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Presented at ISEC 2000

Labeling: Its Effects On Labeled Students

Nadira Persaud, York University, North York, Ontario


This qualitative research project offers an analysis of the "Othering" processes of the education system with a focus on students with disabilities, ie. how the latter are constructed as Other and subsequently excluded and marginalized. This study includes the responses of an elementary school teacher and two students of immigrant status, Salma and Nawad. Data was collected in the form of participant-observation, interviews with parents and the special education teacher, document analysis, and a personal journal. Teacher experiences are based on recall and a personal journal. Implications for treatment of students with disabilities are considered.


"Schooling remains a critical agent in defining, labeling and treating disability" (Slee, 1993,p. 353). Indeed, social construction of disability hinges on assigning labels of deviance and the construction of an Other. Christiansen (1992) highlights problematic aspects of the assignment of labels:

  1. Labels are negative in their depiction of deficits.
  2. The labels become the defining characteristic of the person, denying their complex whole.
  3. The use of labels for identifying 'special education needs' fails to properly locate failure in the education system (Christiansen in Slee, 1993, p.358)

Labeling is believed detrimental to self-esteem and self concept (McDermott, 1993). Students with disabilities cease to be perceived as real people. Rather, their deficits are diagnosed and labeled, and they are treated accordingly. Constructed and perceived as "Other", students with disabilities are denied membership in the community (Pfeiffer, 1997). Constructed to reflect the philosophies and policies of the relevant educational system, they exist in specialized environments, receiving specialized instruction.

The use of binarisms and the development of labels in the construction of subjectivity has been explored by Marks (1994): "People with disabilities have always been constructed in terms of binarisms . . .To speak of disabilities is to acknowledge the existence of people without disabilities" (Marks, 73). Moreover, as Threadgold (1990) observes, one of the dichotomous pair is "valorised, and given status, at the expense of the other" (Threadgold, 1). With resultant dichotomization into "us" and "them", persons with a disability, the "undesirable half of a binary pair" (Marks, 1994, p.73), are Othered--devalued, given deviant status and believed to be in need of normalization. As subjectivities constructed by special education polices that embrace binarism in labels, those with disabilities are frequently denied the right to participate in matters related to their life. Yet, "new labels and new disabilities . . . are constantly being created . . . and students continue to be blamed for their disabilities" (Marks, 1994, p.76). Through the use of labels, it becomes possible for bodies to become inscribed texts of disability. Thus, some students are viewed as acceptable, whereas some become Other.

Marks observes that physical-visible--inscriptions such as a "body confined to a wheelchair for movement . . . is all too obviously a text of disability" (Marks, 1994, p.76). There exists within government documents and school action plans-and in the discourse of well meaning educators-- a hidden "psychic inscription of the body" (Grosz, 1990 in Marks, 1994, p.77). The label or category of "special education needs", for example, results in a resource driven, technocratic, and reductionist approach to educating the disabled (Slee, 1993; Marks, 1994). Inherent in the language used to label and inscribe the disabled, then, is an ideology that marginalizes, silences and constructs subjectivities as devalued and demoralized.

It appears that the history of educating those students whose learning is challenged by disability has been one of exclusion. Yet, Bunch (1994) posits movement along a continuum of inclusivity over time. In what the author terms the "Early Years", from mid 1700's to early 1900's in Canada, residential schools provided students from the upper class with varying degrees of special education services. Though facilities were segregated, they were "inclusionary in that they formed the first substantial public educational offering for people with disabilities" (p.23). By 1970, society's perceptions and values had shifted to consider the education of a wide range of children with disabilities. The result of this shift in societal views was a segregated, parallel, special education school system. "This was the guiding rationale for separate schools, separate classes, small class size, specially prepared teachers, and specialized instructional methods" (Bunch, 1994, p.27).

In time, however, it was observed that special placement did not result in significant gains. (MacMillan and Hendrick, 1993, cited in Bunch, 1994, p.27). Between 1970 and 1985, educational compromise resulted in the formulation of the "Least Restrictive Environment" (LRE) and its variants, meaning placement "as close to the regular classroom as possible, with due regard to the needs and degree of challenge to learning" (Bunch, 1994, p.27). Dependence on a system which labeled students and then segregated them remained a primary characteristic of educational response.

At the furthest end of the continuum posited by Bunch lies Inclusive education, the most recent development. As Forest & Pearpoint (1997) observe, inclusion creates "an opportunity and a catalyst to build a better, more humane and democratic system". Advocates of inclusive philosophy and practice demand, as a matter of equity and social justice, regular and age-appropriate classroom placement in the immediate community for all children. "Implicit in the meaning of inclusion is belonging" (Falvey, Givner & Kimm, 1996, p. 117). The practice of labeling students as other, imposing normative assumptions and providing specialized learning environments-thus undermining the formation of community--, are eliminated. There are only students in an inclusive system. There are no "Others".

In my teacher training there was little mention of inclusion other than a one day work-shop on an anti-bias curriculum, focused mainly on anti-racist and ethno-cultural equity. The manner in which I would engage those students whose learning experiences and challenges would constitute a gamut of learning styles and abilities was not addressed.

