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The Moral Debate on Special Education

reviewed by Jan Valle - February 09, 2015

coverTitle: The Moral Debate on Special Education
Author(s): Jr. Bernardo E. Pohl
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 1433121077, Pages: 117, Year: 2013
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In The Moral Debate on Special Education, Bernado Pohl presents a personal and theoretical project, in which special education is examined within the current educational crisis in the United States. Writing as an individual with a disability, an immigrant, a special education teacher, and a researcher, Pohl contends that the problems of special education reflect a lack of serious moral debate about disability “from the outside of the current dominating and restricting social framework” (p. 4). Throughout the volume, Pohl argues for a pedagogy of the disabled—grounded in critical pedagogy and moral education—as a means to reframe disability as an educational opportunity, rather than an educational problem.

This is a chronicle of the author’s academic and spiritual journey to examine the meaning of disability within the multiple standpoints of his life. Narrative self-inquiry becomes the medium through which Pohl seeks to understand special education within the larger context of public education; thus the reader is privy to Pohl’s insider status as both a student and teacher with a disability and the lived experiences that inform his analysis of special education. Having been a student with a disability in three countries (Argentina, Venezuela, and the United States), Pohl describes how he became enveloped as a special education student when he moved to the United States: “my disability became my identity which dictated the course of action ... It was the first time my disability was a deficit” (p. 50).

The author’s narrative self-inquiry becomes the basis for creating a pedagogy for the disabled. In addition to autobiographical data, Pohl examines the content of his journal entries, paper reflections, conference presentations, private conversations, emails, and peer-to-peer conferences. As a doctoral student in social education with an interest in justice and equality, Pohl considers the data within the theoretical framework of critical pedagogy, which he defines as “the pedagogy of possibility” (p. 69). Particular attention is given to the influence of Paolo Friere (Pedagogy of the Oppressed), David Purpel (The Moral and Spiritual Crisis in Education), and Peter McLaren (Life in Schools: An Introduction to Critical Pedagogy in the Foundations of Education) upon this work.

From his viewpoint as both a doctoral student and special education teacher with a disability, Pohl considers how each role informs the other in shaping his critical stance on the oppressive nature of special education. Reflections upon his lived experiences lead him to conceptualize an emancipatory pedagogy for the disabled that he envisions as:

opening possibilities for sharing who we are as teachers and students

creating safe spaces for students to express themselves

daring to focus upon eliminating barriers rather than identifying limits

encouraging fun in the classroom

empowering students to speak, name, and explore the world

supporting risk-taking for teachers and students

allowing students the freedom to decide the course of their lives


Pohl contends that this kind of pedagogy requires a major reframing of the ways in which we currently understand and respond to disability. He poses two important questions: (a) how can we continue to explain the continuing phenomenon of trivializing the special education discourse in light of the crucial issues of our time? and (b) what would constitute a proper point of departure for a more serious conversation in special education? (p. 89).

I commend the author’s critique of special education and his assertion for a moral debate on special education; however, the omission of work by scholars in disability studies in education (DSE) is surprising given the similarity between DSE—an academic discipline that emerged from disability studies (DS) in the last decade—and the arguments presented in this book. There is a robust DSE literature that focuses specifically upon a critique of special education, the application of DSE theory to practice in schools, and a call to shift the conversation to a philosophical, ethical, and moral realm. Although the author indicates that his theoretical foundation includes both critical pedagogy and “current scholarly works in the field of disability studies” (p. 8), more attention is given to critical pedagogy. Most of the discussion about DS centers primarily on the work of two scholars, Nirmala Erevelles and Susan Gabel. In light of the relatively cursory inclusion of DS literature, I am surprised that the author writes, “this project represents my own self-reflection of the social educator who is seeking justice in the field of disability studies” (pp. 75–76).

It is also of interest that a literature review and theoretical framework comprise the first half of the book, while the author’s full narrative appears in the second half. Although life events described in the narrative are alluded to in the first half, I found myself reading the full narrative first and then returning to the beginning of the book. I might recommend that readers do the same. Given the argument for a pedagogy for the disabled, I would have liked to have read about the author’s lived experiences before engaging with the work of others.

In sum, I think this book is a valuable contribution to a growing literature concerned with asking different questions about disability within a “moral perspective on disability and education” (p. 95). It is a passionate plea to reconsider how we think about and respond to disability within public education. Pohl writes, “I offer my narrative, my experience, my voice, and my own personal history in special education to those entering the profession of education for the first time and to those already in the trenches, as a mode to promote a more critical discourse in special education” (p. 13). I recommend that we take up this offering and begin the hard conversations.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 09, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17845, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 8:18:34 PM

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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.
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