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Strengths-Based Approaches to Educating All Learners With Disabilities: Beyond Special Education

reviewed by Mildred Boveda - August 01, 2019

coverTitle: Strengths-Based Approaches to Educating All Learners With Disabilities: Beyond Special Education
Author(s): Michael L. Wehmeyer
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807761222, Pages: 120, Year: 2019
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In the introduction to Strengths-Based Approaches to Educating All Learners with Disabilities, Wehmeyer makes five statements indicating how he does not wish to be dismissive of existing special education laws and systems. Throughout the short book, however, he delineates numerous reasons why changing the way we educate students with disabilities needs to go beyond special education. With humor, humility, and futurity in mind, Wehmeyer contextualizes his expertise and recommendations by referencing a 40-year career in education research and practice more broadly, and his work with learners with intellectual disabilities (ID) more specifically. At times communicating trepidation about critiquing a field he witnessed develop into its contemporary form, Wehmeyer emphasizes how the accelerating changes in the United States, both in terms of student demographics and technological innovations, necessitate a different way of educating students. Wehmeyer asserts “that our current structure and system will not serve students with disabilities well in a 21st-century world” (p. 46). By the epilogue of the book, he reveals that even the word special in special education needs to be reconsidered.

Speaking directly to an audience familiar with special education, Wehmeyer assumes the reader is knowledgeable about things such as assessments for initial identification of disabilities, University Design for Learning, and conditions like Rett syndrome. He challenges special educators to think more broadly about their students’ potential, asking: “Did we get into the field of special education to [merely] provide a ‘substantively adequate’ education for children with disabilities?” (p. 52). As a junior colleague who first entered special education approximately 25 years after Wehmeyer’s beginnings in the late 1970s, it was helpful to read his contextualization of current practices and view them through a historical lens. With an introduction, an epilogue, and eight sequential chapters, each beginning with “beyond” in their titles, the book was effectively organized to be read in its entirety. It took three sittings and approximately five hours of reading and taking notes before I completed the concise text. In other words, as the reader progresses, they will find that Wehmeyer presents his recommendations by building on ideas presented in previous chapters.

Given his experiences and research with ID and transition supports for adolescents, practitioners and researchers who focus on disability categories such as specific learning disabilities, emotional disturbances, or speech and language impairments will glean important lessons from Wehmeyer that may not be evident within their professional discursive spaces. For example, he argues that a federally funded project called Dynamic Learning Maps, focused on developing alternative assessments for students with ID, has implications for all learners. Furthermore, Wehmeyer makes it clear that all of the issues he raises “have a universality across disability categories, and indeed across children” (p. 4). Wehmeyer laments debates about whether or not students with a range of disabilities should receive support services in the general education classroom. It is thus instructive to learn how someone whose work centers individuals with severe cognitive and physical challenges advocates for inclusive, strengths-based approaches to education.

Wehmeyer ‘s philosophical and theoretical orientation towards strengths-based approaches is articulated in the first three chapters. Opposed to deficit-based approaches, which he attributes to a medical model of disability that has ingrained an orientation towards pathology in special education, he espouses a social-ecological model of disability, which he refers to as person-environment fit. He deems that person-environment fit models are inherently strength-based and claims that school-wide interventions (or “innovations”) such as Multi-Tiered System of Supports are evidence of a broader approach to disabilities that is helpful for all learners. Furthermore, he leans on the ideas of positive psychology (Seligman & Csikszentmihaly, 2000) and the notion of personalizable education (Zhao, 2018), which he distinguishes from existing one-size-fits-all programs under the monikers of individualization and personalization.

Wehmeyer’s commitment to learners with disabilities is central to each chapter of the book. He emphasizes the need to prioritize students’ strengths and interests and to deemphasize paperwork and compliance. Wehmeyer is specific about the recommendations he presents, some of which may seem controversial given his reputation as a moderate voice in the special education community. For example, he suggests redirecting federally funded programs and services (such as those supported through the Individual with Disabilities Education Act and Title 1) to provide support for any students who need it, regardless of disability identification or school setting. Instead of using funds to classify, categorize, and sort students, he wants resources dedicated to supporting learner agency, increasing flexible schooling, and addressing the digital divide leaving students with disabilities behind. With urgency, he encourages those dedicated to serving students with disabilities to pivot and engage in conversations about the career skills needed for the 21st century .

As I read through the book, I was hoping that Wehmeyer would address strengths-based approaches beyond disproportionality when conceptualizing education for all learners. Although he discusses the overrepresentation of African American and Native American students in special education (and the underrepresentation of White and Asian students in special education), the overwhelming majority of authors and experts he referenced were White or Asian. I was initially attracted to the “all” in the title and to the beautiful cover that featured a young bespectacled Black woman holding notebooks and wearing hooped earrings. With the exception of discussions about disproportionality, however, and an article about equity in assessment (Milner, 2018), I was disappointed to see that the increasingly diverse voices in education research were left out of this important conversation. Despite the notion of “all learners” frequently alluded to throughout this text, the reader would be pressed to find representations of Black or Brown voices.

Similarly, had Wehmeyer more prominently featured the expertise of people with disabilities in his book, the arguments for strength-based approaches would have been strengthened. For example, when discussing the models of disabilities in the chapter titled “Beyond Disability” (p. 6), Wehmeyer neglects to mention the contributions of Disability Studies and Disability Studies in Education. Furthermore, there are people with disabilities who are rejecting the people-first language used in special education and embracing a disability as identity model (Miles, Nishida, & Forber-Pratt, 2017). Given that he envisions “models on the horizon that don’t necessitate labeling and categorization” (p. 9), I am curious about Wehmeyer’s thoughts about the move towards embracing disability as social identity.

Overall, I found Wehmeyer’s historical lens, commitment to elevating expectations for all learners, and focus on innovating with students’ strengths and interests in mind to be an important contribution to special education discourse. With optimism and specificity, he articulates a vision of the possibilities of inclusive educational practices by modeling what it means to think beyond special education.



Miles, A. L., Nishida, A., & Forber-Pratt, A. J. (2017). An open letter to White disability studies and ableist institutions of higher education. Disability Studies Quarterly, 37(3).

Milner, H. R. (2018). Assessment for equity. Educational Leadership, 75(5), 85–89

Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist, 55, 5–14.

Zhao, Y. (2018). Reach for greatness: Personalizable education for all children. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 01, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23014, Date Accessed: 1/25/2022 2:52:29 PM

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