I soon discovered that while my colleagues (other teachers and administrators) seemed to embrace a culture of tolerance, acceptance, and respect for difference, --the politically correct rhetoric--actual practices were, in fact, exclusionary. I experienced how the system labels and treats special education students to create Otherness. I observed that special education was compartmentalized learning with little or no communication between the resource teacher and classroom teacher. Despite repeated efforts on my part to have one "special education" student in my grade three class participate in meaningful learning experience, limits and restrictions were imposed by administration based on perceptions of the student's lack of ability. Relations of power, it appeared, muffled voices and invalidated selves of those labeled "other".

Nonetheless, labeling students and constructing them as deviant is alive and well. The term label is derived from social labeling theory. Gove (1980) outlines two stages in the labeling model: the process that results in labeling, and the consequences of labeling. Related to the labeling process is the definition of deviance, which, according to Gove, can be used to analyze and explain the experiences of disabled persons. [Here, labeling is defined as "the attachment of a deviant name to some action or attribute(s) of an individual" (Perusin, 1994, p. 83).] Gove states: "As with other deviants, it is not so much their actual disability that is the key, but rather society's reaction to it . . . The resulting [label] . . . attached renders an individual . . . deviant" (Gove, 1980, p. 234). When the individual does not fit into what most societies consider normal, they are perceived as deviant (Perusin, 1994). Deviance, then, is largely socially constructed-determined by the judgements of others.

Once labeled as deviant, the individual suffers the often debilitating consequences of the label. Knutsson observes that the label imposes a negative status on an individual: "Labeling entails that the identity assigned to an individual is in some respect altered to his/her discredit" (1977, p. 9). When an individual is publicly labeled, certain negative qualities are assigned to them and s/he is forced into the deviant role. The labeled individual is treated as if s/he possessed certain characteristics which are stigmatizing (Knutsson, 1977). The deviant's social situation is changed as is his/her self image-the negative label has a destructive impact on the individual who conceived him/her self as deviant results; "s/he has become what people said" and acts accordingly to the new status as deviant (Knutsson, 1977, p. 10). Both society and the individual view her/him as "Other."

In a similar vein, Sacco (1992) proposes three ways in which the imposition of a negative label on an individual alters his/her behavior. a) When labels are assigned, patterns of social interaction are changed. b) The labeling of deviance pushes people into the periphery or margins into the company of others in a similar subculture. c) An individual who has acquired the classification of deviant gradually conforms to characteristics of the label (or society's expectations), resulting in a "self-fulfilling prophecy" (Sacco. 1992 in Perusin, 1994, p. 84).

Fairbanks (1992) acknowledges that schooling becomes an agent in impeding intellectual and social growth for the labeled student. Bak, Cooper, Dobroth, and Siperstein (1987) observe that special class placements can act as de facto labels. Indeed, most labels associated with Special Education: can be used in demeaning ways . . . are imprecise descriptions of need, . . . sometimes are assigned wrongly, . . . may not result in the student's getting appropriate services, and . . . are difficult to remove or forget (Kauffman & Pullen, 1996, p. 10).

Hallahan & Kauffman's (1994) observation that labeling damages self-concept and motivation to learn, as well as resulting in others (teachers and peers) viewing the student differently--negatively--is echoed in Stainback & Stainback's assertion that labeling is "detrimental and leads to the deindividualization and stereotyping of students" (1987, p. 67). Will (1986) argues that the language and terminology employed is "full of the language of separation, of fragmentation, of removal", functioning to alienate and make passive parents and students (p. 412). Belief that labeling students is a negative process is characteristic of many researchers and educators in the field.

However, as stated earlier, although there are pros and cons to this dilemma, the debate is far more complex than labeling versus delabeling. As Kauffman & Pullen (1996) observe, since we communicate through labels and categories, the later are inevitably part of the discourse. Further, "things they denote and connote become attached to people who receive services whether we intend to label or not . . . The focus of labels obscures the more important issue of the . . . meanings we attach to concepts to which the labels refer" (Kauffman & Pullen, 1996, p. 11)


The previous discussion suggest a number of issues around labeling and the creation of Otherness. The most significant question for this study is what are the effects of labeling on the labeled individual?

Subordinate to this over-riding question are a number of lesser questions:

  1. Why are persons labeled by their disability? What is the process of labeling a person as Other? Who are labeled Other?
  2. How does labeling constitute "otherness"?
  3. How is difference understood?
  4. What does inclusion mean in terms of labeling, and how is it taken up?
  5. How is "success" within a classroom determined for a child labeled by disability?


This study focuses on a description of the effects of labeling for two grade three students labeled by the education system.


The first participant is eight year old, Salma. The system has labeled her as mildly intellectually disabled student. Of Pakistani origin, she was born in Canada to working class parents. She comes from a family of five: her mother, a former school teacher in Pakistan, her father, a taxi-driver, a sixteen year old sister, and a fourteen year old brother. Salma exhibits a degree of facility in both English and Urdu. Since Kindergarten, she has been orange-carded; this system, used by the local district school board, places an orange card in the student's OSR which quickly identifies those students whose learning is challenged. This orange card signals the commencement of the Othering process.

