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New Directions in Special Education: Eliminating Ableism in Policy and Practice

reviewed by Margaret McClean - March 28, 2006

coverTitle: New Directions in Special Education: Eliminating Ableism in Policy and Practice
Author(s): Thomas Hehir
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 189179261X, Pages: 211, Year: 2005
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Ableism is a form of discrimination based on the perception that being able-bodied is the normal human condition and is superior to being disabled. For many, ableism is an unfamiliar notionan uncommon word that a reader might look at twice. Thomas Hehir explains that ableism stems from deeply held, negative societal attitudes towards disability (p. 10). Ableism is seen at its most obstinate when expressed by able-bodied people as patronizing insistence that impaired people should strive to perform as if they were not impaired. These ableist assumptions play out on individual, institutional, and cultural levels. In this book Thomas Hehir focuses on the impact of ableism on policies and practices in the institutional sector that encompasses education, and in particular, special education, in the United States.

The book is another illustration of the influence of the legacy of Burton Blatt and the teaching at the School of Education at Syracuse University have had over the range and impact of thought and scholarship in the fields of special education and disability studies over the past 25 years. Hehir sets out evidence of the presence and affects of ableism in education. His view that educational provisions in schools for disabled children are a reflection of the way a society responds to impairment was shaped by his experience as a special educator, graduate student, researcher, and policy maker. The book is both an explanation of current special education policy and practice and an argument for change. Hehir exposes ableism in education and describes its effects on decision making in both special education environments and regular schools. He examines several approaches that may provide promising ways to reduce the impact of ableism for learners disadvantaged by the reaction of educators to their impairment. The use of narratives from a range of individuals with disabilities and their families, in combination with Hehirs own experiences as an educator and policy maker, give a human face to his appraisal of current legislation, policy, and practice.

The text opens with a chapter that defines ableist discrimination and examines its influence on schools personnel and practices. Hehir claims, with considerable optimism, that education can fulfil a double role. Education can offer a route to greater opportunity and fulfilment for disabled children while, at the same time, promoting social change by modelling ways of expanding the current narrow social boundaries to include all disabled citizens as equals. He examines the role special education can play in preventing or promoting educational development and attainment. Hehir highlights the excessive nature of the focus schools and teachers put on the characteristics of disability and the attention and energy directed to overcoming it and turning out people who are more like us . In particular, he criticizes the impact of common ableist reactions to difference including either disregard with the expectation that a learner will function as if unimpaired or focused efforts to cure disabling conditions, often at the expense of a rounded education, childhood relationships, and family life. In contrast Hehir suggests that the purpose of special education is to provide whatever it takes to minimize the impact of impairment on learning and to foster participation in school and community.

The author goes on to examine the ableist forces that affect educational decision making about school programs for disabled students. Hehir identifies some ways educators and parents might improve their decision making about access to desegregated schooling and the interrelationship of the provision of impairment-linked intervention. Knowledge of the characteristics of a students learning difficulties and of the familys preferences and capacity to work with the school are identified as foundational to good decision making. Criteria include the choice of the most effective and efficient ways to promote learning, self-determination, and integration in general education. These strategies may assist in overturning the most damaging ableist assumption that disabled students are not capable of deriving benefit from attendance at ordinary schools.

In the remaining chapters, Hehir highlights the effects of cumulative privileging that occur through policies, actions, and discourses that unfairly disadvantage the dominant nondisabled group . In turn, he examines the potential of universal design and standard based reforms to counter or reinforce ableism and develops some policy imperatives that he believes will make a difference. The concept of universal design promotes barrier-free, equitable use and access for all to the built environment and the products within it so that buildings, equipment, and programs are functional for all people without the need for adaptation . In applying these principles to the activities of education, Hehir identifies the relevant processes for the improvement of programs for reading, school-wide discipline, and behavioral support and for changes to the design of curricula and school organization to achieve effective and inclusive schools that ideally meet the needs of all students.

Standards-based reform, intended to promote student performance by mandating a focus on accomplishment and accountability, has had an affect on the schooling of students with disabilities. Hehirs examination of its impact in the United States has relevance for other countries implementing these ideas. Although the social details may differ, the crucial factors remain intact. These include, first, the effect of deficit assumptions and low expectations on children of different class, race, or ability groups. Second, the lack of recognition of the complexity and of the resource costs of ensuring that teaching and learning are accessible for all students. This includes recognition of a wider range of diverse cultural and learning needs in school populations, the effects of globalization and deinstitutionalization, and other contemporary social phenomena. Hehir offers some well thought out strategies to counter the impact of ableism on disabled students competing in state assessment and accountability regimes. Finally, Hehir examines the failure of education policy to acknowledge the affect of ableism on practice. Among a number of examples, he notes that the unintended consequences of the current preference for high-stakes testing may result in further inequities including unrealistic expectations of levels of achievement for students with learning difficulties. One stimulating idea is the view that appropriate accommodations that make an unmodified curriculum more accessible for learners is a preferable option to curriculum modification, as it is less likely to limit success. This is a direct challenge to ableist assumptions that disability is synonymous with incapability.

