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Creating Alliances Against Exclusivity: A Pathway to Inclusive Educational Reform

by Jan Valle, David J. Connor, Alicia A. Broderick, Lynne M. Bejoian & Susan Baglieri - 2011

Background/Context: Having brought together scholars to consider inclusive education within both their own and others’ disciplines, research perspectives, and agendas, the content of this concluding article reflects on what these contributions say—individually and collectively—about inclusive education. Furthermore, the authors critically consider what all of this says to and means for educational scholarship, schooling, and society at large.

Purpose: The authors foreground ways in which interdisciplinary conversations among critical scholars illustrate how potential alliances can be developed through shared concern about widespread injustices within education systems. First, the writings of scholars featured within this special issue of TCR are analyzed with a particular focus on convergences of ideas and disciplinary-specific interanimations reflected in a variety of fields, including disability studies, critical race studies, queer studies, and feminist studies. Second, the authors pose notions of exclusivity justified by the prevalent rhetoric of neoliberalism as a shared concern. Third, opposing vignettes are offered to illustrate how discourses of neoliberalism and inclusivity are performed in classrooms. The article closes with suggestions for building alliances within institutions of higher education.

Research Design: Analytic essay.

Conclusion: The authors urge the academy to continue the conversation begun in this special issue, with the hope of further cultivating interdisciplinary alliances united in their common desire to work toward equity in education.

The content of this special issue continues the interdisciplinary conversation among scholars initiated at the Eighth Annual (2008) Second City Disability Studies in Education (DSE) conference. Sponsored by the DSE special interest group of the American Educational Research Association, the annual conference typically draws scholars who work in the field(s) of disability. The theme of this particular conference, Mitigating Exclusion: Building Alliances Toward Inclusive Education Reform in Pedagogy and Policy, is significant, however, in that it reflects a growing interest among DSE scholars toward creating political and scholarly alliances to support an inclusive education agenda conceptualized as radical educational reform. The promise generated by a plenary of invited panelists at the conference who engaged in interdisciplinary conversation about the politics of exclusion led to the creation of this special issue. Our concluding article synthesizes this extended interdisciplinary conversation and explores its relevance to inclusive practices and educational reform.


As cochairs of the Eighth Annual Second City Conference on Disability Studies in Education and coeditors of this special issue, we collectively engaged with the ideas generated by the plenary panel to write our introductory article (see Baglieri, Bejoian, Broderick, Connor, & Valle, [Re]claiming Inclusive Education Toward Cohesion in Educational Reform: Disability Studies Unravels the Myth of the Normal Child, 2011, this issue). We invited the panelists to continue the interdisciplinary conversation by responding to this article, in which we seek to trouble widespread notions of normalcy through dissolving (what is presumed to be) its fixed center, reified through cultural expectations and societal rules that reinforce dominant perspectives. Given that the contributing authors reflect on this theme from within their respective disciplinary frameworks, in what ways, then, do their ideas connect, converge, and interanimate one anothers work as well as our own?


People whose knowledge has traditionally been denied respect are central to critical theory. Several featured authors call attention to the value of critical theoretical perspectives in relation to understanding embodiment within our culture. Personal experiences (being of color and/or disabled and gendered and sexualized, and so on) become politicized when disempowered people are able to articulate how what their bodies signify triggers discriminatory practices in society at large. Ferri (2011, this issue), for example, argues for increasing the use of life writing in teacher education classes. Disability narratives that untangle oppressive ideologies and destabilize any claim to a normative center are particularly useful. She urges readers to read texts as social critiques and to become cognizant of theories undergirding such embodied narratives. If we understand disability life writing (and by implication, life writing based on other facets of identity) as important sites of intellectual and political resistance the use of memoirs in the classroom becomes an intervention into the politics of knowing as well as the politics of representation.

In a similar quest to illuminate and debunk the power of the normate, Erevelles (2011, this issue) queers the ideologies that shape normativity. Calling attention to fear and hatred of lesbian gay bisexual transsexual questioning intersex (LGBTQI) individuals, she evokes Slees (2001) charge that inclusion is perceived as assimilation and normalization rather than changing and actually moving toward coexistence within a broader notion of diversity. Just as LGBTQI youth are positioned as deviant in schools, included children and youth with disabilities remain marginalized within general education classrooms because societal norms follow them there. Erevelles shows how pathologizing heterosexuality (and ignoring the erotic) in the school curriculum serves to cast LGBTQI individuals as maladjusted to mainstream life, banishing them beyond the borders of normalcy. Moreover, she explores how the sexuality of students with disabilities and pregnant teenagers constitutes forms of deviance relative to notions of appropriate sexual practices that are regulated by the concept of male, religious (mainly Christian in the United States), and able-bodied experience as the normate.

Critical race theory (CRT) is a theoretical tool that makes transparent the ways in which society, including education systems, attributes meaning to race in ways that produce class stratification. Leonardo and Broderick (2011, this issue) use CRT to examine the manifestations and functions of whiteness that work to sustain racial stratification. As an ideological system that couples with other ideologies (in this case, smartness), the authors argue that whiteness in action is not merely a signifier, but rather a powerful force that creates and sustains social inequities. Likewise, Zion and Blanchett (2011, this issue) rely on CRT in their critique of who has traditionally been incorporated in the inclusion movement. Citing the impoverished educational experiences of African American students as well as historical mainstream beliefs about their biologically based intellectual inferiority, the authors demonstrate how students of color have been neglected in terms of inclusion. They use CRT to analyze and, in turn, reconceptualize the meaning and practice of inclusion. Like Leonardo and Broderick, they, too, trouble longstanding understandings of overrepresentation by querying the presumption that there is an assumed right number of students of color represented in segregated special education classes. Zion and Blanchett conclude that the moment is ripe for a convergence of interests, calling on people who believe in and seek a greater distribution of equity, including educational opportunities.

