Abstract

The language of intellectual disability is rife with spatial terms. Students labeled with intellectual disability are “placed in” special education where they may be “self-contained,” “segregated,” “excluded,” or “included.” Conversations ensue about where to seat them, next to whom, and at what distance from the teacher and other students. In this article, critical spatial studies and critical narratives are used to illustrate the ways in which power and exclusion constitute intellectual disability.

In this article we situate Kate and Lauren, who are labeled with intellectual disability, within the spaces of their schools by using the second author's personal narratives to illustrate the “landscapes of power and exclusion” (Kitchin, 1998, p. 346) that constitute them as intellectually disabled. We take the position that intellectual disability is a socially constructed identity, or what Rapley (2004) called a “category membership” (p. 19), that is situated in material and social space and that generates political implications. From this perspective, the objects of study are not Kate and Lauren but rather the social spaces in which Kate and Lauren are constituted as subjects labeled with intellectual disability.

To proceed, we use the theoretical frameworks of critical spatial studies and critical narrative. Critical spatial studies examine the “landscapes of power and exclusion” (Kitchin, 1998, p. 346) that form the institutional conditions in socio-spatial relations. Critical narrative allows us to use short topical stories to describe the exclusion politics of seemingly innocuous events such as eating lunch in the school cafeteria, a visit to a school, or the individual instruction provided to a special education student.

Critical Narrative

Our work on this project is narrative and in the interpretivist (Hendry, 2010) tradition of attempting to understand experience from the perspective of those living the experience (Xu & Connelly, 2010). Stories are often used as a way to understand lived experience. Wiklund-Gustin (2010) wrote that “narration as a profound human activity contributes to our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in” (p. 32). The type of narrative we use here is what Chase (2005) called “short topical story.” The narratives in this article come from the second author's (Carie) observations of incidences at the schools attended by Kate and Lauren, with whom Carie has been working as a tutor and advocate. In using Carie's stories, we have attended to Wiklund-Gustin's criteria for ethical narrative by referring to Kate and Lauren in ways that “promote their well being,” “respect their vulnerability,” and “engender justice” (p. 33).

Our work also falls within the critical theoretical paradigm that concerns itself with the “ideals of justice or the moral point of view … and [an] emancipatory theory of actual political practice” (Canaday, 2003, p. 53). Further, with Freire (1997), Giroux (1992), and McLaren and Jaramillo (2007) we take the position that education is a political enterprise in which social relations involving authority and power are used to govern what participants say and do, where they can be, and with whom they can interact. As will become clear later, we would add that spatial geographies also govern these activities. Consistent with critical theory, our work adheres to the tenets of disability studies in education that require us to “contextualize disability within political and social spheres” and “promote social justice, equitable and inclusive educational opportunities … for disabled people” (Connor, Gabel, Gallagher, & Morton, 2009, p. 448).

A critical narrative, then, is one that tells a story of human activity and has an emphasis on justice, emancipation, and political practice. As disability studies scholars, the subtext of our article is a call for inclusive education and full and meaningful access for Kate and Lauren and all students with intellectual disability.

To set the stage, we begin with the Carie's narrative of her first visit, in 2010, to Lauren's school. Carie wrote this and other narratives of her experience as part of a dissertation project that also involved several interviews with Kate and Lauren, who were both in high school at the time. Later, we came to see the narratives as rich sources of information about the way in which schools use space to exclude students with intellectual disability. Lauren is a 15-year-old student in a large suburban public high school in the Midwest. She has been labeled with intellectual disability.

