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(Un)Learning Disability: Recognizing and Changing Restrictive Views of Student Ability

reviewed by James M. Cressey - June 15, 2015

coverTitle: (Un)Learning Disability: Recognizing and Changing Restrictive Views of Student Ability
Author(s): AnnMarie Baines
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807755362, Pages: 192, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

With only four decades of federally mandated special education in public schools, our society is significantly underprepared to address the needs of our youth. Many teachers continue to be woefully unprepared or unwilling to provide supportive and inclusive learning environments for students who do not fit their preconceived notions.

For Author AnnMarie Baines, and for her resilient subjects, there is no justification for comments like the one made by a teacher in one of the schools she researched: Go take your medicine or something! Im pretty sure you havent! That was retarded! (p. 55). Even more distressing for the students profiled in this book is to be called special or to be pitied. (Un)Learning Disability: Recognizing and Changing Restrictive Views of Student Ability provides several detailed, diverse case studies of students who have heard messages like these for most of their school careers. A part of the Disability, Culture, and Equity series from the publisher, Bainess book makes an important contribution that can help educators deepen their understanding of diverse student identities and how they form.


Bainess ethnography follows eight young people who have been assigned stigmatizing labels such as troublemaker, AD/HD kid, class clown, autistic, and learning disabled, contributing to their disablement by schools and by society. These students have also fought for their rights to participate, advocated for their own learning needs, and stood up to bullying and harassment from peers and authority figures. Some of them have had teachers who support and champion their learning and successes, instead of reminding them of their labels and associated stereotypes. (Un)Learning Disability illustrates how these subjects have developed their disabled academic identities (p. 2) across school, extracurricular, and home environments, and to what extent they have overcome identity threats and experienced success.

In addition to its primary focus on the social construction of disability, the book also addresses the intersection of disability, race, culture, and gender in the lives of these eight students. A strength of the book is the diversity represented within the group of eight students. Of particular importance are the experiences of Devin, a Black male high school student who faces marginalization from his teachers and peers, amplified when he wears a black-hooded sweatshirt to school. Like many of the other subjects in this book, Devin overcomes complicated threats, capitalizing on his strengths by participating in the debate team and becoming a leader.

The book includes three parts, each one introduced by an interlude consisting of narratives, direct quotes from subjects and their families, as well as the authors own reflections on her experiences navigating the line between researcher and mentor to these students. Part One introduces Anthony, who rises above a water boy position, and Tinsley, who is writing a novel in her spare time. Part Two introduces more students and continues to illustrate how their academic identities are developed and challenged by teachers and peers. The case histories are detailed and multifaceted, including vignettes from each students home, school, and extracurricular settings.

Finally, Part Three uses additional student case studies and describes practices at an alternative school to illustrate how educators can help students to unlearn the disabled identities they have developed in response to their experiences. Specific tools are provided that teachers can use to set goals with students and monitor progress. A discussion of lesson planning using the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) point us towards the future of inclusive education and encourages educators to plan with an ability-oriented mindset.

Readers may find it difficult to acclimate when the author modulates her voice between a traditional academic style and a more subjective, relational writing style. The author is clear about her own subjectivity in the research process and her own involvement in her subjects lives. In much of the book, the reader is drawn into lives of these young people, into their experiences, hopes, and dreams. Throughout the book, we are periodically asked to join the author in stepping back from her subjects and analyzing their life experiences through numerous academic lenses such as the social construction of disability, positioning and intersectionality, stereotype threat, and cultural deprivation theory.

When the book turns away from the subjective voice to comment on the subjects lives from these academic perspectives, this may create a certain cognitive dissonance for the reader. Bainess readers are encouraged to stay with her as she navigates the gulf between academic theories and the inescapably real lives of these young people. Readers who come to this book from a purely academic background may struggle with the subjectivity of the authors process. Conversely, readers whose work centers on educating and supporting students in real-world contexts, may be skeptical of the books more theoretical parts.

However, it is in the deft bridging of theory and practice that the book achieves a significant contribution. It is also important to note that the author acknowledges having chosen a sample of outliers. Students were identified for the study if they stood out as having very high levels of participation or argumentation, or if they were very withdrawn and passive in group settings. All of the students had families who were supportive of their childs participation in the two-year study.

While there are recommendations that practicing educators can implement in their work directly with students, the most powerful content of the book comes in its case studies and their analyses. Many educators have known and taught students like Anthony, Tinsley, and the others, but with few chances to follow them closely across so many environments, truly seeing the world from their eyes. The book would be valuable reading for preservice teachers, counselors, social workers, and others preparing to enter the world of public schooling and special education. The key to change lies in being aware of everyday experiences with disablement& (p. 144). (Un)Learning Disability will supply educators with that awareness, urging them to explore the lives and identities of their own students more closely, and with new lenses.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 15, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17993, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 9:25:30 AM

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About the Author
  • James Cressey
    Framingham State University
    E-mail Author
    JAMES M. CRESSEY is an assistant professor in the Education Department at Framingham State University. Before earning a doctorate in school psychology, he worked as a special education teacher and therapist to children with emotional and behavioral needs. His research interests include positive behavioral interventions and supports, social-emotional learning, and multi-tiered systems of support for students with and without disabilities. He has recently published an article in the journal Professional School Counseling and presented his research at conferences of the National Association of School Psychologists and the Association for Positive Behavior Support. He teaches courses on the inclusion of students with special needs in general education settings, special education assessment procedures, and behavior and classroom management.
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