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3.5: Putting the Social Model of Disability into Practice

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    Indeed, the experiences that people have are shaped by their environment and their access to resources. Stephen J. MacDonald (2009) studied people with dyslexia in the United Kingdom. MacDonald looked at their experiences through a social model of disability lens. He surveyed 77 people with dyslexia. Then he conducted qualitative interviews. He interviewed 13 people from different socioeconomic status (p. 353). He found that schools and workplaces created disabling barriers for people with dyslexia. In other words, school and work can be inaccessible for some people with learning disabilities. In the UK, MacDonald learned that middle-class people with dyslexia accessed private tutoring and school tuition. Middle-class people with dyslexia had more flexible employment. They accessed assistive technology. The barriers caused more problems for working-class people with dyslexia because they did not have the same resources that middle-class people with dyslexia did (2009, p. 359). When investigating the experiences of people with dyslexia in schools, MacDonald notes that “literacy skills are often seen as a measurement of success in the culture of contemporary education” (p. 354). Western societies disable people with dyslexia by focusing on literacy and accessing literacy through traditional reading.

    It’s important to learn the history, theories, and concepts of disability studies, but how do we put the social model of disability into practice for people with developmental disabilities? What do these concepts look like in practice? Even in environments that don’t view developmental disability from a social model perspective, such as schools, it is possible to apply disability studies to work with individuals. Focusing on inclusion means providing an education that works for a variety of students with and without disabilities. Using both existing models of successful inclusive schools and the precepts of neurodiversity, Thomas Armstrong puts the social model of disability into action by suggesting specific qualities that inclusive education should hold. First, inclusive classrooms that work for neurodivergent students, including students with developmental disabilities, should be welcoming to students from any “culture, race, gender, and sexual orientation,” disabled students with a variety of impairments, and nondisabled students (2012, p. 195). Rather than being either a general education classroom with mainstreamed students with disabilities or a special education classroom, teachers value students’ different backgrounds and emphasize that “there is no such thing as a normal student” (p. 197). Instead of including just one teacher, Armstrong recommends involving many caring educators and assistants, from multiple co-teachers with general and special education training to “tutors, aides, parent volunteers, specialized service personnel” and “the students themselves, engaging in teaching one another” (p. 199).

    A young girl with Down syndrome smiles at herself in the mirror, wearing a dress-up costume and holding a makeup brush. The child is playing with two young children without visible disabilities.

    Including people with developmental disability at school is one way to put the social model of disability into practice.

    Young girl with Down’s syndrome [sic] playing with friends. Credit: Fiona Yaron-FieldCC BY

    Beyond explicitly welcoming all students and involving caring human relationships in learning, Armstrong speaks to the need for providing a multitude of activities and approaches to best engage students’ strengths. Armstrong explains, “The neurodiverse classroom celebrates and teaches about diversities of all kinds” (p. 197). He recommends working race, culture, gender, sexuality, and disability into curricula as well as infusing lessons with histories of famous neurodivergent people, involving family and community members with developmental, learning, and mental health disabilities in classwork, and stocking the classroom with materials that highlight people with developmental, learning, and mental health disabilities (p. 197), and using assistive technology such as communication devices, reading and writing software (p. 198). Armstrong suggests using Universal Design for Learning: “In the classroom, universal design refers to removing barriers to learning for kids with disabilities in ways that also enhance everyone’s ability to learn” (pp. 196-197). He profiles the William W. Henderson Inclusion Elementary School, from Massachusetts, which gives meaning to the term “presuming competence”:

    Students study Shakespeare, for example, but in different ways. Some read with their eyes, some with their fingers; one interprets it with a drawing, while another performs a skit. A fifth-grade teacher engages her students in a lesson on the literary genre of memoir. Some will read bound books. Some will listen to an audiotape. Others will use a computer program that displays and speaks the words of a scanned book. Individual students have specific instructional enhancements added to help them master the material according to their unique gifts and needs. The speech therapist constructs a set of voice recordings and picture symbols for Betsaida (who is nonverbal) so she can communicate her needs more successfully. The biology teacher creates a chart listing ways that Joshua (who has mild cognitive delays) can take responsibility for certain activities in the lab. The art teacher keeps a box of varying grips with her so that students with fine motor difficulties can better use drawing and painting implements. (Armstrong, 2010, p. 192)

    Schools have found ways to make students with developmental disability engaged in learning and included in the community. Some of these concepts come from disability rights advocates and disability studies.

    This page titled 3.5: Putting the Social Model of Disability into Practice is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Emily Brooks via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.