Ahram, Fergus, and Noguera (2011, this issue) highlight the influence of teacher beliefs on classroom practices, asserting that the overrepresentation of students of color in special education is largely the result of cultural perceptions and expectations. The authors suggest that the enculturation of educators into deficit-based models of thinking about certain children according to race, social class, and dis/ability results in referrals for pseudoscientific testing, the inscription of labels, and the likelihood of situating these students outside the general classrooma literal placement outside of the norm. Echoing the concerns of Leonardo and Broderick (2011, this issue), the authors likewise identify school practices that reinforce intelligence as whiteness (and conversely, disability as color) and argue for a conscious shift toward cultural responsiveness in pedagogical practices and structural arrangements.


The connections among various critical standpoints are clearthose positioned beyond the circle of normalcy seek to be heard, share their experiences, contribute knowledge, and ultimately claim status equal to their currently privileged counterparts. That said, are these connections enough for scholars, activists, and educators to converge their interests andas Zion and Blanchett (2011, this issue) urgeto act on them? Although we are not so naïve as to believe that everyone will always agree about everything, we do take heart in a critical mass of scholars who advocate for public education that truly embraces diversity. Otherwise, what Erevelles (2011, this issue) cites as epidemics of signification (McRuer, 2006) will continue to operate, patrolling the parameters of personhood and maintaining the current boundaries of normalcy.

The pull of ideological dominance is not always acknowledged, questioned, or resisted within all of us. For example, in converging, how much of whiteness can/should/do Whites resist? How much of able-bodiedness can/should/do able-bodied people resist? How much of heteronormativity can/should/do heterosexuals resist? We are required to pose these questions, given that all binary systems place individuals in positions of power that they may not even recognize. All of the featured scholars, to varying degrees, argue for a critical position from which to challenge oppressive practices. For example, Erevelless (2011, this issue) work in queer theory targets the need to recognize and validate the experiences of pregnant teens, queer adolescents, and the sexuality of disabled students. A critically disabled position, she claims, will aid in attempting to dismantle the rigid hierarchy of sexual desirability. Converging with other disciplines that seek a more inclusive world, a critically disabled position can help build critical alliances across differences to collectively out and transform the oppressive practices of the sex curriculum. By doing so, Erevelles believes that disability, queerness, and teenage sexuality become desirable (or, from a moderate stance, are not undesirable). Furthermore, the desirability of the formerly undesirable is not merely an inversion of a hierarchical world that, in effect, will simply replicate power structures; it is, rather, an attempt to dismantle the wall of normalcy in service to a world without unnecessary and dehumanizing borders.

Leonardo and Broderick (2011, this issue) exemplify a mutual interest convergence out of necessity. Noting the limitations of going it alone in previous works, the authors (who represent perspectives in disability studies and critical race theory) collaboratively analyze how ideological systems seamlessly dovetail to create notions about race and dis/abilities. Their reframing of overrepresentation of students of color in special education programs renders the established norms of ability/disability, competence/incompetence, and smartness/not-so-smartness as acutely problematicand deeply rooted within historically tangled ideological systems of race and ability.

Another area of convergence lies in Ferris (2011, this issue) advocacy of disability life writing, which parallels CRTs recognition of the experiential knowledge of people of color to analyze law and society (Matsuda, Lawrence, Delgado, & Crenshaw, 1993). Moreover, queer theory relies on personal history and experience in its conscious effort to counter a mainstream history that used shame to silence (Sedgwick, 1990). Indeed, queering has set a precedent for undermining all oppressive binaries. As Luhmann (1998) wrote, The refusal of any normalization, be it racist, sexist, or whatever, necessarily has to be part of our queer agenda (p. 151). Such potential areas of convergence among disability studies, CRT, and queer theory give rise to many possibilities for future collaborative work.


In this special issue of TCR, the connections among authors and convergence of ideas serve to interanimate the various disciplines involved, highlighting similarities, differences, and areas of potential dissonance. Ferri (2011, this issue) makes a valid point when she calls for moving beyond single-issue understandings of shared problems in which race is often seen in opposition to disability, analogous to disability, or placed above or below in terms of hierarchical importance. Instead, she asks all of us to acknowledge and accept simultaneous embodiments. In posing the question, What meanings arise by attending to the intersections of disability, race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and so on?, Ferri reminds us that privileges and oppressions collide within each of us, making every marker of identity a unique and distinctive experience among people.

In their simultaneous interrogation of the twin privileges, whiteness and smartness, Leonardo and Broderick (2011, this issue) make transparent the strengths and shortcomings of one anothers academic disciplines. Their model of collaboration demonstrates how scholars can rely on their respective theoretical frameworks for understanding phenomena and benefit from respectful critique from colleagues who represent other disciplines. This form of exchange fosters all discourse communities to grow stronger, giving rise to provocative thinking that can help disarm assumptions and confront fears that prevent more allied work. The work of Broderick and Leonardo shows how each disciplinary tool is singularly inadequate to address (rehabilitate, rearticulate) smartness as the ideological heart of the normative center of schooling; however, in revealing how whiteness and smartness operate as interlocking ideologies of oppression, and by interrogating their presumed fixity, the authors undermine the reification of both ideologies.

