Pedagogy and Disability: Insights from Action Research

Originally published in In Irish Educational Studies, Vol. 2, 2001. 107-124.

Tom Daly

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Disablility and curriculum development
The evolving concept of disability
The disabled child and school
Curriculum issues

The 1990s saw increasing numbers of pupils with physical disabilities and sensory impairments attending mainstream schools. Coinciding with this, the debate regarding the appropriate educational provision moved from the concept of "access", or "integration", to "inclusion", but little clarification has been achieved on the pedagogical processes or structures through which this might be brought about. While the "integration" process concentrated on the quantitative dimension, there has been little consideration, beyond broad generalisations, of what form of educational process and knowledge development should accompany "integration", so that "inclusion" can be achieved for the pupils concerned.

This want of clarity, along with the lack of an infrastructure for supporting the policy of inclusion (Colgan. 1998: 48), and indications of a lack of an inclusionary ethos in schools (Kenny et al, 2000: 13), raises questions about the results of the school-going experience of pupils with physical disabilities.

This paper attempts to draw insight to this issue from the perspective of a schools-based action research project that sought to understand the nature of this question and develop a pedagogical response that would differentiate the mainstream curriculum accordingly.

The SOLAS action research project developed from the observations in practice that the lack of provision in schools, along with the cultural response to disability and pupils' isolation from a similar peer-group, created an environment where their personal development and sense of self-worth was partly fashioned by comparison with their peers and their ability to fit the dominant norms and values of the system. This, it was felt, gave rise to the need for a specific pedagogical intervention to provide relevance, balance and differentiation to the normal curriculum. The difficulties created in developing and delivering such an intervention, because of the dispersal and isolation of the pupils, could be overcome by the creation of a learning group within a pedagogical framework that exploited the Internet and electronic communication for connectivity and group interaction.

Thirteen pupils were selected from mainstream second-level schools to participate in the project. They were from throughout two counties and represented a broad range of age, disabilities, geographical location and cognitive abilities. They were provided with computers at home, along with Internet access and e-mail, and a process-based educational programme, with constructivist aspirations, was developed and implemented through this telematic network.


Disability and curriculum development
The need for pedagogical development in this area has been well identified in policy. A Guide to the Junior Certificate gave prominence to considerations: "of equity, differentiation, and flexibility (that) are required in catering for pupils with specific disadvantage" (Ireland, 1989: 27). The Special Education Review Committee Report (Ireland, 1993) made some tentative references and recommendations regarding curricular provision, but it did not attempt to define what it should be and referred it to the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment (NCCA).

The Irish White Paper on Education (Ireland, 1995) said that students with disabilities would be provided with "adapted teaching methods, materials and curricula" (p. 57). The Commission for the Status of People With Disabilities (Ireland, 1996), identified the lack of special curricula but it did not attempt to expand on what the educational needs of pupils with disabilities were or how they should be pedagogically met, and also referred the issue to the NCCA. The NCCA's policy document, Assessment and Certification in the Senior Cycle: Issues and Directions (NCCA, 1995), stated that it would "…advise on the setting up of curriculum development projects for students with special educational needs" (p. 26). The Education Act (Ireland, 1998) specifies that the NCCA will "Advise the Minister on requirements, as regard curriculum and syllabuses of students with a disability or other special educational needs" (Part VII, section 41 f).

The NCCA therefore was deferred to by all but its discussion paper, Special Educational Needs: Curriculum Issues (NCCA, 1999), stated that curricular provision for pupils with learning disabilities will be its initial concern (p. 17) and it offered no time-scale for beginning work on curricular provision for students with physical disabilities. The paper is weak in terms of even establishing principles on which a response could be constructed and failed to address systemic issues, with the main focus is on the child as having a deficit (Kenny et al., 2000: 10).

Therefore, there is remarkably little evidence of any comprehensive effort to put a pedagogical structure to the aspirations of specific curricular development for this group and it has been suggested that such development has been stifled by traditional attitudes to special education, with a residual and "debilitating atmosphere of the medical and clinical ethos" (Jordan, 1998: 66). The inappropriate role of the clinical psychology discipline in this regard has also been regularly commented on (Staunton, 1994: O’Keeffe, 1995: Gaden, 1996: Ireland, 1996: Colgan, 1998).


The evolving concept of disability
In seeking to clarify the necessary educational goals for pupils with disabilities, an examination of the evolving meaning of disability is central to the development of a response. In the past, the main focus was on the person’s difference, abnormality or deviance from the norm, and these barriers to "normal" functioning constituted "disability". "Rehabilitation" was concerned with bringing the individual closer to the norm or criterion (Granlund et al. 1997: 4).

