K Collins picKathleen M. Collins is an Assistant Professor of Language, Culture and Society in the College of Education at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park.  Her program of research examines the contextual factors and interactional processes that contribute to school success and school failure.  She is the author of Ability Profiling and School Failure: One Child’s Struggle to be Seen as Competent (2003, Routledge) and her work has appeared in Urban Education, Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, Learning Disabilities Quarterly, and English Journal. Her most recent research uses a multiple literacies framework to investigate the role of the arts in supporting children’s acquisition of content area literacies.

Each summer from the time I was 3 until I was 12 I spent two weeks alone with my maternal grandparents at their home in Carle Place, Long Island. For a girl growing up in western Massachusetts, Long Island was exciting. It was, after all, an island, and my grandparents lived in a close-knit Irish and Italian neighborhood where sharing talk, laughter, and home-grown produce over the backyard fence were regular occurrences.

My grandparents spoiled me, and I loved it. During the week while my grandfather was at work, my grandmother and I spent, long lazy days at the beach, swimming, digging, sunbathing, and eating the lunch she had packed for us – Boars Head baloney sandwiches on thin Pepperidge Farm white bread, followed by fresh peaches and punctuated with the random crunch of sand that let you know you were really at the beach. And on Saturdays, in the late afternoon and evening, we went to Jones Beach number 4. Jones Beach number 4 was constructed with a boardwalk, ramps, and accessible parking – so my grandfather, who had lost his right leg when he was hit by a trolley in his Bronx neighborhood at the age of five, could join us.

Perhaps it seems like a small thing — a family choosing one beach over another, a boardwalk rather than an expanse of sand, a child walking with two grandparents. But even as a child it made a big impression on me: had that boardwalk not been there, we would not have had the choice to go to the beach as a family. This simple design difference made it possible for us to be together, for my grandfather’s artificial leg to not be a [dis]ability. While he never spoke of his leg or of the accident, it was while walking on that boardwalk that my grandfather gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten about putting personal challenges in perspective: “Worse things,” he said, “have happened to better people.”

I think of that boardwalk often when I try to explain the [dis]abling effects of curriculum, the ways in which context matters when thinking about who children are able to be and the kinds of competencies they are able to demonstrate in classrooms and schools. While it may be relatively easy to understand the access and affordances that a boardwalk can provide over soft sand, it is perhaps more challenging, especially for those of us who have excelled enough in traditional school literacies to make a career of teaching and learning, to understand the ways in which curricular design and interactional choices also shape access and [dis]ability.

Consider, for example, the story of Christopher*, a boy I met through his teacher, Margaret McSweeney*’s, involvement in a program of research and professional development, Collaborations: Teachers and Artists (CoTA). CoTA’s design was informed by a multiple literacies perspective. From this perspective, each professional discipline and school content area is viewed as having its own literacies – discourses, habits of mind, textual features and semiotic practices. Just as that boardwalk over the sand provided an alternative path for my grandparents and me, in CoTA instructional contexts the inclusion of multiple modes of representation provide students with alternative paths to participation in their classroom communities and to meeting content standards.

I met Christopher in January of his second grade school year as he began his fifth month in Margaret McSweeney’s classroom. Christopher was the only boy in the class who identified as African American, and he seemed to seek out solitude whenever possible by moving away from group activities and electing to sit alone. Although of average size among his peers and apparently physically fit, Christopher also elected not to engage in their games of four-square and soccer during recess, choosing instead to watch quietly or to go on the swings alone.
When I noted his apparent preference for working alone, Margaret shared her concerns about Christopher, noting that Christopher often refused to participate, especially in group collaborative activities, and that at times he even crawled under his desk and stayed there until asked to return to his seat. Margaret shared her fears that she may not be able to reach Christopher, and described him as having “significant emotional issues and a very poor self-concept.” She added that Christopher’s first grade teacher had referred him for special education testing through a process referred to as the “Student Study Team.” Christopher’s parents refused testing, alleging racism on the part of his first grade teacher and the school. At the time we began working together, Margaret herself had started the paperwork to continue the Student Study Team process for Christopher but had delayed submitting it because, in her words, “There is just something there, there is ability there.” However, she noted that while “Christopher doesn’t act up, become disruptive, or fool around, he spends a lot of time staring into space, daydreaming.”

Over the course of our semester-long collaboration, Margaret and her students worked with professional artist Reneé Weisenburger and me to write, produce and perform three original plays for their schoolmates. While Christopher quietly refused all speaking roles, he eagerly volunteered for costume design. The first costume Christopher designed was for a lion. He purposefully made the lion “look like a kid,” explaining, “I chose a green shirt and blue pants so he could look like a kid.” Christopher then designed costumes for several more characters across the three plays. Christopher’s classmates were so impressed with his designs that they later encouraged him to become set designer, a role he eagerly embraced. The child who had been best known for avoiding interactions and sitting under his desk, and who was all-but-ignored by his classmates, was now positioned as an expert. Christopher’s classmates began to seek him out to ask advice about color and shape as they worked to construct the set he had designed. After asking Christopher about her painting, “Is this good? Is this ok? Does this look ok?” one classmate, Cynthia, tuned to me as I filmed their activity and explained, “He’s the artist, the real artist here.”