Echoing the ideological workings of whiteness addressed by Leonardo and Broderick and the intersectional identity markers that Ferri discusses, Zion and Blanchett (this issue, 2011) rightfully point out that the inclusion movement to date has not sufficiently looked at the intersection of disability with race, culture, class, and language, citing historical exclusion of children from general education classrooms as primarily based on racial, economic, and ability status. A new form of interest convergence advocated for by Zion and Blanchett does not rise by chance or serendipity, but rather through the moral and professional obligations of those working within a variety of disciplines that have traditionally been concerned with students of color, the disabled, second language learners, and children living in poverty. Such deliberate convergence requires that fear be faced through courageous conversationsacknowledging what is currently unacknowledgedif we are to actively and successfully cultivate alliances.

The findings of Ahram et al. (2011, this issue) represent concerns around which to have courageous conversations, including the continued othering of students who fall outside of norms pertaining to race, social class, language, and abilities, all still tacitly subjected to cultural deficit thinking (Carrier, 1986). If we are to have courageous conversations with White and/or middle-class teachers and other school professionals about working toward greater equity for all students, we must understand and acknowledge how the ideology of whiteness (and ability) operates. The idea poses a considerable challenge should teachers and school professionals choose to remain in denial, which is, ironically, a luxury of whiteness (and ability). However, to recognize whiteness as one of many identities helps to deconstruct the ways in which race, in general, operate in society, to acknowledge multicultural perspective(s), and to illuminate how race impacts social class and perceived abilities (Howard, 2006).

We might think of such conversations among us all (teachers, scholars, school professionals) as the process for learning to unlearn. As it is now, for example, if teachers remain unaware of the impact of cultural deficit thinking on their decisions to refer students to special education, the overrepresentation of students of color in special education (segregated settings, in particular) will persistas it has for decades. In other words, as long as segregated special education classes exist within schools, the possibility (and likelihood) of segregating children of color also exists. Legitimizing widespread segregation as special is both a misnomer and disservice to all children. And yet most teachers uncritically regard special education referrals as doing what is best for students.

Let us return to Erevelless (2011, this issue) evocation of dismodernism (Davis, 2002)the notion that differences are all that we have in common. This is, perhaps, a radical way to conceptualize the beginning of a much needed conversation in a venue in which interdisciplinary ideas are in play with one another. Within the play provided by this special issue, contributors have begun, in a real sense, to challenge and dismantle much of the mystique shielding sacred notions of normalcy. Drawing on the momentum created by these in print alliances, we move in the next section to demonstrating how interdisciplinary ideas help us understand the meaning of current trends in public education and their impact on inclusive practices and school reform.


Inclusive schooling is a potentially unifying concept in which presumed diversity among children leads to educational practices that embrace rather than exclude. Although practices in curriculum, teaching, theory, research, and policy attend to many kinds of inequities that reflect the goals of various educational movements, the practice of inclusion most often remains positioned as a special education issuedistinct from other educational movements. Placing inclusivity on a shared agenda is one way to support each other in a reform climate punctuated by elitist politics shrouded in populist rhetoric. In this section, we apply what we have learned from our contributors to argue that the increasing trend of charter schools can be understood as an example of an issue relevant to multiple educational movements. We illustrate how an interdisciplinary lens reveals the exclusivity inherent within the current marketization of schooling as well as the potential of alliances to collectively resist for the benefit of all students.


The 2009 Race to the Top program promises federal funding to states that adopt policies and practices aimed at improving educational outcomes. Increasing the availability of charter schools to bolster competition is among the priorities in the initiative. The notion that competition will lead to better schools for all students may appeal to populist sentiment, but concern for all students is not representative of many supporters interest in marketization. Wells, Slayton, and Scott (2002), for example, examined the reasons for school officials support of charter schools in suburban California. A synthesis of responses demonstrated that momentum for school choice is grounded in the desire to afford individuals more freedom for their market-based initiatives, [which] privileges those who have the economic, social, and political power to make the market work for them (p. 343). Torres (2002) similarly observed that competitive self-interest characterizes contemporary capitalist democracies rather than increased solidarity toward the benefit of all students. Todays neoliberalism does not necessarily aim for a more equal democracy in its drive for increased personal choice. Groups who are disenfranchised from educational institutions are not likely to gain better standing in a marketplace that places the same groups on its fringes. Subsequently, marketization of schooling is likely to maintain exclusivity and the inequitable provision of resources and widespread opportunitya point of alliance among most critical fields of education.

Neoliberal arguments for school choice reflect the belief that democracy is accomplished by individuals choosing from among the most options possible. An entrepreneurial model of following individual interests and then supporting an aggregation of preferences is the central issue of politics in this ideology (Mouffe, 1999). Relevant to school choice, Apple (2001) described an aggregation, or power bloc, built of neoconservative intellectuals, religious conservatives, and fractions of a managerially oriented middle class who are committed to neoliberal education reform. Ironically, the shared interest among the groups is the promise of school choices that will lead children to distinct and separate ends. Choice empowers each group to opt out of engaging with the others. Exclusivity is not a by-product of school choice, but a primary goal.

Proponents of school choice are also members of historically dispossessed groups, such as the Black working-class families in Pedronis (2006) study. These Milwaukee families were able to use voucher systems to opt out of undesirable schools. Pedroni surmised that families saw the vouchers as a state-sponsored redistributive mechanism that mitigated some of the unfair educational advantages accruing to more privileged families (p. 274). In other words, vouchers enabled them to garner advantages that would be otherwise out of reach. They did not see the vouchers as a pathway to improve the neighborhood schools from which they pulled their children. A commonality among the constituents in the power bloc made of privileged families, special interest groups, and the Milwaukee families using vouchers is that they all conceptualize their gains as individual boons. The former aim to exercise personal choice; the latter reap the reward of redistributed benefits. The populist rhetoric that school choice will drive competition and lead to improved schools for everyone is a foil for the drive toward individual gain. Even if some families benefit who did not before, many other children will remain in subpar schools.