There has been a gradual shift in perspective from this "medical model", that was stigmatising and reduces the person to a set of negative attributes (Gray et al, 1998), towards a contrasting "social model" where disability is increasingly being viewed as being environmentally created, where impediments are placed against functioning by barriers, both environmentally constructed and attitudinal. As our environment is designed for the norm, difficulties are created for those outside that norm. Granlund et al. (1997) referred to this as the "functional perspective".

In the last years a paradigm shift towards a functional perspective can be discerned. In the functional perspective the effects of the immediate setting of the behaviour of the person with disability are considered to be as important as behaviour change in the user/client (p. 4)

This is being only gradually expressed in educational terms, by those such as Bayliss (1996) who questioned the conceptualization of "special education":

within more ecological frameworks which view educational needs as becoming "special" when there is a mismatch between pupil characteristics, teacher strategies and curricular tasks demanded of the learners (p. 1)


The disabled child and school
While it is impossible to discuss "the disabled pupil" as a single entity because of the enormous heterogeneity of the group, O’Connell (1986) identified "separateness" as a common element.

To become disabled, either physically or mentally, is to be given a new identity, to receive a passport indicating membership of a separate group…Any disabling condition confers a degree of "separateness" to the individual, thus creating a social learning process in which the nuances and meanings of the individual's identity are assimilated (p. 1)

The concepts of "otherness" (Wendell, 1997:272) and "differentness" (Coleman, 1997: 219) have been equally described, along with different forms of the "social learning process" created by these. Halliday (1989) described this isolating condition leading to resentment of the disability which may lead to further isolation (p. 79). Anderson (1980) likened people with a disabilities to that of a members of an under-privileged ethnic or religious group, in so far as people have certain expectations about them by virtue of their membership of that group, which may expect "normal" patterns of behaviour (p. 90).

This evolving understanding of the concept of disability has not been mirrored in the mainstream educational system. The categorising of "specialness", which surrounds the child in "special education", has wider connotations and supports the dependency mentality, with social-psychological implications for both the pupil and school staffs (Bayliss, 1996: 1). The arrival of a disabled child in a mainstream school is an "unexpected circumstance" (Metcalfe, 1991: 101) and staffs, in terms of attitude or structure, are often ill equipped to identify and meet the special needs of the disabled child. Pupils with disabilities are often assumed to have less ability by teachers and they accept lower levels of work (Whelan, 1988. O’Moore and Browne, 1985. Kenny et al, 2000). Even specialists, such as guidance-councillors, tend to "ascribe blame for failure solely to the child" (Ryan 1998: 22). Where intervention does occur, it is often directed at fitting the pupil into a predominantly subject- and content-centred process that may be inappropriate and where the success of "integration" is measured against norms. This is the predominant value within the system and there is an emphasis on "keeping up". In many cases, this becomes a struggle that leads to the neglect of other aspects of development. It is a struggle that is often lost, which may contribute to a negative learning process for the pupils and reinforces the culturally created handicapping condition. Disabled students themselves identified teachers' perceptions and oversights as a barrier to their aspiration for normality, resulting in deflated ambition and self-esteem (Kenny et al, 2000: iii).

This indicates the need for the mainstream system to investigate and understand its role in this social learning process and the resultant sustenance of the handicapping creating condition. This could inform a response, but it is not clearly evident in the NCCA's (1999) discussion paper, Special Educational Needs: Curriculum Issues, with its apparent understanding of disability as individual attributes. Equally, it reported that provision for pupils with special needs in mainstream schools is currently met through resource classes and resources teachers (p. 10). While the imprison given that such a service is generally available is strongly at odds with the other available evidence, the question remains as to whether this form of intervention is likely to bring about the type of learning environment required, in terms of pupils' whole-school experience. The creation of such an environment requires adjustment of attitudes and institutional school culture that has been established over a long period.


Curriculum issues
The SOLAS project was practitioner-based and initially without the guidance of a formal research methodology. While quickly assuming the characteristics of "action research" by the development of a practice that was intended to foster educational outcomes through investigation of a problem (Elliot, 1981), there were no apparent principles framework that would guide "pedagogical thoughtfulness" (LaBosky, 1994) through to the development of a concrete learning programme in this particular context.