The book concludes with a selection of regulatory tools that Hehir believes will improve educational opportunities for students with impairments/disabilities. To motivate education systems and schools to focus on shared accountability for educational results, Hehir endorses support for standards-based reform for all students, in spite of the risk that elitist forces that promote high-stakes testing may prevail instead. A second strategy is to increase the influence of federally controlled monitoring and funding mechanisms to promote more uniform implementation of policy nationwide. To reduce the exclusionary effect of expulsion and suspension on students with disabilities and those whose difficult behavior poses a problem for schools, he proposes that educational provision should not be allowed to cease when students are suspended frequently or for long periods. Other strategies he suggests include reducing teachers paperwork, improving IEPs to ensure access to curriculum through accommodations, and increased funding for research and training. Lastly, he recommends the cautious introduction of the treatment-resistant model of disability identification. This is a tautological title for a policy intended to decrease over placement and misplacement in special education facilitiesthe exclusionary effect of ableism.

The book introduces new and sometimes revolutionary approaches to the affects of institutional ableism in education systems. Throughout the book, Hehir represents himself as a specialist who draws on the experience of a varied career. In places, this gives this well written text an avuncular and discursive quality that mitigates argument with advice about what should be done. For example, Hehir declares educators should want the same thing [that parents want] namely education based on high expectations for students and teachers accountable for meeting learning needs . The problem is that many teachers may have ableist attitudes and quite different objectives. Further studies in special education tend to create specialists who feel more confident that their hunches that some kids dont belong in our schools is vindicated by special education theory with which they are conversant .

The problem of ableism is deeply entrenched in our own individual preferences and beliefs about ability and disability, as well as in the cultures in which we live. Exclusionary educational practices driven by ableism have proved obstinate and difficult to change. Hehir presages the task still ahead in schools and education systems in the pursuit of social justice. He presents some big ideas with the potential to promote change even in education systems that do not have the regulatory framework of the American system. Although they will appeal to educators concerned with social justice who are prepared to think critically about current provisions for students with identified impairments, universal design and standards-based reform are unlikely to be powerful enough to counter what Roger Slee  describes as the resilient, dynamic and pervasive exclusionary affects of ableism.

For Hehir, the lived experience of a disabled colleague and of the children and families he encountered in his work served to jolt his professional views and to sensitize him to the affects of ableism. These contradictory experiences led to changed perspectives and beliefs about what ought to happen to improve the quality of the education offered to students identified as disabled. Any implementation of change that challenges ableism is contingent both on the development of a consciousness of our own ableist prejudices and of their oppressive affects on our work. In addition, it requires the determination of a community to end the injustices experienced by groups who are viewed as different. This book has a message that communities beyond the educators and policy makers need to hear. Hehir has started an important conversation.


Fine, M. (1997). Witnessing whiteness. In M. Fine, L.Weis, L.Powell, & L. Mun-Wong (Eds.), Off-white: Readings on race, power and society. (pp. 5765). New York: Routledge.

Hehir, T. (2005). New directions in special education: Eliminating ableism in policy and practice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Rose, D., & Meyer, A. (2002). Teaching every student in the digital age: Universal design for learning. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Slee, R. (2004). Meaning in the service of power. In L.Ware (Ed.), Ideology and the politics of (In) Exclusion (pp. 4660). New York: Peter Lang.

Slee, R. (2006). Critical analyses of inclusive educational policy: An international survey. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 10(2/3).

Ware, L. (2002). A moral conversation on disability: Risking the personal in educational contexts. Hypatia, 17(3), 143172.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 28, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12353, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 6:04:49 AM

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About the Author
  • Margaret McClean
    Auckland University
    E-mail Author
    MARGARET MCLEAN is a senior lecturer at the School of Social and Policy Studies in the Faculty of Education at Auckland University. She received her Ph.D. from the Faculty of Education at Deakin University, Victoria, Australia. Her thesis, “Learning and teaching about disability: The possibility of disestablishing ableism,” examines the conditions required to identify, confront, and change ableist views through the processes of adult education.
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