The idea of school choice is understandably attractive to individuals and groups that have been persistently underserved in education. But emphasis on personal choice exaggerates the role of individuals to change a vast political machine. Making a bad choice of school makes (bad) parents responsible for the survival of inadequate schools. Emphasis on the individual lessens the responsibility society takes to address broader civil rights issues. The national study conducted by Frankenberg, Siegel-Hawley, and Wang (2010) demonstrates that most charter schools stratify students by race and class, and are more racially isolated than traditional public schools. Black and Latino students experience high levels of segregation and isolation from peers of other races. Data also suggest that charter schools in some areas of the West and Southern United States serve as havens for White flight from neighborhood schools. Another national study found that, compared with traditional public schools, charter schools consistently enroll lower proportions of students receiving special education services and English language learners (Miron, Urschel, Mathis, & Tornquist, 2010). Students with significant educational needs are often counseled toward attending traditional public schools or charter schools specifically designed to provide special education (Fierros & Blomberg, 2005; Miron et al.). In a neoliberal context, the persistence or resurgence of segregation by race, class, ability, and language is shrugged off or made to appear as the will of the peoplethe result of a working democracy.


In one of the authors undergraduate student teaching seminars last semester, a group of student teachers placed at the same public elementary school expressed common concerns about a charter school located within their building. (It is not unusual within the urban context for a single building to house multiple schools.) In the course of a few short weeks, they observed firsthand the effects of neoliberalism at work. As first-generation college students in their families and women of color who graduated from the urban school system in which they student taught, these student teachers shared a deeply held commitment to urban education and belief in the transformative power of education for all children. From their collective perspective, they described the charter school within their school building as a highly visible monument to school inequitya daily display by which other children could compare their own schooling. The elevated status of the charter school was communicated in multiple and continual waysnot the least of which was the persisting notion that charter school students were chosen, and all the others were not. The material advantages gleaned from plump private donationsfield trips, resources, experts, physical space, technologywere not lost on the youngest children who wondered aloud to teachers about that other school, nor older children who verbalized resentment among themselves about what appeared to be preferential treatment of charter school students. What concerned these student teachers most was the sanctioned presence of a public school structure that actively (although presumably not intentionally) contributed to a persisting sense of inferiority within children positioned on the outside. (It is of interest that the student teachers likewise commented that faculty at the school spoke openly about their own feelings of less than status within this shared building.) In sum, these novice educators understood the presence of the charter school as yet another barrier to negotiate in their quest to provide an equitable education to all children.

During the semester in which these conversations took place (fall 2010), the documentary Waiting for Superman (Skoll, Weyermann, & Guggenheim, 2010) appeared in theaters nationwide. In light of the publicity surrounding the films release and its focus on charter schools, the student teachers proposed that we meet to view the film in lieu of one of our seminar sessions. Within a darkened theater, the opening shots appeared on-screen to audible gasps from several in our group who whispered loudly, Thats our school! The charter school that prompted our visit to the theater was indeed one of the charter schools featured in the documentary.

It is a coldhearted soul who can watch Waiting for Superman and not be moved by the five earnest schoolchildren featured in the film. Viewers cannot help but root for them to win the lottery for a coveted spot at the charter school to escape being left behind at regular public schoola fate that filmmaker Davis Guggenheim assured us will activate a lifelong path of missed opportunities. Certainly the films end (in which children and parents are filmed anxiously awaiting a lottery ball that will change the course of their childrens lives) illustrates our previous assertion that school choice leaves unchanged the status quo for all the others and reinforces individual gain for select (and lucky) familiesan unmistakable yet unacknowledged example of neoliberalism. It is one thing to be aware of this fact and entirely another thing to be privy to the despair (writ large on a big screen) of unchosen families.

Ideologies, such as neoliberalism, circulate within our culture largely by means of media with support from politically charged environments. Ideologies abound within print, radio, and television media. It is decidedly more difficult to garner airtime within the film industry, with its potential to reach millions of viewers. Guggenheim won the lottery himself with the commercial success of his prior documentary, An Inconvenient Truth (Burns, Guggenheim, & Skoll, 2006). That success opened space for educational ideology to find its way into theaters nationwideand into the consciousness of moviegoers.

Waiting for Superman generated a flurry of publicity among other media venues, an outcome desired by Guggenheim, whose hope is to get people interested in and talking aboutand indeed, to actively discursively constitutethe crisis in American education. Although much praise has been heaped on the documentary, print media contributed some meaningful critiques that get at the underlying ideology of neoliberalism, although the term is not evoked. David Denby (2010), for example, wrote in his essay, School Spirit,

Families have to submit to a humiliating lottery system. . . . We get the pointa childs future shouldnt hang on so primitive a process. But the emotions of the moment may distract us from asking certain obvious questions, such as: Who says that charter schools will save these childrenand, by implication, all children? . . . Not only are charter schools, as the movie tells it, the sole successful schools in their areas; there is seemingly no hope for the children who dont get inand, currently, just three per cent of students in the public-education system are enrolled in charter schools. . . . Will the charter ideals continue to benefit only a minority, or do they have the potential to change everything?

Like all good stories, the film has an identifiable protagonist (charter schools) and an identifiable antagonist (teachers unions) to move the plot along. The problem is that this plot line is paper thin in its oversimplification of the complexities of public schooling, thereby reinforcing unexamined and significant contributors to school failure.

In the 2010 New York Times article, Students Caught in the School Squeeze, Stephen Holder challenged the films oversimplification: Waiting for Superman doesnt explore the deeper changes in American society that have led to this crisis: the widening gap between rich and poor, the loosening of the social contract, the coarsening of the culture, and the despair of the underclass.