A tactile learner, Salma is frustrated by many learning experiences not designed to meet her individual needs. Her learning deficits are apparent to other students who observe her with both curiousity and repulsion. She is, essentially, socially isolated. She has no real meaningful friendships. Many of Salma's social interactions are marked by seemingly aggressive patterns of behavior.

Recently, school officials have decided to place this student in a special school. Their efforts, while resisted by her parents and myself, were successful and Salma was taken out of an integrated setting. In segregation, the Othering process is complete.

The second candidate, also in grade three, is eight year old Nawad. Nawad was born in Sudbury, Ontario to Afghanistani immigrant parents. Nawad's mother is a homemaker and his father is a pizza maker. His mother related to me that she had perceived educators in Sudbury as being racist toward her son. Nawad's early years in school were neither well-adjusted nor happy. His grade one teacher told his mother that Nawad might have Attention Deficit Disorder and recommended that the child see a pediatrician. The latter diagnosed Nawad with the disorder. Nawad was put on medication which, his mother observed, made him lethargic and un-responsive.

The family moved to Toronto in grade three and Nawad's mother sought a second opinion. This time, it was deemed possible that a mis-diagnosis-and mis-labeling-had occurred on the earlier occasion; the Toronto specialist stated that Nawad was in no need of medication. (He entered my class off medication.) Nawad has unique learning needs. He functions below the expected grade level. He is fairly well adjusted socially and emotionally.

Data collection

Data was collected in the form of participant-observation, field notes, interviews, document analysis, and a personal journal. When interviewing parents or children and during observations, field notes were developed.

Tape-recorded interviews were conducted with the the duration of each interview approximately 15 - 20 minutes. A set of open-ended guide questions were derived from the literature, the personal and professional experiences of the third participant, and conversations with colleagues and parents.

Relevant data from students' OSR (Ontario Student Record) was also used as a data source.


From the interviews conducted, it was possible to discern that there was treatment as an individual, a person with characteristics, and as a person labeled as Other. Analysis under this dichotomy resulted in the formation of categories which are broken down into the subcategories of: Social-emotional, Academic, Labeling, and Membership. The discussion below begins with Social-Emotional.

Social Emotional

Participants called attention to the social-emotional dimension of child development. While the perception of parents buttressed the notion of the child as a person with definite social and emotional needs, the system view used these same needs to promote the notion of the child as Other.

Both parents agreed that their child's social and emotional needs appeared to be better addressed in regular classes than in alternate placement. Nawad's mother observes:

When he was growing up he was very good . . . He was such a nice boy. He played nicely with everyone. A few times he bit kids, but he was very nice . . . At first the teacher was punishing Nawad. One day, my husband came to pick him up, and all the other kids were setting in the classroom eating lunch, and Nawad was sitting at the door. He didn't like going to school after. Of course he was silly, but he is a kid . . . He is very kind, very honest. He's just a regular kid.

Clearly, she perceives her child as similar to others--"just a regular kid" capable and well adjusted in a regular class. Yet, she acknowledges that the system, rather than accepting and supporting the child's unique social and emotional needs and valuing social interaction, ostracised difference.

My own observations and records of Nawad supports this parent's perception of her child. Upon meeting Nawad, I observed he had a wonderful sense of humour, was playful, and interacted well with others. He worked well with his classmates, and even undertook leadership roles in small group situations though he often engaged in attention-seeking and sometimes inappropriate behaviour. I did not consider alternative placement. Retrospectively, I recognize that both his mother and I treated Nawad as an individual.

Salma's mother also viewed her as a child first of all and observes of Salma's early years:

Salma seem normal child. She play with her sister and brother. They are normal--they don't have a problem learning. She fight with them like normal child . . . She learn Urdu from baby. We speak Urdu at home. I didn't know something wrong until she come to school in Senior Kindergarten. They say she have lots of problems in class . . . that she not fit in with class . . . She is my child. I love her. I want the best for her.

This parent also perceives her child as being more normal than does the school system. Salma's behaviour is viewed by her mother as typical of most youngsters. Salma's social and emotional needs appear to have been understood, and met, until she entered school. Linguistically, this student is mastering two languages which would be seen as an indication of ability by most observers. The school, however, sees difference and Otherness. Salma does not fit in and, consequently, her withdrawal from the regular classroom is proposed.

My own perceptions of Salma confirm the positive psycho-social aspects of learning. She was a wide-eyed, active, playful student--not different from others. She laughed easily and played fairly well with others. She seemed very enthusiastic and excited to be in school. I quickly discovered that she had unique learning needs, but endeavoured to meet them as bet I could in her regular placement. She enjoyed being in my class and found it a very sociable environment for her. She clearly learned best in the company of her peers, and needed to be with them. As her mother observes:

She work well with another person . . If she is with another person, she concentrates more . . . She like to have friends with her, to feel important, liked. Salma likes when she does good work. If you tell her she does good, she tries harder . . .Same as most kids . . .

In her interview, the Special Education teacher supported these views, and seemed aware of Salma as an individual. Yet, in official meetings (IPRC) she put these perceptions aside. She recommended full time placement in a special school, an Othering process.

