Learning Disability—A Social Approach, edited by David G. Race. London: Routledge, 2002.
In the early 1990s, a new degree course in learning difficulties (which, in the United States is called mental retardation) was developed at Stockport College in the United Kingdom. Editor David Race, in the introduction to this book, describes the connection of the book's development to that course: first it was necessary to (a) create a textbook that would be useful for undergraduates and (b) transmit the kind of energy the authors perceived to arise from active engagement in the practical aspects of the field. Thus, Race reasons, the book embodies an inevitable tension between academic acceptability and a teaching approach relying heavily upon students and people with learning difficulties for its values and direction. In particular, the course at Stockport was designed to take advantage of the life experience of people with learning difficulties.
This book is a collected volume, with chapters by authors who were associated, in one way or another, with the Stockport course. The different chapters meet the aims described by Race to varying degrees, and I can imagine the response of students using this as a textbook might be similar to mine in that regard. Some chapters (e.g., “Advocacy and Parents With Learning Difficulties,” by Kathy Boxall, Michaela Jones, and Shaun Smith or “The ‘Normalisation’ Debate—Time to Move On,” by Race) would seem to provide the kind of introduction to ideas or movements that might be particularly helpful for students. Others would appear less useful for that purpose. Some chapters, for example, provide a dense litany of British legal, bureaucratic, and organizational history that would be excellent reference material, but would, perhaps, be less than fully accessible from the perspective of a student. This sense of uneven chapter development prevents achievement of the kind of natural flow one would hope to see in a well-crafted textbook.
On the other hand, the book has much to commend it as a source of thought-provoking philosophical perspective, not only for British readers (despite the heavy emphasis on British governmental movements and the ebb and flow of politics in the U.K.), but for others as well. A couple of chapters would, for instance, make good reading for American thinkers at a time when our leaders are heavily engaged in reworking the language of the field. Thus, although it has been considered progressive here to use such phraseology as “person with developmental disabilities,” rather than “disabled person,” it is argued in this book (by Kathy Boxall) that people are, in fact, “disabled” by the organization of society—that the problem lies in the inability of our cultural institutions to remove the barriers that disable or impair individuals. This, of course, is a social construction of the concept of disability and stands in contrast to the more typical individual construction that defines disability in terms of characteristics of the person. Put another way, according to Boxall, the individual model locates the “problem” in the person; the social model locates the problem in the system (e.g., school, community).
The social construction of disability is articulated slightly differently by Joe Whittaker and John Kenworthy in their chapter “Education Services: Why Segregated Special Schools Must Close.” These authors alert readers at the outset that they do not accept the phrase people “with learning difficulties” and instead choose to use people “described as having learning difficulties.” This too, of course, is a construction intended to place responsibility on social institutions to integrate and support individuals whose needs and characteristics may be unlike those of the majority of students. To schools that would claim not to have the resources to serve children with special needs, Whittaker and Kenworthy point out that if children were truly turned away due to lack of appropriate resources, the schools would reject a much wider range of children—with and without learning difficulties.
For readers interested in history, whether recent or longer-term, this book offers several chapters of note. Although much of the history is described in the context of the U.K., there are occasional references to American developments, and much of the evolution of ideology runs parallel to events in the United States and other European countries. Near the end of the book, Race describes the influence of movements associated with Wolf Wolfensberger and with John O'Brien on recent history in the United Kingdom, attempting to sort out the relationships among Wolfensberger's versions of normalization and social role valorization, and O'Brien's “community of practice.”
Finally, and perhaps most important to the authors of this volume, the voices of individuals with learning difficulties are respected and presented at various points in the book. These include a number of people who became involved in teaching, as guest speakers in the Stockport course (e.g., David Barron and Kevin Chettle), and parents with learning difficulties (Michaela Jones and Shaun Smith), who have advocated on their own behalf with governmental agencies, among others.
This book prompted me to think differently about learning difficulties as a concept, and the relationship of those “described as people with learning difficulties” to the broader culture. For that reason alone, it was well worth the reading.