LynNell Hancock extended Holders perspective within her article, Waiting for Substance (2010):

To make this point [charter schools good, teachers unions bad], the film avoids any probing examination of a failing school, nor does it provide examples of good or bad classroom teaching. . . . The film ignores decades of white flight from urban schools, the growing income divide between the wealthy and the poor, test-driven reforms that strip richness from the curriculum, the systematic devaluation of teaching as a profession, and the dismantling of desegregation laws, welfare support, and health care benefits.

Moreover, Hancock noted the omission of key perspectives on the state of public education and existing efforts to resist the charter school trend:

Other voices are left unheard and unacknowledged, including disaffected parents, community leaders, and civil-rights groups that are beginning to push back against the tide of mass firings and charter-school creation. Missing in action from any frame are the NAACP, the Urban League, and the Washington, DC voters who recently ousted Mayor Adrian Fenty in large part because of his heavy-handed education initiatives excluded their participation.

Michelle Rhees resignation as school chancellor of the Washington DC schools ironically took place just as the film that features her was released nationwidean event that well supports Hancocks assertion.

Available now in bookstores is a participant guide, Waiting for Superman: How We Can Save Americas Failing Public Schools (edited by Karl Weber, 2010), that provides information about the making of the documentary and includes chapters written by, among others, Michelle Rhee, Geoffrey Canada (president and CEO of the Harlem Childrens Zone featured in the film), Bill and Melinda Gates, and Randi Weingarten (president of the American Federation of Teachers). The guide is intended to keep the conversation goinga goal we certainly do not contest. Rather, we argue that the conversation include perspective of alliances that work against exclusive practices of any kind. Weingarten (2010) put it this way:

Every child has a right to a great public education that prepares him or her for success throughout life . . . and if were able to put these things into place, our children wont need to wait for Superman or anyone else, because theyll have the tools and the talents to shape their own futures. Thats the message I take from this film. It creates a call to action, but rather than stop at whom to blame, or to hope and pray we once more find Superman or any mythical solution, I hope that instead it facilitates a great conversation about how we can guarantee children a great educationnot by chance, but by right. (p. 161)

The points discussed above formed the basis of the after-screening dinner held

with the seminar class of student teachers. These aspiring teachers wrestled to integrate the points made in the film with their current experiences in a real world classroom and school. The film did indeed, as Weingarten wrote, facilitate meaningful conversation among members of the seminar about how to guarantee all children a great education. But how might we more systematically integrate such conversations into teacher education? How do we make teachers and students aware of and responsive to educational ideologies that impact the classroom? How do we teach teachers how to negotiate contested spaces and resist educational inequities?


It seems a salient observation to note that of the five provocative pieces that the contributing authors generated in response to our invitation to engage in allied work for greater inclusivity in education, arguably four of them (Erevelles; Ferri; Leonardo & Broderick; and Zion & Blanchett) engaged with ideas at the nexus of ideology and discoursethose seemingly boundless moments of enactment, performance, reproduction, or disruption that together form the fabric of pedagogic space. For this reason, we wish to explore the pedagogical power and possibility of exercising agency within those spaces for the purposes of envisioning, and thereby enacting, more inclusive, socially just education for all students.

If, as Giroux (2010) argued, neoliberalism is one of the most effective anti-democratic forces at work in the world today (p. 51), then the possibility must be explored that perhaps allied resistance to neoliberalisms pervasive cultural tentacles may emerge as a fulcrum around which strategic alliances can generatively form, even if it may seem, at first glance, that our differences are all that we have in common. Giroux further asserted that Indeed, one of the most central tasks facing intellectuals, activists, educators, and others who believe in an inclusive and substantive democracy, is the utilization of theory to rethink the language and possibilities of politics as a way to imagine a future outside of the powerful grip of neoliberalism (p. 62).

It is just this sort of theorizing that several of the invited authors engaged in and that we wish now to explore as powerful tools for not only rethinking and imagining, but also actually enacting and constituting a more democratic, hopeful, and inclusive future for our students, our schools, and our society. How might teachers, teacher educators, students, and other public intellectuals queer and crip the curriculum as Erevelles suggests? How might we better use critical readings of life writing as supplement (or alternative) to the sanitized, canned, and defanged ideas about cultural difference that are packaged and marketed for uncritical consumption through corporate curriculum packages in public schools? How might we disrupt, contest, and ultimately subvert the ideological narrative that some students are just smarter than others, thus explaining why some succeed and others fail in school? How might we use tools such as Bells (1980) notion of interest convergence to expose and explore the circulation of power in educational reforms? All of these seemingly diverse theoretical strategies proposed by the contributing authors have in common the potential to substantially disrupt the dominant neoliberal narrative that maintains that all problems are essentially private and individual, rather than public and social or cultural, in nature.

As already noted in our previous discussion of Waiting for Superman, we concur with Girouxs (2010) assertion that neoliberalism requires a supporting political culture, and it is therefore crucial to note that culture is not only a place where deeply held meanings and values are produced, internalized, [and] identified with, but also a place where those meanings and values are actively fought over (p. 64). The film Waiting for Superman undoubtedly has played a highly visible and culturally powerful role in further entrenching and naturalizing the values underlying neoliberal ideology in the public imagination. Yet, it is not merely in the larger scale public realms of media and politics where culture is perpetually enacted. Hearkening back to a Freirean sense of teachers as cultural workers, Leonardo (2010) spoke of the crucial import of teachers assuming a socio-political, rather than a technical, function and argued that with this captive audience in tow, teachers are in a unique position to assume the role of the organic intellectual (p. 9). In a passage worth quoting at length, Leonardo further noted,