I am met at the main entrance by a security guard. I state that I am attending a meeting on Lauren's behalf and am automatically handed a sticker with my picture and name and in large, bold letters print the words “Special Education.” I am suddenly labeled and sent on a journey through the large, sprawling high school to find the wing designated as special education in which Lauren is educated, along with her peers who have similar labels, for her eight hour school day. As I walk the halls, staff of the school peer at my sticker and, after taking a careful look, quickly walk away without making eye contact. I feel myself losing my own identity as an educational advocate or even an educator. I am drifting into the world of my former students. I wonder if this is how they feel and how they are treated. I am used to being greeted in the hallways or at least acknowledged, however in this case, I am labeled special education and thus, suddenly invisible. Do people quickly look away from my students, avoiding any interaction, as if they are plagued with some mysteriously contagious condition? Do they think this is how everyone is treated and if they are aware of these behaviors, how does it make them feel? I find the correct wing of the school and am not surprised to see the hallway labeled, again in large print, Special Education, as if warning those who do not belong to stay away while keeping labeled students where they belong, within their section of the school. I question if my former students, Kate and Lauren, feel like they belong as members of the school community. It seems as though I am experiencing first-hand the alienation Lauren and Kate have experienced. When my observation at Lauren's school is done and I leave the building I am able to peel that label off as I remove the sticker[;] however, Kate and Lauren cannot remove their labels and their stigma. They live day in and day out with the knowledge that as they enter their school, they must remain with the same teachers and students in a designated part of their school with minimal opportunities to interact with their peers.

“A social identity is a fixed thing,” writes Rapley (2004), “like a handbag perhaps, which people ‘carry,’ and which ‘determines’ not only life's practical material outcomes, but also the … relationship that people may have” (p. 112). In the narrative above, Carie describes her experience of being affixed with the label of “special education” that she carries throughout her visit to Lauren's school. Her destination is marked by the hallway sign that matches the label on her nametag: Special Education. Although she is herself a special education teacher who in her own school is greeted as a colleague, in this space she feels alienated and invisible.

Space

What is it about a particular space that can cause such emotions and have such impact? Space, as “the structural, geometrical qualities of a physical environment” (Hornecker, 2005, para. 1), is “amorphous and intangible and not an entity that can be directly described and analyzed” (Relph, 1981, p. 8). Titchkosky (2011) observed that “structures are neither static nor accidental but are, instead, social activities: they carry messages about collective conceptions of people and places, conceptions which themselves come into existence through such social structures and activities” (p. 92). Space embodies complex ideas about the physical environment (Cresswell, 2004) and provides a platform to examine how knowledge, power, experience, and spatiality are entwined in the construction of meaning (Hornecker, 2005). Space is continuously inhabited and situated (Hornecker, 2005; Keith & Pile, 1993; Soja, 1989).

Consider Carie's memories of her experience visiting Lauren's school, which were written before our work on space and intellectual disability began. Carie enters a “sprawling” building in which she “drifts” toward a “designated wing.” Carie's visit is structured through the spatial arrangements she encounters. She must move toward the space assigned to her. Even though she does not talk to anyone, she has a clear sense of how she fits in this space, whether or not she has any power to alter the situation, and the tangible and intangible ways in which she is marked as “other.”

To understand how space influences the socio-spatial interaction that leaves Carie feeling alienated and as other, there is a need to consider place. Place is a situated identity “that includes the dimensions of lived experience, social interaction and use of a space by its inhabitants” (Hornecker, 2005, para. 1). Examining lived experience, social interaction, and the use of space can lead to the understanding and definition of intellectual disability as a place (Cresswell, 2004; Keith & Pile, 1993; Massey, 1993, 1994). The qualities of space shape how one interprets and interacts within place (Hornecker, 2005). Simply put, place contextualizes space and illustrates how knowledge, ideology, power, and discourse operate within everyday interactions (Hornecker, 2005; Keith & Pile, 1993; Soja, 1989). In other words, “places are continually recreated through everyday routines and habits” (Cresswell, 2004, p. 612), which Carie's first narrative and the next two narratives illustrate.

Intellectual Disability and Space

The constitution of disability in social space has received attention in fields as diverse as disability studies (Armstrong, 1999; Freund, 1991; Young, 2008), geography (Gleeson, 1996; Imrie, 1996; Kitchin, 1998; Kruse, 2002, 2003), and philosophy (Butler & Bowlby, 1997). Lefebvre (1974/1991) postulated that space is both the product of and producer of social relations; it is a social construction that construes its own meanings:

Space is a product … the space thus produced also serves as a tool of thought and of action […] in addition to being a means of production it is also a means of control, and hence of domination, of power. (p. 26)

