Disability: The ‘Naturalized’ Silence by Holly Pearson

These are some thoughts on disability, social justice and education that I am exploring during my first semester in the doctoral education program. The vision(s) of social justice and education are highly individualistic due to the diverse backgrounds and experiences of the people involved. All of those involved embody the commonality to imagine the possibilities in social justice and education. Coming from a disability studies background, the lens of disability shapes my understanding of social justice, education, and my personal experiences. Before continuing my thoughts, I wish to clarify what I mean by disability. The definition of disability that most are acquainted with is the biological deficiencies or limitations that affect the everyday life. In the disability studies field, disability is a social phenomenon that is constructed by society, culture, history, and politics. Accessibility, technology, inclusion, oppression, normalcy, and identity are some of the common disability topics explored. This raises the question of: what can disability teach us and contribute to social justice and education?

First, I would like to describe a personal experience to provide a visual example in order to center my reflection on disability, social justice, and education. I wish to recognize that I have significant hearing loss where I wear a hearing aid on one side, and I am deaf on the other side. One of the accommodations that I request in the classroom is closed captions on any media such as videos or DVDs. For one of my courses, the professor was adamant about not sending off the videos to get them closed captioned because the videos were quite old. I agreed to transcripts, which means while watching the video, I look back and forth from the transcripts to the screen in attempt to follow the dialogue. The first time we watched a video, the professor handed me the transcripts and proceeded to shut off the light as the video started. I sat there in the dark struggling to understand why the professor did not realize that I could not read the transcripts in the dark. I did not want to disrupt the class, so I used the light from the laptop that was next to me as a flashlight. After the video was over, the professor turned the lights back on and asked people to discuss what thoughts they had on the video. There was no recognition or dialogue about what had occurred.

There are multitudes of interpretations that can be drawn from this particular experience, but I wish to focus on two things. First, I wish to explore how the disability lens of the taken-for-granted notion helps us understand what occurred when the professor turned off the light after starting the video. There is nothing unusual about turning off the lights when we watch a video at home, in the classroom, or at the movie theater. I am not sure why we do so because I am the odd one here where I actually like to watch my movies or shows in a fully lit room. What is interesting is how automatic that action was. The professor handed me the transcripts knowing that I was going to be reading along with the video while proceeding to shut off the light. How often do we do something without thinking about why we do something in the first place? Shutting off the light with no afterthought reflects the taken-for-granted notion.

Let me take a step back to disability before I resume my thoughts. Disability is seen as something that needs to be fixed. Disability services provide accommodations that enable the student to ‘overcome’ their disability by presenting alternative ways of doing things such as closed captions, interpreters, longer exam times, adaptive technologies, and so on. Once the student is able to participate in the classroom without any further issues, there is no further discussion of disability. Disability is only thought about in terms of demonstrating that one has a legitimate disability and requesting specific accommodations. After students obtain the services they require, there is no further discussion about the disability unless another issue arises. In other words, there is no need to talk about disability unless there is a barrier issue such as access, inclusion, accommodations, oppression, and equality. Disability is not present unless an issue is in tow.

Returning to my previous thought, in the exchange for receiving the transcripts, there was an unspoken agreement that there was no longer a disability hindrance. There was no need of any further discussion or thoughts on disability as symbolized by the professor’s action of turning off the light. To turn off the light so the room was dark for the video signifies the message about disability: once the disability is fixed, it is swept under the cover of invisibility. This raises the questions: Why is this the case? Why is there this unchallenged notion that there is nothing relevant about disability? These questions bring me to the second point I wish to consider.

Utilizing disability as a lens highlights the importance of critically examining the things that we take for granted on a daily basis. I wish to recognize that disability studies have gained ground in problematizing disability, but that is not the case outside of disability studies, which is reflected in the curriculum, diversity discussions, and disability services. Within the curriculum, Linton (1998) notes, “Yet, outside the disability studies literature, it is barely ‘unpacked.’ Disability has become, then, like a guest invited to a party but never introduced” (88). Olkin (2003) recognizes that disability “received the lowest amount of coverage among diversity issues” (297). Within educational institutions, there are organizations that address diversity such as: multicultural centers; specific racial, ethnic, or religious groups, or GBLT centers. These organizations enable a space for individuals to find others like themselves, to be involved in events or causes, or to have a safe place to talk about their concerns. Disability services provide accommodations, but not a space to talk about disability. In my experience, there is the assumption that you do not talk about your disability beyond getting the accommodations that you need. Why would anyone want to explore the meaning of disability or to problematize disability? In other words, there is nothing relevant about disability, so why talk about it? What I am trying to convey is there are intersecting elements that reinforce the hegemonic notion that disability is not something that we need to talk about.

Bringing together the taken-for-granted notion, my personal experience, and my thoughts, I hope to draw attention to the need to grapple with our understanding of disability. Social justice, education, and disability recognize the significance of critical reflection and the need to envision, and to communicate. We wrestle with our thoughts through exchanges of dialogue, reading each other’s works, and creating platforms to communicate ideas to the greater society. Through my experience, I hope to illustrate the need to consciously practice thinking and talking (this is not to indicate solely oral communication) about disability in order to deconstruct the ingrained naturalized silence of disability. Social justice education needs to embody what disability has to offer, and not just in terms of seeing the diversity of impairments (not to say this is not important), but as a lens to reexamine an issue and to offer a different perspective. In other words, social justice and education need to consider: what we can learn from disability.


Linton, S. (1998). Claiming disability: Knowledge and identity. New York: New York University Press

Olkin, R. (2008). Women with physical disabilities who want to leave their partners: a feminist and disability-affirmative perspective. Women and Therapy, 26(3/4), 237-246

Holly Pearson is a doctoral student in the Chapman University Ph.D Education program. She obtained her M.S. in Sociology from Iowa State University, and a B.A. in Sociology from University of Fairbanks Alaska. Her areas of interests are Disability Studies, Education, Social Justice, and Race and Ethnicity. Presently she is exploring how disability is constructed within the everyday life. Feel free to contact her at: pears122@mail.chapman.edu.

Originally published on the CSJE Blog on Tumblr.

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