Christopher, for his part, eagerly embraced his new role as a sort of “artist-in-residence.” When asked about his favorite part of the unit after the performances were over, Christopher excitedly shared that, “I can’t really pick one, I liked it all. I controlled the curtains in the play, gave directions backstage. I also painted the set. I enjoyed working with other people. The scary part was going out to take a bow.”

While curriculum design is only one aspect of the socially constructed nature of [dis]ability — others on this blog have noted the influence of deficit perspectives as another important factor, for example — it is an especially important one because it is an area where teachers can exert influence and professional choice. As Christopher’s story illustrates, by carefully designing curriculum that includes multiple modalities as points of entrée, teachers can directly and immediately influence the social and educational outcomes experienced by the children in their classrooms.

Whether it be through building a boardwalk over sand or designing instruction that incorporates multiple literacies to bridge the gap between students’ preferred modes of expression and those normally privileged in schools, the lesson is the same: when you change the tools available in a given context, you change the possibilities for participation in that context. In doing so, you are able to change who people are able to be and how they are responded to, or socially positioned, by other participants.

[1] For more about Christopher, CoTA, and some of the other children we worked with, see K. Collins, in review.
* Names have been changed to protect the participants in the project

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7 Responses to “Understanding the contextualized nature of [dis]ability by Kathleen M. Collins”

  1. David Hernandez-Saca on 5/19/10 5:15 PM US/Eastern

    Hi Dr. Kathleen Collins,

    First of all I wanted to say that I have read your book, Ability Profiling and School Failure: One Child’s Struggle to be Seen as Competent, and i really found it an important study for the field of (special) education.

    I am a new ph.d. student at Arizona State and I just wanted to say that your perspective on the ways in which (dis)ability is constructed through context is an important view since the majority and dominant way of looking at (dis)ability is as something inside the individual and divorced from the social.

    I believe this view can help shift the gaze of stigma away from students and push the responsibility for creating classrooms, school systems and learning environments that truly enable instead of disable the participants by those in power (i.e. teachers, administrators, etc).

    All the best,

  2. Kathleen Collins on 5/20/10 9:23 AM US/Eastern

    Dear David,

    Thank you so much for your feedback! It made my day!

    I especially appreciate your emphasis on “shifting responsibility” as an important aspect of changing the current dynamic. Clearly there is much work to be done, but that’s what keeps us motivated, right?

    I look forward to learning more about the work you are doing at ASU and your program of research as it develops. Please keep me updated and let know if I can be of any assistance!


  3. Kathleen on 5/30/10 9:33 PM US/Eastern

    Hi David,

    I posted a reply to you the day after your post, the 20th — it was visible only to me for a while and then disappeared — not sure why?

    In any case, thank you so much for your feedback ! I hope that you are correct and that this work does in some way contribute to a re-visioning of ability as socially situated.

    Good luck in your studies at ASU and I look forward to hearing more about your work!


  4. David Hernandez-Saca on 6/2/10 9:01 PM US/Eastern

    Dear Kathleen,

    Thank you for your replies, i did not realize until today that you did reply. Am sorry for the delay!

    Yes, am so glad that it made your day, actually responding originally to your E-Blast made my day!!

    Great, am so excited that I can keep in touch with you. Actually, I am a research assistant at the Equity Alliance!! My advisor is Alfredo Artiles, and i just started in January 2010.

    I am in a doctoral program called Special Education Leadership for School-wide Equity and Access. I will receive an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Curriculum
    and Instruction with an emphasis in Special Education.

    I am interested in literacy, problematizing the construct of ‘learning disabilities,’ Over-representation of minority students in special education, English Language Learners, African American English Speakers, teacher training, policy and much more!

    I look forward to keeping in touch and becoming friends!

    All the best,

  5. Kathleen on 6/7/10 1:56 PM US/Eastern

    Hi David,

    It’s so nice to read your enthusiasm for this work! You are very fortunate to have Dr. Artiles as your advisor; I have admired his work for many years.

    Disability Studies Quarterly currently has a special issue out revisiting Christine Sleeter’s original work on LD as a socially constructed category — based on your description of your research interests you may find it interesting. You can read it at: http://dsq-sds.org

    If I can be of further help or support please be in touch! kathleen@psu.edu


  6. Joseph on 9/26/11 2:41 AM US/Eastern

    Professor Collins,

    I agree that as educators, we should use a curriculum that includes multiple modalities that will help different students with different abilities. I think it is about time to focus on the strengths of individuals or their abilities rather than simply identifying them with their disabilities. Like what Christopher’s teachers did, students should be encouraged to do what they enjoy or what can make them productive. I think it is hard, be it in general ed or special ed classes, to accommodate all the different learning styles of each student but there will always be a way to do it.

    Thank you for sharing your story!


  7. Kathleen on 11/22/11 9:23 AM US/Eastern

    Hi Joseph,

    Thank you for your comment!

    “Learning styles” still puts the focus on perceived traits of individual children; I think it’s more productive to look at the child in the activity context — here I emphasized the different modalities the teacher made available but an important part of the activity context is also the social relationships. For example, the way others treated Christopher as “expert artist” changed his way of interacting and who he was able to be in that context.


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