Notes on: Annamma, S., Connor, D. & Ferri, B (2013). Dis/Ability critical race studies (Discrit): theorising at the intersections of race and dis/ability. Race Ethnicity and Education. 16 (1): 1 – 31 DOI 10.1080/1361332.2012.730511

Dave Harris

DisCrit is a dual analysis. It arises from connections between the interdependent constructions of race and dis/ability. Early work attempted to prove the lower intelligence of African-Americans by examining their brains, as Dubois showed. Comparisons did not allow for age or development and tests required details of pictures that had not necessarily ever been seen before such as tennis courts. Earlier work included phrenology and physiognomy. Obviously differences of this kind were used to justify discrimination including racist violence and murder. The legacy of these beliefs persist in the disproportionate number of non-dominant groups in special education or in categories of emotional disturbance or behaviour disorders.

These now rely on the subjective judgement of school personnel rather than biological facts — they are '"clinically determined"' (2) and it is easy to see them as subjective, a matter of 'societal interpretations of  responses to specific differences from the normed body' (3). They have shifted over time according to social context. These are relatively arbitrary decisions, even with things like what constitutes poor eyesight or blindness. Intellectual dis/ability distinctions and definitions have been revised as well in terms of where the boundary is in IQ scores. Nevertheless African-American students are 'three times as likely to be labelled mentally retarded, two times as likely to be labelled emotionally disturbed, and one and 1/2 times as likely to be labelled learning dis/abled compared to their white peers'. The same goes to a lesser extent for Latino, American Indian and Native Alaskan students. The overrepresentation of POC is less likely in dis/ability categories that are 'sensory or physical in nature' so race and perceived ability seem to be still connected within educational structures and practices 'albeit in much more subtle ways'.

Nevertheless, there are few studies on the intersection between race and dis/ability, except for those that mention race as a mitigating factor. Even those that do discuss both tend to leave 'one identity marker foregrounded, while the other is an additive' (4). CRT does not sufficiently represent dis/ability in special education, and often omits it. It is still a 'vital task'to account for race and the deployment of whiteness within the field, however.

More complex intersectional approaches have begun to be developed, using concepts like '"multiply minoritizing identities"' Erevelles and Minear ( 2010) identify three approaches: 'anti-categorical frameworks' where race class and gender are 'social constructs/fictions'; 'intra-categorical frameworks'that critique additive differences or layered stigmas; 'constitutive frameworks' describing structural conditions in which social categories are constructed and intermeshed with each other in specific contexts.

This later complexity has been addressed at recent conferences, for example in analysing mainstream films, teacher-student verbal interactions, or notions of normalcy.  Gillborn himself argued that race was still 'positioned at the front and centre of intersectional work' Gilllborn (2012) but saw dis/ability as a marker of identity and social location alongside social class and gender, arguing that these other dimensions must be taken seriously, and investigated in terms of how they 'mesh, blur, overlap and interact' (5). He has apparently done research on dis/abled black children which revealed 'how perceptions of race can trump social class status' but also how students positioned as black and dis/abled 'experience myriad educational and social inequalities'.

It is now time to propose DisCrit, 'ways in which both race and ability are socially constructed and interdependent… The processes in which students are simultaneously raced and dis/abled' POC who have been labelled as dis/abled do not fit into a single category but are in a unique position, less than white peers with or without dis/ability labels as well as nondis/abled peers of colour. Apparently the same has been argued for Chicano students who are subordinated by 'race, class, gender, language, immigration status ,accent and phenotype' [so saysSolorzano and Bernal 2001) .

Issues of dis/ability have general issues of equity that involve everyone especially if they involve race as well. There is a connection with educational failure. The argument is that race and dis/ability are co-constructed. We can examine CRT first and its allied – Crits to attempt to recognise confluence between fields that are connected but which face an unwillingness to engage in joint thinking.

Racism and ablebodiedness are both 'normalising processes that are interconnected and collusive'. (6). They work in ways that are unspoken yet which reinforce each other. Crenshaw is cited to argue that 'race does not exist outside of ability and ability does not exist outside of race; each is built upon the perception of the other' [I don't understand this at all or recognise it in Crenshaw— does this mean physical ability? The Crenshaw is Mapping the Margins] both racism and able appear normal and natural in this culture and both need to be unmasked and the normalising processes exposed. DisCrit will show how the interaction procedures and institutions of education affect POC with disabilities qualitatively different than white students with disabilities [again Crenshaw 1993 is cited]

We already have some evidence of 'qualitatively different' experiences of POC with the same dis/ability compared to their white peers in education settings. POC are educated in settings segregated from the general population more often, they are '"67% more likely to be removed from school on the grounds of dangerousness" ...if they have emotional and behavioural problems', and '"13 times more likely than white students with emotional and behavioural problems to be arrested in school"'.   In HE, there has been an increase in students with learning disabilities generally, but the majority of students are still white and from families with substantial annual incomes: the experiences of POC with disabilities are 'qualitatively different' [any data on black families with incomes of more than a hundred thousand dollars so we could compare 'social class' as a mediating factor?]

