Contemplating Dis/Ability in Schools and Society: A Life in Education
reviewed by Jamie Buffington-Adams - February 08, 2019
Title: Contemplating Dis/Ability in Schools and Society: A Life in Education
Author(s): David J. Connor
Publisher: Lexington Books, Lanham, MD
ISBN: 1498568211, Pages: 320, Year: 2018
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For those interested in pondering how the individual development of an educator can parallel the evolution of a field, David Connors book will not disappoint as it vividly portrays the complexities of an innovative educators life, demonstrating how the professional and personal are inextricably tied. Connors introduction to the text outlines this intent clearly as he details the power of personal stories (p. xix) and examines the ways in which the personal is the professional (p. xxiv). However, Connors work is not merely autobiographical. One of the greatest strengths of Contemplating Dis/Ability in Schools and Society is the way in which Connor weaves together the history of the field with the story of his evolution as a lifelong educator. Education is a human endeavor, and to understand how trends evolve is to understand how they rest within the individual educators and scholars who collectively constitute the field. Thus, the reader walks away feeling not only that they know the author more intimately but that they understand in greater depth the course which the field of education (including special education and disability studies) has taken.
Connors writing in Contemplating Dis/Ability in Schools and Society is warm and inviting in multiple ways. In the text itself, Connor decries the chasm between research in the field of education and the work of teachers themselves, concluding that most research is not produced with teachers in mind and that academics ultimately write to other academics, leaving their work largely inaccessible to classroom practitioners. Connor succeeds in avoiding a jargon-laden and elitist academic register, coupling a conversational voice with a plethora of references that succeed in relaying scholarly content alongside the kind of discussion you would hope to have with Connor over a cup (or pot) of coffee. In addition, as a fellow special educator turned teacher educator who holds a number of similar interests, I repeatedly caught glimpses of my own experiences, thoughts, and emotions mirrored in Connors narrative. I would imagine that many teachers will experience the same thing as they are invited to walk alongside Connor on his journey in education.
Organized largely chronologically and according to the various roles that Connor has held as a lifelong educator, Contemplating Dis/Ability in Schools and Society opens with Connors foray into teaching students in special education in New York City without any prior preparation, formal or informal. From there, Connor takes his reader on a journey through the phases of his life, including as a staff developer, doctoral student, teacher coach, college professor, scholar, doctoral faculty member, and department chairperson. At each stage (or in each chapter), Connor peppers his narrative with poignant and often humorous anecdotes, bringing his career and the field to life on the page. Each narrative is followed by commentary in which Connor turns his writing back on itself to analyze each phase of his career and life with an eye towards making clearer connections to developments in the field. Utilizing this format and style, Connors examination of his life in education naturally touches on many poignant topics, but two themes echo throughout the autoethnography: the importance of understanding intersectionality and the tensions between special education and disability studies.
From the outset of his reflections on teaching mostly minority students from financially struggling homes and placed in special education, Connor acknowledges that identities are complex, existing not within a singular category but across multiple dimensions. In fact, in his note to the reader, Connor defends his use of the term kids by stating that, for him, this word conveys a whole entity as opposed to the term students, which confines our conceptualizations... to one dimension (p. xxiii). This emphasis on the importance of intersectionality is carried throughout his narrative as he continually questions how race, socioeconomic status, gender, sexual orientation, and dis/ability (among other identity markers) interact, and how they benefit or constrain individuals as they navigate the education system.
Additionally, Connor repeatedly highlights the tensions between special education and disability studies. On the one hand, he explicitly details major points of comparison or contention while relaying the progress and trajectory of each field. On the other hand, his chronicling is embedded in his own story, meaning that the reader learns about the growth of these fields from the point of view of an individual (one who happens to be a well-respected education scholar, particularly in the field of disability studies). In doing so, Connor illustrates the tensions of belonging to both worlds, sharing his experiences teaching in and administering a department that, as a disability studies scholar committed to inclusive contexts, he wish[es] did not exist (p. 221).
As the first book in Erich Shymans Critical Issues in Disabilities and Education series, David Connors examination of his career in education offers not only a window into the mind and heart of a (special) educator, but an insightful perspective on the impact of educational policies and research on teachers and individuals with disabilities. In short, I find this book to be as innovative as its author, offering a unique and personal account of an often clinically-oriented field.