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Distinguishing Disability: Parents, Privilege, and Special Education

reviewed by Alberto M. Bursztyn - September 28, 2009

coverTitle: Distinguishing Disability: Parents, Privilege, and Special Education
Author(s): Colin Ong-Dean
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 0226630013, Pages: 216, Year: 2009
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Distinguishing Disability is a significant and valuable addition to the education literature and specifically to the sociology of special education. Ong-Dean addresses the subject of special education social disparities from fresh and insightful perspectives. While disproportional representation of minority group students in high incidence disability categories has been a prominent concern of researchers, practitioners, and policy makers (Artilles & Trent, 2000; National Research Council, 2002), little new ground has been broken in elucidating the processes and policies that yield these stubbornly uneven rates of identification and placement. Surprisingly, the opposite end of the empowerment spectrum, namely how privileged members of society interact with the special education system, has been left to conjecture. Yet understanding on how affluent families gain access to a disproportional level of funding and services for their children with special needs is necessary for any meaningful reform effort toward a more equitable system. Ong-Dean thoughtfully tackles this topic, bringing together varied data and a sociological analytic frame.

The special education system has been historically plagued by questions of access and fairness. One could make a cogent argument that special education takes different forms and serves different purposes across various social classes and ethnic communities. Minority group parents justifiably view special education with suspicion since the quality of services offered in urban and poor districts tends to do little to ameliorate the learning needs of its labeled students. Overrepresentation in special education connotes unfairness and exclusion. Perhaps paradoxically, for affluent families, special education is often a publicly funded path for providing expensive services for their children with disabilities. The system is thus bifurcated; it provides disproportional benefits for the privileged and poor quality education for those who have few resources.  

Ong-Dean traces the emergence of contemporary special education to the civil rights movement and other progressive social initiatives that sought to correct the systemic marginalization of underprivileged groups. Until the 1970s parents of children with disabilities had little recourse; their children could be denied the most basic access to services and education. Their plight became a national cause that culminated in legal rights to a free and appropriate public education. Federal legislation, PL94-142 in particular, set the stage for guaranteed access for all children with disabilities. But in contrast to other the social reforms that took root in the latter part of the twentieth century, special education devolved from an emergent civic movement, into a legally regulated system that focused on individual needs. Consequently, parents who understood their rights and had access to resources, including legal counsel, gained the upper hand in marshalling costly services for their children. Ong-Dean insightfully writes,

& privileged parents of disabled children, like privileged parents of nondisabled children, provide distinctive educational opportunities to their children and thereby perpetuate the hierarchies from which their own privileges come not by helping their children stay on top&but by keeping them from falling though the cracks. (p. 3)

In this volume, Ong-Dean explores not only the laws and court decisions that inadvertently led to and perpetuated an inequitable system, but more interestingly, how affluent families negotiate with and extract concessions from public school officials. As I was reading Ong-Deans analysis, I was often reminded of a conversation I recently had with a district level supervisor overseeing due process at a major urban school system. He said in exasperation Your neighbors are killing us! He was irritated by the high proportion of professional families living in my community that succeed in gaining costly placements for their children with disabilities in private schools.

Unequal access to the special education resources and the resulting discrepant quality and level of service have been eloquently described by Beth Harry and her colleagues (Harry, Klingner, Carmer, Sturges & Moore, 2007) who have studied linguistic and cultural minorities difficulties in exercising their legal rights. In her groundbreaking 1992 book, Harry describes specific poor Puerto Rican families bafflement when encountering the formal and legalistic language used by the schools. The vivid descriptions give texture to a comprehensive analysis of powerlessness. By comparison, although Ong-Dean provides incisive analysis, the families he describes remain rather anonymous and faceless. Integrating the demographic information gleamed from surveys into his narrative results in awkward and halting prose. A typical portrayal of a participant follows:

A white father, a medical school professor with a household income greater than $100,000, whose son was diagnosed with LD and ADD, also doubts his sons diagnosis. He explains, Brothers Asperger syndrome has some features of brothers ADD. (p. 51)