[In her early years] she needed to be with others. [But] I think withdrawal was the best thing for her. It had to be. I think the full time placement was definitely needed. She'd be placed in a class with students at her level. The teacher can program at her rate of progress . . . I certainly see Salma as being successful. She has a lot of positive qualities, things about her personality . . . her family life, and with the support she gets from her grade three teacher and her special education teacher, she'll be okay. That's not the case for all special education students. She just had a bubbly light about her that's going to take her through.

At the IPRC meeting, opinions expressed by other educators were very clear as well. They maintained that an alternate placement would be in Salma's best interest--that she would flourish I that surrounding. Their focus was on Salma's academic progress in the regular classroom and they found it unacceptable. Academically, Salma was Other.

Bunch (1999) comments on this focus among educators in an analysis on separation due to difference in learning ability:

It strikes us as strange that educators find so many students to be [unacceptable in their academic learning], emphasize that they are too different to learn as do their peers, remove them from the presence of their friends and bus them out of their communities, all in pursuit of making them less different and assisting them to fit into society. (p. 1)

"Strange", perhaps, because, as Vygotsky observes, "teaching and learning is a social affair. Neither is possible without other people" (cited in Bunch, 1999, p. 33). Further, Bunch observes that "it simply is preferable and better to educate all students together. All the teachers teaching inclusively today prove that inclusion is possible and practical" (Bunch, 1999, p. 1). Positive interdependence in the development of social skills, and face to face interaction of students are necessary for all students.

Nonetheless, the system's response to students whose academic achievement levels differ is to segregate and create Otherness. In the construction of an Other, then, "us" "them" relations are validated/perpetuated. Further, society's rejection and exclusion of people with a developmental disability denies them access to positive relationships with others in a classroom community of tolerance and acceptance (Raymond, 1995).


The children's parents knew that there were academic concerns, as did the teacher. In response to these concerns, they advocated for a "self" and focused on abilities and needs, a flexible curriculum and support. The system view, in the creation of an Other, articulated limits, deficits, and outcomes.

While both parents spoke of their children's continuing struggle in the education system, they also called attention to their needs and abilities. Nawad's mother acknowledges: He needs extra time to finish most things. He is very slow. He needs help focusing but he is very smart. If you work with him, or have someone work with him, he likes that and he does well. He likes to read. He is a good reader.

Salma's mother also shows evidence of knowing her child and observes:

When she work at home, I try to make things easier for her. . . We can make things simpler for her to learn . . . Like making it to her level, so she can do it. She likes to do same work as class almost . . .She likes to work with her hands. She likes puzzles. Give her things she likes and she is happy and she does well. She is active. She likes to move around. She need time to get up and move around. Yes, she is different. She learn different than others . . . She is making small progress . . .

Recognizing their child's individual learning styles, these parents advocate the importance of modifying tasks to suit individual needs. The curriculum, then, is seen to be flexible. As Bunch (1999) observes, "the secret to successful modification is flexibility. View the curriculum as a pliable guide which may be shaped to the needs of the student" (p. 29). In this manner, as Armstrong (1994) states, "all [learners] can be guided to higher levels, if their strengths [and needs] are recognized" (cited in Bunch, 1999, p. 98). Thus, "student-centred teaching is . . . a practice that will benefit all . . . students. In essence, it is simply good teaching" (Bunch, 1999), p. 28).

Bunch (1999) also writes of an "accessible curriculum . . The view of curriculum as a continuous process of learning in any area is preferred for inclusive classrooms" (p. 25). If an insightful, inclusive, effective teacher adopts a flexible approach to teaching and learning and "goes where the student is . . . students will do better" (Bunch, 1999, p. 31). Considering the essential knowledge to be gained, learning needs and styles, and modifying lessons permit students to learn effectively. Without doubt, "expecting a child to fit into a set curriculum at any grade is a prescription for frustration for the teacher and failure for the child . . . The curriculum is not our master. It is our servant in education" (Bunch, 1999, p. 25). This is a strong student-centred view which recognizes needs but also honours the child as a learner.

In my teaching practices, I attempted to support these learners by modifying curriculum outcomes, thus assisting Nawad and Salma to achieve success at their levels. I believed self-esteem to be a critical element of learning and viewed it as my job to keep them excited and interested to be in school. I noticed how happy both were when they were successful. The key, then, was to ask how each learned best, and to program accordingly.

Here, my own perceptions of Nawad and Salma warrant consideration. It is my belief that Nawad is an extremely bright student. I observed that when he was interested in an article, he would read it--without being distracted. I saw him concentrate, so I knew his interest could be caught. That he could have Attention Deficit Disorder never entered my mind. Early in the academic year, however, I observed that Nawad was not always focused during lessons. His work often remained incomplete. He worked extremely slowly. I was reluctant to arrive at any conclusions. Rather, I was interested in having Nawad participate in the process of this own learning. I endeavoured to facilitate learning. With some success, learning situations were modified. Nawad continued to require significant teacher and peer support to complete most tasks. If given the requisite support, he achieved a degree of success. I organized his time and space, seating him close to the source of instruction, and structuring assignments into achievable steps. On reflection, I see that I focused on Nawad as a child--a person with is own "self."