Curiously, one potential such source came from the legal discipline, when Quinn and Quinlivan (1996) examined "….the degree to which the Irish legal order is capable of absorbing the kinds of changes necessary to bring about equal effective educational opportunities for people with disabilities" (p. 1). They tried to "establish clearly and logically what education is for and why it is so important….and proceed further to the point of assessing the merit of the particular educational claims of people with disabilities" (p. 2). Having defined the "functions" of education they deduced that such pupils have:

at least an equal need for education and possibly an even greater than normal need given

  1. the need to draw people out of themselves, especially where they might be prone to withdraw into themselves and to develop and maintain critical levels of self-esteem and self-confidence.
  2. The degree to which "normal" life-challenges are accentuated in the life of a person with disabilities.
  3. The need to ensure proper political socialization and the need to expose all children (i.e. able-bodied and otherwise) at an early age to "difference".
  4. The need to overcome prejudice in the labour market (p. 5)

SOLAS, therefore, did concur with one of the main themes of Quinn and Quinlivan by arguing for an intervention that went beyond what was available in the normal curriculum in order to fulfill the aspiration of differentiation. Influenced by their logic, the broad educational aim of SOLAS was presented thus:

To draw out the individual from his or her own world. To enhance the levels of self-awareness as a good in itself and as a necessary pre-requisite to effective participation in social, economic, cultural and political life and prepare individuals to face the types and range of issues, demands and challenges that they can normally be expected to face in life (Summary of the SOLAS Project. 1997: 3)

In attempting to develop a pedagogical strategy that would fulfill this aim, what Goodyear (1999) described "High Level Pedagogy - the level of abstraction which is intermediate between philosophy and action" (p. 7), evolved into a loosely-based constructivist approach based on "the child as a self-governed creator of knowledge" (Strommen, 1992: 4). This coincided with Elliot's (1998) view that the organization of the curriculum in terms of academic subjects was ill-suited to the aim of a general education. Given the contention that the handicapping condition is largely socially created, his stated function of curriculum was particularly apt in this circumstance:

to organize cultural resources in usable forms for the purpose of enabling pupils to deepen and extend their understanding of the problems and dilemmas of everyday life in society, and to make informed and intelligent judgements about how they might be resolved. Such a curriculum will be responsive to pupils' own thinking and their emerging understandings and insights into human situations (xiii)

He also said that not only must the child create the knowledge, but also it must be created in a shared and negotiated manner, and in a culture creating process as an appropriate step en route to becoming a member of adult society (pp. 28-30). This was entirely sympathetic to the concepts of an Internet-based peer-group for pupils with disabilities, combined with the learning processes that were intended to occur within it. The creation of this process in a telematic environment created particular challenges.

Equally, Stenhouse’s (1975) notion of a "particular historically situated social situation" (p. 57) applied to the circumstances of these pupils, as viewed by the project. Given the context of a social attitude to disability both in and outside the formal educational structure, the educational responses that it provoked and the subsequent "culture-creating process", the process-based approach had to address that "historically situated social situation". In working out a response to the implications of that tradition, Stenhouse said that it is "…the basic unchanging structure of ideas which underpin a tradition of thought which we need to grasp" (p. 57).

Berry and Hardman (1998) said that development of self-determination was the single most important educational outcome for students with disabilities in order that they would be enabled to "become more efficient in knowledge acquisition and flexible in their ability to problem solve" (p. 224). Therefore, self-determination, brought about by a reflective process, was judged to be one mechanism that should be adopted to challenge that particular "tradition of thought" in the pupils. This reflective process would be shared by them, would be specific and relevant to their particular circumstances and would be "authentic", because students would be using what they know, through case-based, problem-based and project-based instruction, to acquire new knowledge relevant to themselves. Metcalfe’s (1991) vision of special educational provision for pupils in mainstream schools was a vision to which the project therefore espoused:

in order to be effective, learning should occur within meaningful educational contexts such as project or topic work…open-ended tasks can replace closed-ended, training-type activities, sterile, intrinsically uninteresting, de-motivating tasks, replaced by stimulating, optimal and collaborative learning activities (pp. 102-3)

It is not possible here to examine the wide range of issues involved in developing a pedagogic strategy within a digital learning environment, and from the unsteady platform of an under-resourced, school-based, action research project. Within these limitations, the simplest of strategies were deployed. The thirteen pupils, while carrying on their normal schooling, largely worked on the project from home. A nominated school contact teacher liased with the project. The nature and extent of school collaboration varied significantly, as the project was unable to develop a consultative and training process with teachers who were mostly involved on a voluntary basis.

The project used everyday propriety hardware and software, a web-site, and developed "modules" through which directed reflection could be encouraged. These included "Who's Who" which encouraged communication and development of a peer-group, "Speaking Up" which was practice of advocacy and sharing of experience, and "Now and the Future" which encouraged older pupils to reflect on their current situation and potential development. The very heterogeneous nature of the group in terms of age, background, sex, cognitive ability and physical impairment, dictated a relatively loose structure to the activities.


The main function of the project was to test and demonstrate, in a practical sense, the feasibility of an alternative methodology. It stemmed from the very bottom rung of the educational hierarchical ladder, without any initial funding, and progressed through an organic form of development that depended on the gradual growth of credibility and trust. The "plan", therefore, was fluid, and "context bound" rather than "formula bound" (Elliott, 1981; 51). It could not correspond to any prescriptive action research methodology. Its nature, for example, dictated that it could not conform to McKernan's (1991) 16 key principles, drawn from various models of action research, through which, he claimed, such research could be governed by "….rigorous principles or canons of procedure" (p. 31).