Intellectual by training and organic by potential, teachers have the transformative opportunity to influence young minds on questions of justice, the constitution of history, and the nature of power, as they negotiate school knowledge. Because these issues are already embedded in the creation of the curriculum, instructional practice, and assessments, they are not extra-educational themes that must be injected into the otherwise normal process of schooling. They are already there and teachers may work differently without necessarily having to working [sic] harder. It does not ask more of, but rather something different from, them. (p. 9)

We offer two brief descriptive vignettes in hopes of illustrating the potential power of teachers working differently and not succumbing to a collective cultural abdication of the critical autonomy that teachers have the opportunity, authority, and responsibility to exercise. These vignettes are based on the observations of one of the authors in two different public school classrooms (both second grade) in the same metropolitan area within one school year. Each of the elements described was directly observed, and if the reader finds that the contrast is jarring and somewhat difficult to believe, then the author has perhaps managed to authentically represent her own experience.

Classroom A: In this classroom, the desks are arranged in rank-and-file fashion, no two student desks contiguous to one another, all facing the blackboard where the teacher stands when she is speaking (positioning herself as the geographic center not only of authority but also of knowledge). The teachers desk is located at the back of the room, where she sits when the students are engaged in independent seatwork, which they are for the first 2 hours of their school day. From 9:00 to 11:00 a.m., the students steadily work their way through the stack of worksheets waiting for them on their desk when they arrive. Because the teachers desk is behind the students, they are constantly surveilled in a Foucauldian fashion reminiscent of Benthams panopticon in its totality and its effectivenessto turn around to see if one is being observed by the teacher is to risk her censure and punishment (loss of recess, the only 20 minutes of the day when students talking with other students is sanctioned). Thus, the students seem to have generally learned to keep their heads down and to comply with the teachers behavioral expectations even when she is not actively monitoring their actions. At 11:00, a timer goes off, and the students file to the side of the room, where they submit their worksheets, completed or not. At this time, the teacher assumes her place at the front of the room and leads not a discussion, but a recitation. Students read passages from textbooks aloud and copy them down verbatim in their notebooks, and are asked to respond in unison to the questions posed either by the teacher or by the textbook (never the students). The students do not appear to be learning during this time in any critical or academic sense, although they do appear to be learning well the cardinal expectation of compliance with teacher demand. At recess, one little boy has the courage to answer my questions when I ask what he thinks of his classroom this year. With a quiet desperation in his voice, he says, She doesnt care about learning. She doesnt like curiosity. She doesnt let us ask interesting questions. All she cares about is those stupid worksheets. Fighting back tears now, he takes a deep breath and says, finally, Shes destroying our minds. He walks away from me with his hands in his pockets, kicking a rock; he doesnt interact with the other students on the playground (which is not actually a playground, but a fenced-in parking lot), although it is his one opportunity a day to do so without punishment.

Classroom B: In this classroom, there are no desks, but rather six tables with four chairs around them. As students file in and take care of their belongings, they race to one of the centers the teacher has set up around the room (some at the tables, some in open spaces on the floor). Among the centers are a block center where a cityscape is being actively constructed, complete with bridges, cranes, and skyscrapers. Students are actively exploring, constructing, and using simple machines such as pulleys and levers, and are further exploring the forces of physics through the collaborative, trial-and-error construction of an arch. Another center contains a large plastic bin halfway filled with water, and a variety of materials in a separate bin (including cardboard, paper, aluminum foil, plastic, and a few other odds and ends). Paper and pencils are also available, and the students begin (or perhaps resumethey appear to be quite familiar with the routine of active experimentation and data collection they are engaged in) by making and recording their predictions about whether particular materials will sink or float in the water. They actively experiment with both materials and shapes, and they take careful notes of their findings on each trial. There is a third center where a parent is excitedly helping a group of students to construct and explore a simple circuit to power a light bulb. A fourth group has a bin of what a somewhat surprised fellow observer from the university called trash, but which I will characterize here as a wide variety of discarded materials that would otherwise be either recycled or thrown in the trash. These students are building creations of their own imagination with these materialssome with functional uses, and others with largely aesthetic or artistic value. At each of these centers, a parent was either actively involved or hovered nearby, observing for at least part of the hour that the students were engaged. And the students were engagedactively, intently, sometimes noisily, though almost entirely peacefully engagedwith each other; with reading, writing, mathematizing, and scientific exploration; and with interesting and complex ideas (if simple materials). During this hour, with the students so deeply engaged, the teacher chatted with many members of the students familiesjust checking in, touching base, or problem-solving where necessary. Within this pedagogical context, there were no disruptive students, there were no disengaged students, and there were no failing students. Later that day, the students held a meeting on the rug to discuss ways of supporting a student whose parent had unexpectedly died the week before. Although the student no doubt experienced the loss as a devastating personal event, her classroom community nevertheless embraced the experience as a community loss, and support of the child (emotionally, socially, and academically) as a community responsibility.

There are many further contrasts we could draw. The White teacher in Classroom A said to one of the authors after school on the day of the observation, of the single White child in her classroom, He deserves to be somewhere else. He shouldnt be in this classroom with themall these kids who cant even speak English, who live in these broken homes, all of these special ed. kids. He shouldnt be here. She never said, with all these kids of color, but given that she singled out the only White student in her class for a deserved deliverance, I took that to be her clear subtext as well. The teacher in Classroom B, by contrast, talked with the author following the observation about the challenges and struggles both she and her students were facing in trying to eliminate the term smart from their collective vocabulary in school. It was a pact she had invited her students to enter into with her, and they gamely agreed; together, they explored the constructs ideological complexity, including the multilayered meanings that people, both kids and adults, conjure up when they invoke the term, and the ways in which it is sometimes used to either include or to exclude people regarding membership, privileges, or status in their classroom.

