similar process of social construction

The construction of what’s normal and abnormal by the dominant

group. In Chapter 3 we introduced the concept of social construction using the example of sex and gender. In the context of ability, there is a similar process of social construction. For example, while it is true that biological variance among humans exists, the meanings of particular biological differences are socially constructed. Consider this question if you wear glasses: At what point in the spectrum does your weak vision move from being perceived as a relatively insignificant biological variance that requires the socially accepted technology of eyeglasses, to being a significant variance (a disability) that requires your segregation from other children in schools and legal policies to protect you from discrimination?

Now take a moment to imagine what you consider a normal body. Perhaps you could sketch it out on a piece of paper. Try to describe that body in detail:

What gender is that body? What race? What is its age? How tall is it? What does it weigh in relation to its height? Can that body walk? Can that body swim? How does it walk or swim? And for how long, or for what distance? Can it see? To what degree? Does it use technology to see (glasses, or intraocular implants)? To what extent can it hear? Does it use technology to hear? What emotions does that body have? Under what conditions does it show these emotions? How does its presumed gender impact what emotions it shows and under what conditions? Does its race impact what emotions you attribute to it? What about its age?

As you think about these questions, decide at what point this body would no longer be normal. Where in its range of “doing” and “being” and “feeling” does this body cross the line from being a “normal” body to


being an “abnormal” or disabled body? If the body can do all of the above, but does them “differently” than most people, do you still consider the body normal? If not, why not?

If you are having trouble pinning this point down, it is because “normal” itself is socially constructed (Campbell, 2012). Normal is the line drawn around an arbitrary set of ideas a group determines as acceptable in a given place and time. For example, in the early part of the 20th century in many parts of the United States and Canada some people were categorized as “feeble-minded.” This was a broad category that included many people considered “Other” including women who had children out of wedlock, vagrants, and immigrants. Those with this classification were in some cases forcibly (and in many cases without their knowledge and consent) sterilized to prevent them from passing on their feeble- mindedness (Grekul, Krahn, & Odynak, 2004; Kline, 2005). Today, a range of learning disabilities that are seen as normal (such as dyslexia) would have been included in the early-20th-century classification of abnormal (feeble-minded). Based on the socially constructed idea of what constituted normal, people’s lived experiences become profoundly different.

As you can see, these constructions are significant, because depending on whether we fall into the normal or abnormal social category, very real privileges are either granted or denied. These privileges are embedded in definitions (at what point does a characteristic move from normal to abnormal?), language (classifications such as feeble-minded versus dyslexic), structures (the way cities and buildings are built), and systems of society (legal policies such as forced sterilization or educational segregation).

A powerful yet subtle way dominant group members have received the message that people with disabilities are not important is through the ways these groups have been segregated in major social institutions like schooling, housing, and the workplace. For example, in schools this segregation has been rationalized as necessary because were students with disabilities to be in the main classroom, “normal” students would be slowed down and limited. This rationalization conveys the powerful idea that the able-bodied have nothing to gain or learn from people with disabilities.

Consider the way classrooms are organized. A single teacher is expected to meet the needs of up to 40 students, often without supports such as classroom aides. This organization makes it virtually impossible to meet the needs of individual students. Therefore, the more alike and conforming students are, the easier it becomes to efficiently teach the


group. Thus, with schooling organized in this way (out of the myriad ways it is possible to organize schooling), it becomes logical to remove children with disabilities from “regular” classrooms.

Even people who support mixed classes often do so in order to “help” children with disabilities, assuming that the flow of knowledge and benefit is always from the able-bodied to the disabled. This reveals one of the ironies of privilege: Because the dominant group does not see the minoritized group as valuable, the dominant group loses meaningful experiences and relationships. These rationalizations reinforce the idea that the “regular” classroom is a neutral space of equal opportunity, and that the students in this classroom are normal—obscuring the fact that schooling is constructed to accommodate the ways that certain children learn. Labels such as “regular,” “normal,” “gifted,” and “special” shape the policies that social institutions (like schools and medicine) create that maintain this privilege and segregation.

Categories of special education referred to as nonjudgmental include children who are deaf or blind, or who have significant physical or mental disabilities and who come to school with their status identified by medical professionals. Unlike nonjudgmental categories, judgmental categories are based on an individual teacher’s subjective assessments, such as “learning disabled” or “emotionally disturbed.” Consider the subjective nature of the assessment to place students in Special Education versus Advanced Placement or Gifted Education. Figure 6.1 illustrates how a particular characteristic (such as activity level) can be interpreted in very different ways with profoundly different consequences.

STOP: Many teachers believe that they evaluate each child as a unique individual and that their assessments are independent of race, class, and gender. However, as explained in Chapters 3 and 4, it is not possible to assess anyone outside of our preconceived and often unconscious beliefs about them based upon the groups that they and we belong to. This does not mean that it is impossible to make fair assessments, but that we must not deny that these group relations play a powerful role in what we “see.”

In the chart, notice how being perceived as hyperactive is aligned with negative characteristics that are poorly tolerated by the school, whereas being perceived as energetic is aligned with positive characteristics that are welcomed by the school. These judgmental categories are consistently found to have overrepresentation of minoritized students—most significantly Black, Latino, and American Indian students (Adjei, 2016;


Connor et. al., 2016; Gregory et. al., 2010)

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