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Differing Perspectives on Disabilities

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Apr 23, 2014

Different disciplines, cultures, and individuals do not agree about what "disabilities" are and how to explain them (Harry, 2002; Lynch & Hanson, 2004; Utley & Obiakor 2001). All education professionals should understand that one's orientation, or way of thinking about "differences," results in distinct responses to disabilities. Three ways of considering disabilities typically guide people's thinking:

  • Deficit perspective
  • Cultural perspective
  • Sociological perspective

The deficit perspective reflects the idea that human behavior and characteristics shared by people are distributed along a continuum. Many psychologists, education professionals, and medical professionals describe children and youth by various characteristics, such as intelligence, visual acuity, academic achievement, or behavior. Actually, scores or measurements received by people tend to create a distribution where the majority of people fall in the middle of the distribution, and that's why they are called "average." The scores from most human characteristics create patterns or form what is called a normal curve. Because of the way the distribution tends to fall, with the highest number of scores in the middle and proportionally fewer as the distance from the average score increases, the distribution is also referred to as the bell-shaped curve.

The expectation, according to this idea, is for the academic achievement of all third graders also to create such a distribution. The number of students obtaining each score would be plotted on the graph. A few students would obtain low scores on the achievement test, and their scores would be plotted at the left-hand side of the graph. The number of stuudents receiving higher scores increases until the average, or mean, score is reached. Somewhere in the middle of the distribution are typical learners, those whose behaviors and characteristics represent the average or majority of students. Then, progressively fewer students obtain higher and higher scores on the test, completing the right-hand side of the distribution or curve. The number of characteristics that could be counted in this way is infinite, and each individual student probably falls at a different point on each dimension measured. A tall student may have slightly below average visual acuity but have average scores on the distance he or she can kick a ball. Think about it: The hypothetical average student, or typical learner, probably does not actually exist, or exists very rarely because the possible combinations of human characteristics are almost endless.

Regardless, in mainstream America quantifying human performance is the most common method used to describe individuals. Unfortunately, this way of thinking about people puts half of everyone "below average" and forces individuals to be considered in terms of how different they are from the average. For students with disabilities, this approach contributes to the tendency to think about them as deficient, or somehow less than their classmates without disabilities.

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