Both of these teachers were working in a post-No Child Left Behind world where schools have contracts with corporate publishers of curriculum and where teachers face increasing pressures and accountability regarding their students (and therefore, their own) performance on standardized tests of achievement purchased from private testing corporations. Nevertheless, only one of these teachers could reasonably be regarded as meeting Leonardos (2010) premised description of teachers as intellectual by training (p. 9). Perhaps more saliently, the other of these teachers could be reasonably regarded as a disturbing illustration of the ways in which culturally dominant neoliberal ideologies operate at the micro-level of classroom interactions in order to discursively produce the very devalued surplus populations that are then pointed to as the root cause of the failure of public schooling (and therefore, as rationalization for its increasing privatization). According to Slee (2010), Giroux (2009) refers to these people as disposable populations, the casualties of neoliberalism (pp. 107108).

The teacher in Classroom A, through her pedagogical decisions and her discursive interactions, daily enacted and performed a fundamental neoliberal tenet that all problems are private in nature, thereby creating through her pedagogy the failure of individual children. The irony of the idea that the locus of failure somehow happened to reside within 21 of the 22 individual children in her class (rather than within her own pedagogy or the broader exclusionary cultural processes of schooling itself) was apparently lost on this teacher. By contrast, the teacher in Classroom B daily enacted a pedagogy and a cultural ideology that were fundamentally more democratic in nature; every member of the class was valued, every member of the class contributed to the learning of every other member in valuable ways, and every facet of individual and family diversity was understood and regarded as a valuable, shared community resource. When one child struggled or seemed to be experiencing marginalization within the classroom, the community mobilized, and that child was buoyed up, not marked as an outsider or a failure. The teacher in Classroom B thus appears to exemplify what Leonardo (2010) called the transformative potential of teachers to work differently, without necessarily having to work harder. Even within the cultural constraints of contemporary public schooling, the teacher in Classroom B exercised her autonomy as an organic intellectual to enact a more democratic, inclusive pedagogyand inclusive education is nothing if not a political and intellectual commitment offering, according to Slee (2010), an audacious challenge to the attachment of ascending and descending values to different people (p. 14).

We thus concur with Girouxs (2010) call to resist at every turn the neoliberalization of public and higher education, creating new alliances between students and faculty, and rethinking the potential connections that might be deployed between those of us who work in education and the vast array of cultural workers outside of schools. (pp. 6566)

In so doing, we seek to create alliances between faculty and preservice and in-service teachers specifically by calling these groups to work collectively to resist the neoliberalization of teacher education, a vital cultural endeavor that exists (or existed?) at the nexus of public and higher education. We thus renew our invitation to critical colleagues from a range of disciplines, to fellow teacher educators, to teachers, to students, and to other public intellectuals to exercise the political, intellectual, and moral courage necessary to [re]claim inclusive public education as our best potential (if not yet erstwhile?) venue of cultural struggle to support socially just civic participation in our (we hope) democratic future society.


If we are committed to building alliances toward a shared agenda of inclusivity, we must look critically at the ways we work within schools of education as well as the current climate within which we work. Institutions of higher education (IHEs) are facing considerable and contentious scrutiny. Public pressure for organizational transparency and fiscal accountability abound. Charges of the necessity for engagement in the real world of primary and secondary schools come from within and outside IHEs (Feller, 2007; Nelson, 2007). Certainly, there are examples and exemplars of scholars who collaborate by traversing disciplinary lines and divides. Yet, we tend to do so with those who share our ideologies, agendas, and practices. It is no doubt clear that there is no consensusother than the reality that the educational system is seriously damaged, if not irrevocably broken. Sadly, there are no easy answers or quick fixes, at least none that will comprehensively address all agendas and meet all constituencies' needs. How do we create real and sustainable access and equity toward realizing inclusive education?

Deciding to jump on the inclusion bandwagon has resulted in being swept into the mainstream of the cultural current and contributes to the homogenization and further exclusion of those in the furthest ends of the margins. In so doing, we have inadvertently become part of the systemic problem rather than the solution. Of course, we could hold tight to our ideological position and high-minded practices of railing at scholastic windmillsyet, we know that this Quixotic approach has yielded little.

One solution can be realized with our critical studies colleagues. By joining together, we can bring our research and pedagogy to unite in further developing progressive ideologies and pushing political boundaries. To do this, we must move beyond fears of losing ourselves in this process, with our agendas diluted at best, and sacrificed at worst. Instead, we must remain focused on our most common denominator, namely our shared commitment to and concern for democratic education, and the necessity to bring those relegated to the margins into the mainstream. We continually hear mantras of social justice, inclusion, and collaboration. These words resonate continually in all aspects of educational enterprises, especially where the marginalized is concerned, so much so that the words have arguably lost their meaning, becoming trivial, hackneyed, pasteurized, and commodified.

Meier (2006) challenged education and educators to break through the rhetoric and reminded us that this is really about, or should be about, democracy, access, equity, and social justice. But such a vision requires that we, ourselves, be convincedand that we are convincing to others (Meier, 2009). We espouse these democratic ideals, but how are we enacting them in IHEs and schools of education and in our departments, programs, and faculty groups? Many disability studies in education scholars (DSErs) have been pressing both DSErs and special educators to dialogue across the divide (Gallagher, Heshusius, Iano, & Skirtic, 2004)one major rationale being that othering, a foundational premise for us and a premise we so quickly and profoundly eschew in educational practice, is in fact something we are engaging in by ignoring and often dismissing the special educator other and other non-DSErs (Heshusius, 2004). To emphasize this point, Heshusius stated,

I am pointing to the inherent contradictions we construct between what we say about collaboration and the need to demystify power relations in our research and theorizing on the one hand and what plays itself out in the embodied encounters at deep personal levels on the other hand, involving contradiction that we don't know how to reconcile. (in Gallagher et al., 2004, p. 297)

She goes on to state that to do the work require[s] we set aside the separative impulse that has characterized epistemologies and methodologies of social science research; a stance of complete attentiveness and listening, both to the self and to the other, is necessary (p. 298).

