Background/Context: Culturally authoritative texts such as Text Revision of the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual-IV [DSM-IV-TR](American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2004) describe literate impossibility for individuals with disability labels associated with severe developmental disabilities. Our qualitative research challenges the assumptions of perpetual subliteracy authoritatively embedded within the DSM-IV-TR (APA, 2004). U. S. education policy also confronts, at least rhetorically, assumed hopelessness with reading and writing remediation in schools. Most recently, the federal government has directed national concern toward issues of literacy acquisition and child failure through the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). One description of NCLB provided by the U.S. Department of Education (2004) suggested universal literacy was a primary objective. However, our research suggests that the NCLB statute appears to emphasize a restrictive standardization as the route to universal literacy that would in fact leave out many people with severe developmental disabilities.
Purpose of Research: In this analysis and synthesis of our recent qualitative and ethnographic studies, we specifically describe the dimensions of local understanding that foster citizenship in the literate community for individuals commonly acted upon as hopelessly aliterate, subliterate, or illiterate due to assumptions surrounding their degree of disability. We contrast these descriptions of local understanding with U.S. education policy that mandates what we believe to be a singular, narrow, and rigid approach to early or initial written language instruction.
Participants: This study is a synthesis of ideas developed in several previous qualitative and ethnographic research efforts. These previous studies have involved individuals labeled with significant developmental disabilities across the age span including preschool children, older students, and adults.
Intervention/Practices: Local understanding is an organizing dialogic built from the ideas underlying the theoretical construct local knowledge described in the work of anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Local understanding is the communal recognition that educational value and participation may be ascribed and enacted where history has primarily supported dehumanization and segregation.
Research Design: Local understanding developed out of previous qualitative studies.
Conclusion: Local understanding emerges from the literate netherworld of students at the educational margins. It requires providing the resources necessary to promote excellent educators in dialogue with one another and families, imaginatively crafting responsive contexts built on the full presumption that all children can be understood as competent and can grow in sophistication as literate citizens.