Tools of Exclusion: Race, Disability, and (Re)Segregated Education

Ferri, Beth A.; Connor, David J.
Teachers College Record

In this article we explore the dynamic interplay between racism and ableism - or discrimination against someone based on perceived "ability"1-in the resistance to school desegregation and inclusion of students with disabilities in general education. In attending to the workings of power that connect these two histories, we show how racialized notions of ability functioned to uphold segregated schooling and justify the use of special education as a tool of racial resegregation. Moreover, we locate the current problem of overrepresentation of Black2students (and other students of color) in segregated special education classrooms to the connected discourses of segregation and exclusion. Recent efforts to challenge exclusionary practices in special education through the increased "inclusion" of students with disabilities in regular classrooms have resulted in resistance similar to that expressed in response to school desegregation shortly after Brown. In this article we first provide an overview of the complicated and intertwined histories of school desegregation and special education. Then, in the discursive context of a sample of very diverse newspapers, we examine how editors, readers and contributors responded to both court-ordered desegregation in the 1950s and then special education inclusion in the 1980s and 1990s by calling for delays and gradual compliance. We argue that gradualism has functioned to maintain, rather than disrupt, the status quo of racially segregated schooling both within and across schools. Finally, we argue that race and disability should be understood primarily as interactive social constructs and not distinct biological markers. Copyright © by Teachers College, Columbia University.