There is, however, something of a contradiction in examining whether any particular action falls within a formula for action research while such formulas evolve as action research develops as a "discipline", forming its own area of professional expertise and conditions, and producing criteria and values of its own:

To argue for theories to explain educational phenomena as the proper outcome of action research would be to shift the emphasis of such research from a process to enhance practitioner understanding and control, to a method of producing a questionable product, ‘scientific’ knowledge. Meta-theories proposed to date are academic products designed for other academics (Beattie, 1989: 119)

Conclusions, therefore, had to depend on analysis of data generated by participating pupils, teachers, and parents, which was referenced to developing practitioner insight and an external evaluative report.

Using this form of triangulation, the effects of the project on four learners was analysed from these perspectives (Daly, 1999).

The original concepts that evolved from mainstream practice were supported, especially that pupils' sense of self-worth was diminished by their school-going experience. This could be remediated with an appropriate learning programme. Significant outcomes for pupils were identified where appropriate mediation occurred, and where the necessary supports from school, home and project were in concert. The external evaluative report commented thus:

It can be stated that where the SOLAS project worked well, it has had a profoundly positive impact on the students, their optimism for the future and their employment potential, with a corresponding effect on their families (DEIS, 1999: 4)

However, it was equally demonstrated that the paradigm was fragile: "the chain of support was essential, and where one or more elements were significantly missing the project failed to meet its potential" (DEIS, 1999: 27).

Neither was the learning process easy to understand. Where significant learning did take place, it was difficult to extract from the milieu of various inputs which elements were most significant in triggering learning potential. The SOLAS "curriculum", and the learning tactics deployed, were, at the time of analysis, at a basic stage of development and the outcomes were undoubtedly experiential in nature. What did emerge in the successful case studies was that the pupils’ new-found competencies were of a high value among their immediate human contacts and in their particular environment – in their own cultural settings. The "system's" predominant values and measurement of worth were not prominent. Armstrong (1994) offered a possible avenue for exploration of this from the point of view of Multiple Intelligences theory:

Crystallising experiences, then, are the sparks that light an intelligence…conversely, I use the term paralysing experience to refer to experiences that "shut down" intelligence (p. 22)

Therefore, within the web of contextual elements involved in the process, potential was created to break the "paralysing experience" which, as argued above, may be the effect of mainstream schooling for significant numbers of this group. Further detailed analysis of the learning processes involved in the different elements of such a complex learning framework would be required to reveal the relevance of this. However, the outcomes of this action offered tantalising possibilities for creating an enabling, rather than a disabling, learning experience.


While this pilot action research may have offered elements of an alternative paradigm, the wider organisational, or social context (Goodyear, 1999: Surry and Farquaher, 1996), in which it operated creates considerable barriers. While unable to explore "a theory of context" (Goodson, 1994) here, the following is randomly representative of the "…multi-level body of factors in which learning and performance are embedded" (Tessmer and Richey, 1997: 87), and which represent a substantial "obstructionist" perspective (ibid.):

From the perspective of this study, differentiation of the mainstream curriculum by addressing niche educational needs through a web-based instructional framework, has potential where the dispersal of students militates against traditional methods and where group-creation and interaction is an essential aspect of the learning process. However, such a paradigm is delicate, in this context at least, and requires careful attention to both technical and pedagogical detail. Many of the assumed advantages of web-based instruction, such as asynchronous, autonomous and self-directed learning, run contrary to normal practice and expectations. The adoption of an equally unfamiliar experiential approach creates additional barriers to success.

Commenting on the specific group that this action was targeted at, the European Social Fund Programme Evaluation Unit, (1996) said that while the idea of integrating people with disabilities into mainstream education is appropriate in theory, "in practice many people with disabilities who have come through the integrated education system have emerged with a great sense of failure" (p. 46). This has been the effect of the mainstreaming policy and process without analysis of what it is intended to achieve, and a strategy to do so. It has largely been a re-enforcer, rather than a changer, of either educational values or pupils' sense of self-worth. It is the result of current curriculum, understood as "the sum of school-going experience".

The development of pedagogy for pupils with disabilities therefore requires a re-conceptualization of "disability" and the role of the system in creating and maintaining the handicapping-creating-condition. The development of curriculum and pedagogy, without analysis of the influence of the context in which it is intended to operate, or, as has been argued here, the role of that context in creating the need in the first place, is questionable.

In seeking to make curricular provision, the relative roles of the development of whole-school inclusionary ethos, vis-ā-vis niche intervention intended to remediate the lack of this, must be examined. In the absence of clearly conceptualised analysis of these issues, the further development of policy and response in relation to pedagogy and physical disability will be inadequate.


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