A sense of compassion was also required in my attempts to facilitate Salma's learning. Early in the year, I consulted with the Special Education teacher to see where she thought Salma was academically, and to inform her of that which our class was working on. I tried my best to get away from compartmentalized learning--the Othering proposal of Salma learning language and math in a specialized setting. I noticed great gains over the course of the year. Yet, at Special Education meetings participants focused on her disability: "She's slow . . . she'll never catch up . . . we have to give her R's [a Remedial label] because that'll show that she needs a different school placement" (vice-principal). It was the same "academic difference means that the student is Other" views discussed previously.

During our interview, I sensed that Salma's mother also sometimes wished for a "standard" child. It appeared that she was frustrated with her child's learning, or lack thereof. During the year, I recall her asking me to give Salma the same homework as others. When I did send it home, it was returned the next day having been completed by mother. She desperately wanted her child to be like her other children who had been very successful in school. It appears that Salma's mother occupies an ambiguous position; she vacillates between the categories of self and other. While recognizing her child's abilities and needs, and acknowledging the importance of a flexible curriculum and teacher and peer support, she sometimes engaged in the discourse of normality:

I think she will be okay. I think she will be normal if we work hard . . . But Vice-Principal explain that Salma should go to special school. She learn better there, he said . . . I think here at XXX Salma is not learning the same as other children. My other two do well in school. They get A's and B's. Salma gets D's and R's. I think it's time to try other school. I try this one for four years. I try other one . . . Maybe she get A's and B's there.

In the discourse of normality, Us-Them relations are perpetuated. Clearly, the system's insistence on the importance of letter grades has permeated this parent's consciousness and affects her decision-making abilities. As Sarason (1982) suggests, "the sense of unworthiness people may have because of . . . lack of achievement reflects how well society inculcates in us its importance" (p. 262).

For school officials, academic achievement is paramount and the curriculum is perceived as static. They highlight academic gaps. The Special Education teacher observes of Salma's perceived limits:

There were definite gaps in her skills . . . and she didn't have the abstract reasoning skills . . . She was very aware of her disability. It's very difficult for anyone to come to terms with Salma's disability . . . Everybody is capable of learning . . . Special Education students learn in different ways . . . At the public school level . . . it doesn't put unfair expectations on the students when they're asked to do things they're not capable of doing. They're not seen as just dumb and lazy . . . Letting her go now while she's still positive is good. She can't get the curriculum now. I think that a special placement is necessary in Salma's case. It will help the teacher understand and put her learning in a context that they can teach her.

The above illustrates the system's focus on diagnosing Salma's disability and chronicling her perceived deficits.

Biklen (1992) observes that the school records of the disabled are often "littered with deficit labels and statements that sound more like conclusions than prognosis" (p. 10). Thus, as Fairbanks (1992) proposes, "their failure becomes the overriding characteristic by which we identify them . . . Preoccupation with students' failings makes it difficult to notice their strengths" (p. 476). (This is true for the school records of these two children. Every report and discussion is deficit focused.) Further, this perceived inability of disabled students to access the regular curriculum necessitates the formation of a separate curriculum whose essential knowledge consists of life skills. For instance, the Speech and Language Pathologist observes:

She gets social skills in a regular class, but not life skills. Salma can't keep up. The regular setting won't teach her street skills. Right now, she's willing, agreeable, she has an attention span (be it small). Later, she'll be nowhere near the others. Letting her go right now while she's still positive is good. She can't get the curriculum now. At her new placement, she'll get modified academic programs at her level.

The negative perception of disabled students' cognitive abilities result largely from the practice of labeling.


The notion of labeling was discussed by participants. Views were sharply dichotomous. Those who questioned labeling, the parents, the children, and myself, called attention to the school and the medical profession as identifiers in the labeling process, and spoke of the negative effects of labels. The system view, however, maintained strict adherence to the labeling model through treatment and management of a perceived problem.

Both parents described the labeling of their child by the education and medical systems as one of testing and diagnosis. In this psycho-educational/medical model, the school is the identifier and subsequent medical intervention buttresses the practice of labeling these students as Other. Nawad's mother observes:

In the last term of grade two, the teacher told me to take him to the doctor. And I did. The teacher fill out a questionnaire and I had to fill one out. The doctor see him. The doctor gives him the pills because he said Nawad had ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder). There was a nurse in the school and the nurse give the medication. He was so slow . . . He was sad. He was sitting there and just looking around. Not the same boy. He was behaving like they wanted him to behave, like a robot. The teacher was now praising him that he was good. I feel very bad and sad for him. They force him and me. The school was not very supportive.

Here, the teacher/doctor was best able to diagnose and treat a perceived medical condition. A label is attached and a medicated, compliant Nawad is now viewed positively by his teacher. The parent, however, sees that the labeling process an subsequent treatment had adverse effects on the child. She perceives that the system has created a robot child.

Clearly, the beliefs and actions of medical and educational systems collaborate in the creation of Other. Nawad's mother states:

Before he start this school, I took him to another doctor. When he saw Nawad, he said he doesn't have ADHD. When he went, the doctor said if he have ADHD, he wouldn't sit quietly like that . . . He's not hyperactive. So, he's fine, no medication, nothing . . . But when you were sick, I went back to the pediatrician after the [supply] teacher was complaining and he said that Nawad was ADD. He gave me the pills. I give him only half a pill. He is working better . . . I don't want to tell him when he is focusing and doing his work very good . . . that it's because of the pills. Then he will take that and always depend on it.