In other examples, the author quotes compromising statements from individuals apparently without protecting their privacy and confidentiality. The unevenness of the text makes one wonder to what extent the narrative reflects specific pedantic requirements of a doctoral dissertation advisor. A more thorough editing could have addressed those stylistic shortcomings and may have suggested replacing the archaic terms used by the author. A surprising lack of awareness of people first language, for example, individuals with disabilities instead of disabled individuals, makes the text sound dated. Similarly, the book is saturated with obsolete labels such as trainable mentally retarded and other terms that have long been discarded by professionals and advocates in the field. The use of dated language is unfortunate for it may discourage readers from reaching the concluding chapter which is rich in interpretative and analytical insights.

Another notable shortcoming pertains to the identification of embedded independent variables. Minority groups are overrepresented among the poor, yet ethnicity and class are not synonymous; disentangling these variables in research has been a major challenge (Bursztyn, 2007). Unfortunately, the literature often treats minority status and class membership interchangeably. Ong-Dean is aware of this source of confusion, and for the most part focuses on the cultural attributes of families that impede or empower their capacity to assert their will in their interactions with the special education system. Despite this awareness, he still resorts to race as a questionable proxy for class when exploring the outcome patterns in due process decisions.

Perhaps the books greatest value is found in Ong-Deans effort to explain families relationships to the special education system as an outgrowth of their cultural knowledge. Drawing on Pierre Bourdieus theory, and Annette Lareaus more recent refinements of that framework, Ong-Dean explains how cultural capital is evident in social empowerment, discursive skill, and familiarity with technical, legal and scientific concepts. In Lareaus formulation, privileged families advocate effectively for their children by showing mastery of educational jargon and institutional practices. In negotiating with schools, cultural capital is even more critical than wealth, because the empowered parents emerge as experts on their childrens conditions. Ong-Dean explains how privileged parents persuasive use of technical and medical language has repeatedly made them formidable opponents to school district officials seeking to minimize costly interventions and placements.

It has been widely known that children of affluent families marshal a disproportionate level of public school funding, while children of poor families receive lower cost, and generally inferior, special education. Yet the reasons for this pattern have been generally explored as a consequence of poor parents difficulties in navigating the legal and institutional processes; in effect, the focus has been on deficiencies among the poor. Ong-Dean has enriched our understanding by convincingly describing how the legal framework that supports special education creates specific conditions and expectations that benefit those who can advocate effectively by deploying class-based language and cultural knowledge.  


Artiles, A. J., & Trent, S. C. (2000). Representation of culturally/linguistically diverse students. In C. R. Reynolds & E. Fletcher-Jantzen (Eds.), Encyclopedia of special education, Vol. 1 (2nd edition) (pp. 513-517). New York: John Wiley & Sons.

Bursztyn, A.M. (2007). Multicultural school psychology: Directions for future research. In E. Lopez, G. Esquivel & S. Nahari (Eds.), Handbook of Multicultural School Psychology: An interdisciplinary perspective (pp. 639-658).  New York: Earlbaum.

Harry, B. (1992). Cultural diversity, families, and the special education system. New York: Teachers College Press.

Harry, B., Klingner, J. Carmer, E. Sturges, K., &. Moore, R. (2007). Case studies of minority student placement in special education. New York: Teachers College Press.

National Research Council (2002). Minority students in special and gifted education. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 28, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15778, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 12:22:56 AM

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About the Author
  • Alberto Bursztyn
    Brooklyn College
    E-mail Author
    ALBERTO M. BURSZTYN, Ph.D. is a Professor of School Psychology and Special Education at Brooklyn College, and at the Ph.D. program in Urban Education of The Graduate Center-City University of New York. His current scholarship focuses on diverse families, children in special education programs, multicultural assessment, and qualitative research methods. His publications include Rethinking Multicultural Education (With Carol Korn), Bergen & Garvey, 2002, and Teaching Teachers: Building a Quality School of Urban Education (with J. Kincheloe and S. Steinberg) Peter Lang, 2004, and the Handbook of Special Education, Rowman & Littlefield (2006). Dr. Bursztyn is currently writing a volume on children and disability under contract with Greenwood Press.
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