Gleeson (1996) referred to this process as “a socio-spatial dialectic, which sees society and space as mutually constituting material dynamics” and as a territorialization of “deep structural forces” that “devalues the capacities of impaired people” (p. 391–392). According to Kitchin (1998), space “reproduces and maintains the processes of exclusion” (p. 344) through keeping disabled people “‘in their place’” and “social texts that convey to disabled people that they are ‘out of place’” (p. 345). Kitchin further argued that

Society is socio-spatially organized to sustain hegemonic power within a nested set of social relationships.… If we are to understand disability and the experiences of disabled people we must deconstruct the landscapes of power and exclusion, and the geographies of domination and resistance. (p. 346)

The significance of our article is in its exploration of space and intellectual disability, a label that, unlike mobility impairment, is not typically associated with space and the ways in which space can be disabling. Although space is rarely considered in relation to intellectual disability, space is often explicit in any consideration of access for people with mobility or sensory impairments. Wheelchair users need ramps, curb cuts, and elevators to access physical spaces. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires Braille signs to be placed at specific heights and in particular locations of buildings. Smoke detectors for the deaf must be positioned where they can be seen.

The language of intellectual disability in special education is rife with spatial references. For example, students with intellectual disability are “placed in” special education, where they may be “self-contained,” “segregated,” “excluded,” or “included.” If students with intellectual disability are “included” in general education classrooms, there is often discussion about where to seat them, next to whom, and at what distance from the teacher and other students. The location of special education classrooms in the building can reflect the school's assumptions about the students attending these classrooms. Should they be near the principal's office so that disciplinary intervention is readily available? Or should they be in a separate wing of the school where the students with intellectual disability can be “protected” from the general population? Or does the separate wing protect general education students and teachers from students with intellectual disability? Should special education students use a separate entrance near their segregated classrooms? Who or what benefits from these spatial arrangements and what are their implications for the school citizenship of students with intellectual disability?

Next we present Carie's narrative of her second 2010 visit to Lauren's school, a public high school in which most of Lauren's time is spent in the special education wing. Once a day, Lauren, 15 years old, leaves the special education wing to eat lunch in the school cafeteria. Kitchin's (1998) claim that space “reproduces and maintains the processes of exclusion” (p. 344) is illustrated here, as is Lefebvre's (1991) postulation that space “serves as a tool of thought and of action (p. 26).

As I entered the cafeteria, I was swarmed by students carrying trays of food, laughing and socializing with their friends, sitting in their cliques filling all the tables in the room. I had entered the cafeteria ten minutes after the lunch period began and at first was happy to not find Lauren. I assumed she was embedded somewhere within the groups of giggling girls, gossiping with their friends. However I was disheartened as I looked toward the back corner of the cafeteria where I found all the students I had observed in the special education wing of the school eating together at two round tables. There was a strong contrast between the sounds in the rest of the cafeteria and this subdued corner in which no students were talking. In fact the only sounds aside from the munching of food were the peer helpers, who were talking only to each other. At each table were two peer helpers, general education students who signed up for elective credit to spend one period per day “helping” the students with intellectual disability.

I asked one peer helper why she chose to spend one period of her day working with students with special education. She explained that she wanted the credit without having to take a class and saw her position as more of a babysitter than facilitator. She saw her job as ensuring that the students were safe and that the job was easy. The only communication observed was between the two peer helpers sitting at Lauren's table who spent that period studying for a test they had later that afternoon.

Lauren's peer helper's description of her role as “babysitting” reveals what Carey (2009) referred to as the “political identit[ies] embedded within relationships and meaning-making practices” (p. 414) in which peers understand and behave in ways structured by the “institutionally conducive setting” (p. 414). “Typically,” wrote Clement and Bigby (2009), “people with intellectual disability have small, highly restricted social networks characterized by interactions with other people with intellectual disabilities [sic], family members, and paid workers” (p. 264). Gleeson (1996) addressed the strict governance of where and with whom Lauren and her peers are allowed to sit, referring to it as “deep structural forces” (p. 391) that leave her and the other students with intellectual disability confined to specific locations and types of interactions.