A second opinion by another medical professional has revealed that a possible mis-diagnosis/mis-labeling may have occurred. Yet, upon reviewing Nawad's failure to conform to the expectations of the supply teacher, the same physician appears to change his mind and attaches a new label. This is a clear illustration of the position of power that the system wields of those Othered.

Salma's mother also recounted how the educational and medical systems identified her child as Other. She recalls clearly the application of diagnostic labels and the push for alternative placement early in Salma's schooling.

I don't know something wrong until she come to school in Senior Kindergarten in 1995. They say she have lots of problems in class . . . [that] she is slow, she have trouble remembering things. So they have her see Special Education teacher. In 1996 I go to Sick Kids Hospital to see doctor and he say she need speech therapy and she slow . . . Special Education teacher too say she have problems with memory . . . This year they have meeting. They say at the IPRC that she mildly intellectually disabled. So she go now to Educable placement at another school

The push to labeling and segregation is a dynamic well recognized in the literature. The above description is consistent with Slee's (1993) observation that in "the embracing of a medical model, by special education, . . . learners' deficits are diagnosed, labeled and treatment is prescribed and delivered by experts outside of the classroom" (p. 356). Further, as Bak, Cooper, Dobroth, ad Siperstien (1987) propose, in special class placement the "placements themselves may act as de facto labels" (p. 152). Othered by virtue of placement, then, the student experiences adverse effects to self-concept, lowered self-esteem and motivation to learn, with resultant feelings of devaluation and rejection (Hallahan & Kauffman, 1994). This is evident in Salma's response that other students are smart and she is different. She states, "I always go to a different room. I do other work. They work together. I work with Mrs. X [Special Education teacher]. I'm not too smart."

It is thus apparent that the meanings attached to labels are often negative and stigmatizing, and foster stereotypes of the individual being labeled. Further, labels and categories of difference often result in a self-fulfilling prophecy "encouraging the deviant to conform to our view of what such people are like" (Perusin, 1994, p. 84).


The notion of membership was highlighted by participants. Parents largely expressed feelings of exclusion. The system, in viewing parents as adversaries, fostered exclusion and positioned them as Other, as it had their children, thus eliminating any possibility of viewing the student or the parent as real people.

Parents were aware of this. They perceived that they were excluded as members of their child's educational team and spoke of the pressure exerted by the system. Nawad's mother observes:

The doctor told me to sign. He told me Nawad had ADHD. He told me and didn't explain what it was, what I have to do. No advice. He just gave me the medication and that was that . . . When you were away, every day the teacher complained. She told me there's a class. She told me she's talking with the teacher to take him. She was complaining too much, that he's bothering other kids. So I give up, but thankfully it didn't come to that because you came back.

Salma's mother adds:

Speech teacher not want to see Salma again. I get angry with her because at meeting she not speaking to me. She speaking to teacher when I meet her. I try to ask questions but she not letting me talk. I feel stupid. This year, they have meeting. I don't know what's going on. I don't understand what they saying. They want me to sign papers. The vice principal give papers to Salma and tell Salma for me to sign. I not sign first time. They make me sign papers. He explain that Salma should go to special school. She learn better there, he said . . . I did not see whole school. The vice principal was happy when I sign.

Far from being partners in their children's learning and schooling, both parents described how forced compliance was achieved. Due to the discourse, resistance, and pressure of school officials, these parents were effectively powerless when decisions were being made about the location in which their child will receive educational services. This is a recognized dynamic among observers of the special education process. Bunch (1999) observes the inequity of parent-system interactions: "Parents, and students when they are of age to contribute to discussion, have not been accorded a seat at the table where placement decisions are made . . . The voice of parents and students remain second to those of educators and administrators" (p. 151). Without doubt, in the absence of dialogue, the ability of parents to advocate for their child is significantly reduced. Once again, the voices of those Othered by the system are muffled--silenced.

It appears, then, that he school response, in creating Otherness, pays lip-service only to both the child's needs and those of the parent and, instead, advances the needs of the system. In Salma's case, the reason for denying membership and participation becomes an issue of unfavourable personality. The Special Education teacher relates her perceptions of Salma's mother:

The mom was very abrasive--her personality. I think she ran into trouble with the Speech Language Pathologist . . . [who] refused to deal with her . . . But it's hard to say whose fault it was . . . [Mom] did have an abrasive personality.

The Vice Principal concurs:

Mom's a wicked woman. She still thinks Salma will develop normally . . . [When we give her the tour of the other school], pray she doesn't see an autistic child or she'll say no. I could see that happening. Then we're in trouble . . . Mom's an intelligent woman . . . If she signed it [the papers], Salma might just return here. I wouldn't be surprised.