So there are interlocking oppressions at the macro level, race, class and gender and at the micro level so that individuals and groups occupy a social position '"within interlocking structures of oppression"' [citing Collins 1990]. For the authors, macrolevel issues are enacted in day-to-day lives.

Back to Crenshaw. POC labelled with dis/ability have no discourse responsive to their specific position and must divide their loyalties [I can see that is a link], 'although Crenshaw does not speak directly to dis/ability' (8). However, they have the same choice of where to stand, and sometimes have to reject identifying as dis/abled 'as something that is inherently negative or shameful' compared to politicised identity or critical consciousness. Dis/abled individuals may not share this status with their immediate family members. They need a discourse that reframes dis/ability from a subordinate position to a more 'positive marker of identity and something to be "claimed"'

The overrepresentation of POC in special education reinforces racial hierarchies in other ways. Asian-Americans can appear as a model minority by comparison, for example because they are underrepresented. Native Americans are almost invisible even though they are 'vastly overrepresented in many categories of special education, particularly in states with large numbers of native American students; Latinos/Latinas in some regions of the country where their population is large are overrepresented especially with those who speak a second language and bilingualism also means they may be overrepresented in middle and high school; African-Americans across the US, 'regardless of social class' means they are 'the continual problem in American education' (9). Each of these examples must be examined 'in relation to race and ability'. And gender, since most of the statistics represent males, and WOC are disproportionately represented in disciplinary actions, special education and the juvenile justice system compared to white females [so why not a feminine DisCrit?]

They are forced to rely on the usual statistical categories of ability and race although they do not believe that they are necessarily 'biological realities' and they don't want to impose identity categories. These are best understood as 'socially constructed labels' and they do have specific consequences and 'real material outcomes'. The same goes with binaries like normal/abnormal or abled/dis/abled. Often, dis/ability means quarantine. There is even a separation of journal articles and a separate special education discipline, reflected in schools teacher education and educational research. This division often emphasises what children with disabilities cannot do, while other students are seen as regular or normal.

This line has been drawn differently in different times. It is like whiteness or racialisation, a social construct with expanding and contracting categories.

There are of course corporeal differences among humans although these might not be as fixed and obvious 'as is generally assumed' and they are most interested in the responses to those differences.  They also see that the notion of difference depends on the notion of normal. We are all different from each other anyway and why should a person with a disability be perceived as the one who is inherently different. The issue is therefore '"what meaning is brought to bear on those perceived differences"' [which ducks the issue altogether of what might be done to remedy disability of course]. Then they develop their own tenets [God help us]

Tenet one

Race and disability have been used in tandem to marginalise particular groups, in interdependent ways to shake normalcy through practices such as labelling students, for example being '"at risk" for simply being a POC' which reinforces the 'unmarked norms of whiteness' and signals that the student is not capable. Institutional racism nor institutional able-ism on their own can explain why students of colour are likely to be labelled with disabilities and segregated. We need the two working together and see how they can both critique normativity, and in particular how certain individuals come to be seen as deficits, deviants. It can also help challenge the assumptions that people seen as disabled want to achieve normal standards — the example is the cochlear implant debate.

Tenet two

There is an emphasis on multi dimensional identities rather than singular ones such as race, disability, social class, or gender and in particular how certain identity markers have enabled teachers and others to perceive students as deficient or inferior. These issues bring to the fore markers of difference other than race, and other than gender, language and class and this adds complexity [assumed to be a good thing]

Tenet three

Neither race nor disability is primarily biological, but both are socially constructed as a response to differences from the norm. They are constructed in tandem, where race informs the potential abilities of students and abilities inform the perceived race [?] It rejects Crenshaw's vulgar isolation of social construction which enables race as a social construction to be dismissed as insignificant by asserting that these categories 'hold profound significance' [not Crenshaw's argument]. Some want to see race as a social construction and disability as a biological fact, but this only justifies segregation and marginalisation of students who are considered disabled, especially for POC who are disabled. Segregation of disabled people would be illegal if based on race 'but is allowed because disability is seen as a "real" rather than a constructed difference' (13). Segregation is no more necessary or rational that it would be with any other identity marker.

