incidence of blindness, deafness, and significant physical disability is relatively rare--less than 1% of the total population of school-aged children--about 5% of students have learning disabilities. "Ableist assumptions become dysfunctional when the educational and developmental services provided to disabled children focus inordinately on the characteristics of their disability to the exclusion of all else, when changing disability becomes the overriding focus of service providers and, at times, parents." These assumptions, Hehir states, "not only reinforce prevailing prejudices again disability but may very well contribute to low levels of educational attainment and employment."

Time spent attempting to change a disability diverts the students' and the instructors' attention away from learning the curriculum. In addition, a negative societal attitude toward performing activities in ways that might be more efficient for disabled people, such as reading Braille or using sign language, may add to educational deficits. "Programs for students [with disabilities] often focus on the characteristics of their disability to the exclusion of their total educational needs," Hehir says.


Calling for an increase in research and scholarly inquiry into the effects of ableist assumptions on educating students with disabilities, Hehir offers suggestions for immediate efforts to begin overturning ableist practices. These include:

  • Include disability as part of schools' overall diversity efforts by expanding efforts to explicitly address diversity issues to include disability.
  • Encourage disabled students to develop and use the skills and modes of expression that are most effective and efficient for them.
  • Specialize special education by training teachers to help disabled students access the curriculum and meet the unique needs that arise out of their disability.
  • Move away from the controversy over full inclusion. Instead of fracturing over issues of placement, the disability community should unite around the goal of society integration and educational results.
  • Promote high standards, not high stakes. Standards-based reforms can lead to higher quality educational programs for students with disabilities but high-stakes tests should be opposed.
  • Employ concepts of universal design to schooling by designing educational programs from the beginning to allow for access and success for all students.


Thomas Hehir is director of the School Leadership Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is former director of the Office of Special Education Programs at the U.S. Department of Education, associate superintendent for the Chicago Public Schools, and director of special education in the Boston Public Schools.

For More Information

The article is available on the Harvard Educational Review website or by calling 617-495-3432. The Harvard Educational Review is a leading journal on educational research. The Review has published many groundbreaking articles in the field of education and is known for its insightful, well-balanced approach to educational research.

Contact Thomas Hehir at 617-496-8535 or Margaret R. Haas at 617-496-1884.


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