It was my observation that pupil placement decision meetings appeared to be formalities; school officials had the mind set that Salma was going to the other school. The outcome was, it seemed, determined--a fait accompli--as there was little dialogue other than how best to obtain the requisite parental signature of approval so Salma could be transferred to another setting. As the teacher of the children, my recommendations were ignored. I felt coerced. I felt both excluded and pressured to comply. Most emphatically, I was aware of my dual role as a teacher on their "side"--and complicant with the system--and as an advocate of inclusion. As a new teacher, I seemed to be treading on dangerous ground--insider and outsider--that necessitated a degree of creative manoeuvring if I was to obtain my permanent teaching contract. I did not wan to be labeled as a trouble-maker. Yet, to participate in the Othering process, the education system's denial of Salma's right to learn in a regular class with her peers, ran counter to my values and beliefs. I recall being in great angst over this circumstance. I felt responsible, implicated and helpless.


Here, I tease out and highlight aspects of Nawad's and Salma's experience. Following will be a discussion and comparison of my own experiences.

In the preceding pages, I have articulated the tensions that exist between Other and self/child, and how the school system, in creating Otherness, devalues, excludes, and marginalizes students with disabilities. Rather than viewing the child as a person with social and emotional needs, the notion of Other was advanced by school officials. Clearly, the school system sought normalization and defined this as achieving at class level and behaving as did all other students. Due to difference in learning ability and behavior, those Othered were denied access to the regular classroom community.

In focusing, almost exclusively, on disability, the school system articulated limits, deficits, and outcomes. Instead of highlighting capacities, deficiencies were highlighted. Without doubt, school officials appeared to be locked into an inflexible, standardized model in which those labeled Other have no place.

The system appeared oblivious to the resultant negative aspects of the labeling process. Moreover, in labeling the student with a disability as Other, the school system embraced the medical model-one of testing and diagnosis, and prescription of treatment. Once diagnostic labels were applied, treatment was prescribed and delivered by experts outside the regular classroom. Stated most bluntly, then, alternate placement-exclusion--was the school system's response to those labeled Other.

In fostering exclusion and positioning Salma and Nawad as Other, the education system ignored those who might otherwise have been active participants in the placement decision: parents, their children with disabilities, and the regular classroom teacher. School officials appeared to view Nawad and Salma's parents as adversaries. In the absence of meaningful dialogue with these parents, the latter's ability to advocate on their child's behalf was reduced. They were Othered and, effectively, rendered powerless. Moreover, school officials ignored the teacher's view that, with appropriate modifications, Salma and Nawad could benefit from regular classroom placement. Although Salma and Nawad voiced ideas and opinions about remaining in the class, they were ignored. Further, the system routinely did not appear to value the teacher's observations and recommendations, as evidenced by special education "team" meetings in which the regular classroom teacher was not invited to attend.

In focusing almost exclusively on Nawad and Salma's perceived cognitive and behavioral deficits, school officials (Special Education teacher, Speech and Language Pathologist, Vice-Principal) rationalized that a segregated environment would be in the best interest of these students. While their rationale was often couched in benevolent educational rhetoric, analysis reveals that school officials clearly viewed Nawad and Salma as unacceptable in their academic learning-too different to learn as do regular students-and thus constructed them as Other.

Constructed as Other by the school and medical systems, Nawad and Salma were no longer viewed as children. Rather than admitting and examining their unique needs and abilities, a quasi-medical diagnosis and psychological assessment were used to place these students into special education settings. Membership and partnership, then, were not extended to Nawad and Salma, their parents, or the regular classroom teacher. The school system appeared concerned only with alternate placement of Others.


Sarason (1982) observes that "the recognition, understanding, and acceptance of diversity are among the most important experiences any person can have" (cited in Raymond, 1995, p. 78). The celebration of diversity and difference in a climate of tolerance, respect, and gratitude makes inclusion "an opportunity and a catalyst for building a better, more humane, and democratic system" (Bunch, 1999, p. 7). The educational and medical system's response to difference results in the creation, and subsequent marginalization, exclusion, and devaluation, of Otherness. The results of this study suggest that the education system must respond to difference in more appropriate ways. It is necessary to re-examine and interrogate the Special Education model in terms of Othering and its use. The following implications are considered: Curriculum, teacher education and training, school organization, and parents as partners.

Curricular and Instructional Considerations

The findings of this study clearly support the view that curriculum must be accessible in order to be effective. Bunch (1999) asserts that "the view of the curriculum as a continuous process of learning in any area is preferred for inclusive classrooms . . . The curriculum is not our master. It is our servant in education" (p. 25). An accessible curriculum represents a flexible approach to teaching and learning as being able to be shaped to individual learning needs. A flexible curriculum--modifications and adaptations of curriculum--honours to child as learner, versus constructing the child as Other. In student-centred teaching, student-specific curricular outcomes are identified and diverse instructional support is provided for diverse learners.

A flexible curriculum responds to diversity. With requisite instructional support/accommodation of learning needs, the curriculum becomes accessible and all students benefit from regular class placement--regardless of disability. The current special education model subscribes in limited ways to new ideas such as the theory of multiple intelligences. Rather, standardized testing practices, through reliance on sheer factual recall, function to pigeon-hole students. In advancing the notion of Other, the system proceeds with the tacit understanding that not all children are learners and demonstrates a limited understanding of success.