Tenet four

The voices of traditionally marginalised groups can no longer be ignored but must be privileged. Counter narratives must be attended to, including their 'strategic manoeuvring [which include a rather inferior list compared with Goffman]. It's not just a matter of giving voice which can be paternalistic. Everyone must listen carefully to counter narratives and researchers must use them 'as a form of academic activism to explicitly "talk back" to master narratives' (14)

Tenet five

Legal ideological and historical aspects of disability and race must be analysed and traced to the 'superiority of whiteness' and the racial hierarchy it created, with its 'two permanent fixtures, whiteness and blackness' (14). Various forms of pseudoscience appeared to reinforce this superiority. Instead, racialisation should be seen as an ever shifting category, so that sometimes poor whites were not seen as possessing whiteness, and were sometimes stigmatised along with Eastern European immigrants. A more complex reading of white supremacy is on offer, drawing on the notion of an intellectual hierarchy. Various notions of disability reinforce race and ability hierarchies and the two have become equated through pseudo-sciences and later clinical assessment practices, and later still through laws policies and programmes. They are now 'uncritically conflated and viewed as the natural order of things' (15) [I'm not at all sure that the old exemptions are not still there, that some white people still are seen as not very bright, like gypsies or Eastern Europeans]

Disability was racialised by legal policies as well, implying that African-Americans were mentally ill and that explains their refusal to work or their vagrancy, or that their disproportionate appearance in special education is a special reason for monitoring and enforcement. Race and disability shape ideas about citizenship, who is allowed to represent a nation, what counts is a strong healthy population and this can be found in current debates about immigration restrictions or the changing demographics of school.

Tenet six

Both whiteness and ability are seen as property conferring economic benefits [reference to Harris again]. Those fighting for civil rights including women have been seen as disabled or unfit in some way, denied full participation, while those fully deserving of civil rights were seen as both white and able-bodied. Some early suffrage posters apparently juxtaposed 'visual images of the educated and cultured white woman with images of men of colour and men who are visually coded as insane or feebleminded' (16).

There is still a debate about whether deaf people should be seen as a linguistic minority There is a dilemma — denying disability to benefit from the privileges enjoyed by the dominant groups at the expense of reifying the boundaries. This raises the issue of interest convergence and there is evidence of it with legal reform to extend protections to people with disabilities including access to various public facilities and protection from discrimination. This takes place to save money as much as to demonstrate that segregation is wrong. Labelling a white student with a learning disability can lead to more support for general education, but labelling a student of colour as disabled 'can result in increased segregation'

Tenet seven

Activism should be supported and resistance, especially if it links academic work to the community avoiding sterile ideas 'without practical application', and patronising research suggesting ways to fix the community 'based on deficit perspectives'. There is an additional problem in avoiding activism which might be 'based on ablist norms' which might not be accessible.

There are still some tensions between DS and CRT,  but these are productive sites. POC have often been seen in the past as disabled or inferior, feebleminded or lacking intelligence, and there was long opposition to those labels, however this ideology should be recognised as 'grounded in hegemonic notions of normalcy' (19) and maintaining the binary of abled/ disabled 'pits marginalised communities against each other' (19). Too many CRT scholars accept dis/ability as a biological category and so do other marginalised groups. At the same time, those with ' impairments' can experience further discrimination if they happen to be POC, and this can be ignored by some DS scholars. DS scholars can take a variable stance towards gender: some argue that dis/ability 'creates a universal experience, that it is an essential or primary identity marker', but the authors want to dispute this

Focusing on racism or ablism alone leaves out a wealth of experience. At the same time we can't just conflate race and dis/ability. Nor should we assume that all types of oppression result in the same sort of experience, nor that experiencing oppression of one type means that people know what it's like to experience oppression of other types. There is a diversity of experience even within categories. Nor should we generalise to include every type and degree of dis/ability, to assume universal or essential experiences. There are for example movements which reclaim the dis/ability label 'similar to gay communities reclaiming queer' (21) [crip culture].

Overall DisCrit is valuable both theoretically and methodologically it should foreground interconnections and the communities that are impacted by these interconnections it readily seeks to complicate notions of race and ability. It challenges the notion of standardisation within education by focusing on the most vulnerable population of dis/abled students of colour, and make progress with the 'perpetual overrepresentation of children and colour within dis/ability categories' (22), which is often met with avoidance or stoical acceptance. Traditional education research needs revitalising and new questions need to be asked to address this perpetual problem. It's complicating nature needs to be addressed. A non-intersectional approach will only provide limited conclusions as much work within the field of special education already demonstrates. We need a new lens and a new debate.