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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Teaching normalcy, learning disability - the risky business of special education : exploring the retrospective reflections of schooling experiences by learning disabled post-secondary students Brown, Sheena Louise


Although the policies and practices of special education are openly constructed around a premise of mobility and opportunity, students from low income backgrounds (‘at risk’ youth) are twice as likely to be labeled “special.” Moreover, of all the special educational categories, learning disabilities (a diagnosis deeply contested) account for the largest group of special educational students who are ‘at risk’ learners. This project is hinged on addressing how those students who are apparent beneficiaries of special educational policies and programs (evidenced by post-secondary enrolment) make meaning of their prior and current educational experiences in relation to special educational policies, services and programs. The author begins by theorizing that such disabilities may medicalize social problems while still preserving a veneer of equality. However, since not all labels have universal meanings when applied to specific social agents, they may both hinder and help some in gaining access to post secondary education. With the support of a group of four enrolled post secondary students located in the Canadian urban west-coast, who identify as learning disabled and the recipients of related interventions, this thesis provides a complex reading of the everyday that draws upon how the students’ specific cultural and material locations inform their understanding of education, ability, disability, meritocracy and normalcy. Collecting data through semi-structured qualitative interviews conducted during the Spring and Fall of 2007, the students actively engage and challenge the author’s original theoretical and methodological assumptions. Anticipating critiques of special education, the author is surprised by the students’ support of such programs. Expecting responses to interview questions to be based on a reading of meritocracy as normalcy and disability as deficit, these students weave understandings of meritocracy and normalcy to articulate their abilities without rejecting their disability labels. In terms of policy where the emphasis is placed on disability as deficit, the findings imply that policy-makers neglect the energy and labour students invest in emphasizing their abilities. For educators, this reveals an important pedagogy of inclusion by inverting assumptions that special educational students are ‘at risk’ of educational failure without unfolding the complex ways in which they actively demonstrate their abilities.

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