Since the students with intellectual disability share space within the cafeteria for lunch, it might be argued that this represents an inclusion experience. However, Kjellberg (2002) clarified that inclusive experiences must provide “the opportunity to live in society and participate in the social arena on the same terms as the general population” (p. 188). Carie describes above what Kitchin (1998) referred to as a school cafeteria that is “socio-spatially organized to sustain hegemonic power within a nested set of social relationships” (p. 346) that situate Lauren and other students with intellectual disability in the same physical space as their general education counterparts while curtailing their social relationships. Consequently, sharing space is not synonymous with inclusion or integration. Even when sharing physical space with the general education students, Lauren is still kept “in her place,” isolated with other students labeled with intellectual disability, by social relationships that are framed by the ways in which physical space is organized as segregated social space (Kitchin, 1998) that obstructs inclusion. For Lauren, social space segregates her and denotes her place as thoroughly as could any segregated classroom.

The events described in the first two narratives happened while Carie was working on her dissertation in 2010. In Carie's first narrative excerpt, she illustrates the ways in which space and labels assigned to space can be alienating. In the second narrative excerpt, Carie illustrates the socio-spatial relationships in a school cafeteria where students with intellectual disability are excluded from interactions with their nondisabled peers, even while sitting next to them. The next narrative is the story Carie writes about an event that occurred 11 years ago when Carie was a paraprofessional in Kate's school. In her dissertation, Carie uses this narrative to illustrate the history of Kate's exclusion.

Leave me alone! I want to go back, go away! These were the wailing screams I heard as I walked down the first grade hallway on my way to the office. I did not even have to turn my head to look. I knew what I would see. Kate was huddled, crying and screaming under the desk that had been pulled to the side of the hallway. The special education teacher was standing to the side of the desk with a scowl on her face while Kate's aide was crouched under the desk trying to convince Kate to come out and do her work. A timer sat to the side of the desk waiting to be started and workbooks, pencils, and flashcards covered the top of the student-sized desk. Kate would either stay under the desk until the special education teacher walked away to work with a more compliant student, or she would dash next door to the girl's washroom until the instructional aide would announce that the teacher had walked away. This was a common occurrence for a student named Kate who was in first grade and had Down syndrome. According to the school, she was “fully included” in a regular first grade classroom. However, Kate was taken into the hall by the special education teacher for all academics. Although she was with her peers in the general education classroom for all non-academic activities, she was isolated and stood out due to the fact that she had an instructional aide sitting next to her at all times. When it was time for her lessons, the special education teacher would walk Kate to a desk situated in the middle of the hallway. I was frequently called to help coax her out from under the desk as well as during lunchtime when her aide tried to sit next to her on the long bleachers filled with her classmates. I sympathized with Kate, it was obvious her screams were out of embarrassment and frustration with an educational system set up to put her in shining lights to all who walked the crowded halls of that school. Here was a little girl, alone in the hallway, no other students worked in the halls. She faced the lockers with her back to everyone and screamed to stay in her class. The task was simple, get her quiet and if possible, in the seat to do her work. One might predict that her screams would escalate when she saw me approach, but she had a very different reaction to my presence. I was usually met with hugs and pleas to get the teachers to listen to her. From time to time, I would have tears in my own eyes as I quietly explained to her the behavioral expectations and the disciplinary consequences of her current behavior. After a quick hug, Kate would sit and do her work or finish her lunch quietly.

Here is a hallway with a single desk. A lone child sits at the desk or hides under the desk. The accoutrements of instruction are laid out on top of the desk. Ostensibly, this space is used for instruction, but Carie views it as isolating and stigmatizing Kate as someone who does not belong in what is called an inclusive classroom. Kate's behavior suggests to us that she, too, views this situation as problematic. She resists by screaming and crawling under the desk. She is inconsolable until Carie talks with her. A visitor to the school might wonder why this lone child is having lessons in the hallway. Other children might find it amusing and might tease Kate or laugh at her. It is unlikely that another child is jealous of Kate's situation. Regardless of the teachers' intentions, this spatial arrangement sets Kate apart from the other students.

