Scot Danforth, Professor and Assistant Dean of Research in the College of Educational Studies at Chapman University, is a well-known scholar working in the fields of disability studies in education, and inclusive education. He is author or editor of over seventy publications, including ten books. His scholarship examines political and ethical issues involving disabled young people and schooling.
Interviewer, Lisa Boskovich, is a graduate research assistant at the Thompson Policy Institute (TPI) on Disability and Autism at Chapman University.
Does the Disability Studies (DS) movement need another figure like the father of DS, Ed Roberts, to create changes and move torward progress?
In my current research, I have been reading the many online oral histories at the Bancroft Library, accounts of the early disability rights movement participants at UC-Berkeley. I started noticing that many of the participants point to Ed Robert’s leadership while also assuming he was involved in every forward step the movement made. But the actual details of the stories they tell often have Ed at the periphery with many other people (such as John Hessler) taking leadership roles at different times and for different purposes. Then I read Hale Zukas’ oral history, and he confirmed my suspicion by basically saying that Ed Robert’s role was smaller than what people tend to imagine.
Ed Roberts was undoubtedly an important leader, and he was often eloquent and influential. But our desire to find a single MLK-like hero has perhaps driven us to give him credit for many positive accomplishments that were carried out by other people whose names do not roll of our lips.
So, no, we don’t need a single named leader or hero now. We need what we needed then, many people in many places doing the daily work that pushes the ball down the field.
Is it a matter of DS organizations coming together more to create change and move beyond labeling one another, and have a united voice?
There is always a need for greater unity across the disparate elements of the disability rights movement. But I don’t want to overstate the role that DS plays. I think that DS has helped in two ways. First, people who attend universities can now have access to some very challenging ideas about disability that were not available before the development of DS. We can attack prejudice and stigma through our university teaching, thereby influencing the broader culture. Second, I think the ideas born of the disability rights movement have gained finer and larger articulation through the work of academics. The original disability rights leaders in the 1960’s and 1970’s developed the kernels of some revolutionary ideas, and DS scholars pick those ideas up, develop them more fully, and create more complex and rich articulations that build up and forward. But I don’t want to pretend that DS propels the disability rights movement. The actual disability rights organizations (e.g. ADAPT, National Federation for the Blind, World Institute on Disability, the many independent living centers, etc.) do that very practical work.
What are your current areas of research?
I’m focusing on exploring how the origins of the independent living movement (a subset of the disability rights movement) developed at UC-Berkeley in the 1960’s. I am trying to document and narrate the growth of the ideas as well as the social organization that fueled the disability rights movement. I’m working currently on exploring how the Rolling Quads, the first UC-Berkeley disabled student activists, became politicized, how they transformed an old notion of disability as personal tragedy into the brash and uppity idea that disabled people could unite to gain access to all avenues of American life.
In your research in the narrative of the independent living movement, have you discovered any information that surprised you or caused you to ask why?
I’m fascinated by the task of figuring out what others achieved and contributed. I’m also concerned that so little of what I’m learning is taught to special educators (or any educators, for that matter). The special educators learn a brief history that involves parents, a few lawsuits, and some big federal legislation. But the work of the many disabled people fighting for their own rights is not taught to special educators. We have to wonder why it isn’t.
How can the future of DS move forward?
The field of educational psychology (now called the learning sciences) has built up decades of research about how children learn and the best ways to teach many different kinds of skills and content. The field of special education has created a parallel, smaller line of research on learning and teaching with application to kids with disabilities. These two strands of research have remained greatly separate with the learning sciences people using cognitive science and sociocultural theory and the special education people using behavioral theory and some cognitive theory. I would argue that special education research misses out on and ignores the great research done in the learning sciences. Simultaneously, the learning scientists blandly assume the kids with disabilities are covered by the special education research. Meanwhile, the learning sciences have been working on complex issues of cultural, linguistic, and economic differences that greatly prepares that field to address any kind of human difference. What is needed is for the two parallel, separated fields to become one field that looks at learning and teaching while respecting and exploring human differences of all kinds.
How do you envision that occurring?
A person on the forefront of this work is Rachel Lambert. Informed by DSE, she and her colleague at NC State work on how to teach math to nondisabled kids and kids with LD in the same class. They toss aside the old notion of LD as cognitive deficit and employs more flexible and appreciative understandings of LD within a class of diversity. The basic idea is that you don’t have two types of learnings, normal and disabled, the former receiving standard instruction and the latter getting something different or something more. You have a wide range of learners with a variety of needs that can be addressed through an engaging and responsive pedagogy.
Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with Dr. Rachel Lambert.
This concludes part two of a two part interview with Scot Danforth, Ph.D.