Our inability to truly collaborate belies the implicit assumptive superiority and ideological righteousness of our position. The consequence is that research, theory, and pedagogy have been sacrificed and subjugated. It is impossible to open a journal or newspaper without seeing a call for academic collaboration and engaged dialogue across diverse groups and disciplineswhether it is in the academy, IHEs, public schools, state and local education departments, or schools of education. In the past decade, collaboration has been heralded as a fundamental feature of the academy, however, "strategic commitment is not implementation" (Feller, 2007). Moreover, those advocating for academic organizational change press the point for engagement, collaboration, systemic and strategic planning, and action. As Wagner et al. (2006) stated, these are the essential components to transforming education. Also, as we are all too well aware, collaboration is explicitly heralded as one of the primary pillars of inclusive education (Villa & Thousand, 2000).

We are equally familiar and comfortable with the language of reframing and shifting of paradigms when it involves the frame and shift of otherswhether they be special educators, those in public schools, or IHEs. But what about when it comes to our own position and perspective? Heshusius (2004) spoke of this criticalness of self-redefinition (p. 295). Our past pattern has been to focus on our own research, our own theories, and our own pedagogy. This leads us to ask: Can we not benefit from that of our brothers and sisters in critical studies? Deborah Meier envisions a holistic democratic education. Although this makes so much sense to so many of us, does it ring true in our interactions across disciplines? Realizing Meiers vision requires serious redefinition and reflection. It cannot be done on the sidelines, in ideological individuality, disciplinary silos, and ivy-covered IHEs. In fact, this may require the wholesale discarding of what is considered inclusion and the creation of a wholly unique paradigm and ideology. There is no predicting what the ensuing process and collaboration will produce, but by considering and including all marginalized children, studies, and scholars, we have a better chance to mobilize political power, create a critical mass, and push the ends of research and pedagogy.


It is our hope that this special issue generates conversations within and among diverse scholars whose work converges around educational equity for all students. We are grateful to the scholars who began this conversation at the 2008 Second City Disability Studies in Education conference and who agreed to contribute to this ongoing dialogue. Having facilitated both the conference and special issue, we are ever more cognizant of the possibilities that can emerge from creating alliances against exclusivity. Perhaps more important, we are increasingly aware not only of the possibilities or the benefit, but more so of the absolute necessity to engage in this work collectively, not only with other critical scholars, but also in alliance with those who are routinely marginalized in and excluded from schools. We concur with our colleague Roger Slee (2010), who described inclusive education as a subset of critical education (p. 155); he asserted that inclusive education needs to be incorporated as a goal and strategy in the overall reform agenda for education and as such should be seen to be everybodys business (p. 172). Slee argued that a decoupling of inclusive education from special education is necessary for the field to disentangle itself from the neo-liberal education imagination and incisively asserted that inclusion is a precondition, as Bernstein (1996) contends, for democratic education (p. 155).

To return to the place whence our dialogue began, it is our hope that the construct of inclusive education may yet emerge from the morass of its own discursive historyso diffuse and occasionally mystifying as to be potentially meaninglessas a political agenda around which multiple strands of critical education reform may cohere. Within the contemporary context of increasing globalization informed by neoliberal ideologies driving the increasing privatization of public schooling, we hope to continue to grapple with the simple yet perennial question: In an ostensibly democratic society, whom is public education for? It is our hope that the ideas offered within this issue spark generative conversations across the academy and beyond.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 10, 2011, p. 2283-2308
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16434, Date Accessed: 11/29/2021 9:45:24 AM

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About the Author
  • Jan Valle
    City College of New York
    JAN VALLE is an associate professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Culture at the City College of New York (CUNY). Her research interests include parents and families of children with disabilities, parent and professional collaboration in schools, disability studies in education, and disability and the arts.
  • David Connor
    Hunter College
    E-mail Author
    DAVID J. CONNOR is an associate professor in the School of Education at Hunter College, City University of New York. He also teaches a course in disability studies in education for CUNY's School of Professional Studies and is a faculty member at large of CUNY's Graduate Center doctoral program in urban education. His research interests include disability, learning disabilities, inclusive education, and general issues of social justice.
  • Alicia Broderick
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    ALICIA A. BRODERICK is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her work is grounded in commitments to pursue inclusive schooling from a collaborative stance informed by disability studies in education (DSE) and other criticalist perspectives. Her research and teaching interests include critical explorations of cultural representations of dis/ability (particularly autism), and the role of DSE in pursuing socially just and inclusive schooling.
  • Lynne Bejoian
    City University of New York
    LYNNE M. BEJOIAN is a committed educator to the full inclusion of and access for all persons with disabilities in all aspects of human endeavors. She is an experienced disability advocate and services professional. Currently, she teaches disability studies in education within the City University of New York. Research areas of interest include women and disability, media representations and disability, inclusive teaching and collaboration, and spirituality and disability.
  • Susan Baglieri
    Long Island University, Brooklyn Campus
    E-mail Author
    SUSAN BAGLIERI is an assistant professor in the School of Education at Long Island University’s Brooklyn Campus in New York City. Her research interests are teacher education, inclusive education, and disability studies.
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