The use of a hyper-visible hallway space, a desk under which to climb, and the one-on-one social interaction combine to mark Kate as “out of place” (Kitchin, 1998, p. 345) in her inclusive classroom, at least when it comes to the lessons provided by her special education teacher. As is Lauren, Kate is kept “in her place” by social relationships that are framed by the ways in which physical space is organized as segregated social space (Kitchin, 1998) structured by an “institutionally conducive setting” (Carey, 2003, p. 414). While Kate is seen resisting the place she has been assigned, Lauren and her peer helper actively engage in placing Lauren in an undervalued, excluded position.

People often are described as being “put in their place,” such as when a misbehaving child is chastised or an offensive adult is corrected by a coworker or friend. For Kate and Lauren, their “place” requires nothing verbal as a reminder. An adult follows them at all times in school, monitoring and correcting their behavior, signaling them as different. Their “place” is literally and figuratively labeled “special education” regardless of whether or not they are in the special education wing or what is called the inclusive classroom.

Changing Space, Changing Place

Stiker (1997) described the historical paradox in which Lauren and Kate are caught:

The disabled … are established as a category to be reintegrated and thus to be rehabilitated. Paradoxically, they are designated in order to be made disappear, they are spoken in order to be silenced. This is a contradiction, of course, but has its basis in the play between being and seeming in our society. (p. 134, emphasis in original)

The contradiction to which Stiker referred is evident in the above narratives. Kate and Lauren may seem to be included in their school communities. They are in the cafeteria and with students non-disabled. Sometimes they share the hallways with other students. Kate is “in inclusion,” afterall. Yet, their rejection, as Stiker has written, is evident for the attentive observer. Although they seem to be included, their exclusion is evident in what is said about them, in the social isolation they experience, and in the spatial arrangements that alienate them from their nondisabled peers. This reflects the need to understand how social space comes into play when thinking about the interactions between disabled and nondisabled students.

Graham & Slee (2008) argued that in “an authentically inclusive education … the language of special and regular education is rendered redundant” (p. 280). We would add that the distinctly different physical and social spaces of special and regular education would also be redundant. Lesseliers, Van Hove, and Vandevelde (2009) recommended “an alternative public space, one in which formerly excluded students can be repositioned as valued members of the mainstream” (p. 249). Slee (2001) states that “inclusion speaks to the protection of rights of citizenship for all” (p. 173) and describes segregated education as “compromised by a persistent failure to establish links with and valued destinations to the adult world of work and active citizenship” (p. 116).

To change space requires understanding the ways in which social interactions, language, belief systems, and stereotypes co-construct disabling space. It also requires educators to pay careful attention to the use of space in school. How can educators change space and place? How can they reposition students labeled with intellectual disability as valued members of the school community? Carie's three narratives alone provide some answers to this question. Building signage, whether inside or outside, can be designed in ways that avoid contributing to the stigma associated with intellectual disability. Schools need to avoid labeling a portion of the building as the special education wing. Assuming that a variety of subjects are taught in that wing, consider a different label—e.g., English, Math, and Science Are Taught Here—or encourage the students to vote on what the wing will be called. When visitors walk through the building, everyone should greet them, and if the visitor's destination must be indicated on the nametag, indicate it with a room number or teacher's name rather than a stigmatizing label. The social interaction opportunities in the cafeteria should not be missed nor squelched by contrivances like the ones Carie describes in the second narrative. Why, after all, was Lauren isolated from the general population, and why did her peer helper think she was babysitting? Why did the peer helper earn credit for sitting with Lauren, and why did she think it was alright to ignore Lauren? Allow students to choose where to sit. Encourage students labeled with intellectual disability to try different locations in the cafeteria. Regularly monitor student interactions and intervene when necessary, modeling age appropriate relationships for the nondisabled students and the students labeled with intellectual disability. Finally, teachers can interrogate the inclusion and exclusion in their school by asking themselves where students labeled with intellectual disability sit and with whom, what people say to them and about them, where and when they are visible and invisible, and what kind of relationship they have with nondisabled students.

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Author notes

Editor-in-Charge: Glenn T. Fujiura

Authors:

Susan L. Gabel (e-mail: gabel@chapman.edu), Chapman University, PhD Program. One University Drive, Reeves Hall, Orange, CA 92866, USA; Carie J. Cohen and Kathleen Kotel, National Louis University; and Holly Pearson, Chapman University.