Without doubt, the notion of success must be reconceptualized for, as Coleman (1992) notes, "success for one student may not be defined in the same way as for another. . . [Success] will fall on a continuum, and what is most important is that students are progressing on that continuum" (cited in Mahony, 1997, p. 62). Thus, a flexible curriculum allows for the participation in collaborative, meaningful, and positive interactions and learning experiences that affirm a student's sense of self while gaining essential knowledge and achieving success at his/her own level. The use of portfolios, modifications, and adaptations of curriculum to suit individual learning styles, peer tutoring, and co-operative learning, all of which are intrinsic to the inclusive approach, open up more opportunities for social and academic success.

Teacher education and training

In light of the findings of this study, it is proposed that teacher education and training must be re-conceptualized. The pedagogical practices and overall structures of teacher training programs do not adequately prepare teachers to meet the needs of diverse learners. Beginning teachers are not equipped with the ability to plan and implement inclusionary practices and strategies. Mercer, Lane, Jordan, Allsopp and Eisele (1996) observe that "by limiting the focus of preparation programs to either students with disabilities or students without disabilities, we have limited the scope of choices in instructional methodology" (p. 234). Thus, the provision of effective instruction so that every learner benefits is often not a reality.

Udvari-Solner (1996) notes that "improved classroom practice . . . requires significant innovation and change in daily instructional approaches" (p. 245). Central to an understanding of inclusion is the awareness of diverse student needs and the possibilities of creative pedagogies that empower teachers and students. Indeed, choices that promote learning rest on the provision of a variety of experiences and instructional strategies--an expansive pedagogical repertoire--flexible and responsive instruction design and implementation. Yet, as King-Sears and Cummings (1996) observe, "the challenge is to increase educators' comfort level so that multiple sound methods become everyday occurrences in classrooms" [(p. 24) emphasis mine]. In a similar vein, Bunch (1999) acknowledges that "the move to realizing the benefits of multiple intelligences does not require manifold change in . . . teaching. It does require widening . . . [the teacher's] view of what intelligence is and then directing instruction to needs and abilities" (p. 102). Teachers' clear perceptions of their own pedagogical practices, then, is paramount.

Udvari-Solner (1996) observes that "the presence of a student with . . . disabilities often becomes the catalyst for teachers to examine critically instructional purpose, methods, and outcomes for all children" (p. 245). Britzman (1991) asserts that "to retheorize our practices . . . we attend to the double problem of changing ourselves and transforming our circumstances" (p. 239). Unfortunately, in service education and pre service training do not extend strongly to examining ways in which teachers understand their practices. Teachers must engage in reflective practice and reflective dialogue through which "individuals are stimulated and encouraged to review, critique, and question the context of their classroom practices" (Udvari-Solner, 1996, p. 247). Educators must be aware of their won practice if they wish to enhance student learning.

School Organization

The education system's approach to students with disabilities is technocratic in nature; the notion of "expert" or "specialist" characterizes special education dialogue and practices. As Slee (1993) notes, "where there exists a specialist service presided over by trained experts the teacher is deskilled, believing, often with some sense of relief, that they no longer have to put up with this particular category of child" (p. 356). He observes that this approach contrasts sharply with schools in rural settings, for "as more contained intimate communities, they commence from the point of valuing and sharing responsibility for all of their children" (Slee, 1993, p. 358).

The absence of collaboration and dialogue among team members often results in "miscommunication and misunderstanding of expected responsibilities and outcomes" (Udvari-Solner, 1996, p. 246). Clearly, a collaborative approach is needed in order to promote enhanced understanding of the diverse learning needs in inclusive classrooms.

Parents as Partners

Hunt and Goetz (1997) assert that "parental involvement is an essential component of effective inclusive schooling" (p. 25). Indeed, "increased parent involvement is associated with more positive parental attitudes towards teachers and schools, more positive student attitudes and behaviours, improvements in student performance, improved teacher morale, and enriched school climate" (Sussell, Carr & Hartman, 1996, p. 53). The awareness and participation of parents as members of a child's education team, then, are critical. Often, however, parents are not valued members of their chid's educational team and the parent-school relationship is adversarial and antagonistic. Educators sometimes feel threatened by sharing power with parents. The latter remain on the periphery, essentially powerless when placement decisions are made regarding their Othered child.

Communication and collaboration between teachers and parents is central to an active partnership--and to successful inclusion. Parents must be assured that their input is valued and that their support is essential. The must be invited as members, key participants, in their child's educational program in order to act as advocates both for themselves and for their children (Sussell, Carr, & Hartman, 1996). It is incumbent upon educators, then, to be responsive to the needs parents express and to play a supportive role. As Sussell, Carr, and Hartman (1996) observe "teaching parents the importance of effective communication skills and methods of problem-solving will work only if school staff are also committed to the process" (p. 56).

Notwithstanding the heterogeneity of interests and identities present in the inclusion debate, the rights of children to learn with their peers must be acknowledged. Stated most bluntly, educators have a professional, personal and social responsibility to ensure that all students attend regular classes in their neighbourhood schools. Inclusion is about listening to and honouring the voices of the margins--the voices of those rejected, excluded and Othered. It represents the struggle for agency for those left out of the dialogue. Inclusion is the effort to break silences and create spaces for engagement and being, spaces for speaking, so that the voices of difference may participate in the dialogue and engage actively in their own learning. With love, commitment, activism and support, those we Other might find strength in their struggle to regain self and voice.


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