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.

A second way to think about disabilities and the people who might be affected does not use a quantitative approach; rather, it reflects a cultural perspective. Alfredo Artiles of Arizona State University aptly points out that America today includes many different cultures and that some have values and hold to concepts that differ greatly from mainstream ideas. Nonmajority cultures often hold different perspectives about the concept of disabilities, and many do not think about disabilities in terms of deficits or quantitative judgments about individuals (Artiles, 1998). We believe that this is a very important point for teachers to understand. First, education professionals and the families with whom they work might not share the same understanding of disability. Second, they might not hold a common belief about what causes disabilities.

Knowing that not all cultures share the same concept of disability helps us understand why some families approach education professionals differently when told that their child has a disability. Because disability does not have a single fixed definition, it is not thought about uniformly or universally (Lynch & Hanson, 2004). Families with whom teachers work are likely to have varying understandings about their child from those of school professionals. Also, not all cultures respond the same way to individuals identified as having a disability. In other words, the same individual might be considered "different" or as having a disability in one culture but not in another (Utley & Obiakor, 2001; Jim Green, 2003 October, personal communication). Or the degree of difference might not be considered uniformly.

Thus disabilities must be viewed within a cultural context. In addition, people from different cultures sometimes view the causes of disabilities in children in various ways. In general, people from the dominant American culture believe in a direct scientific cause-and-effect relationship between a biological problem and the developing baby. Those from other cultures may consider fate, bad luck, sins of a parent, the food the mother ate, or evil spirits to be potential causes of disabilities (Cheng, 1995; Lynch & Hanson, 2004). These alternative views affect the way a child with a disability is viewed within the culture and the types of intervention services that a family may be willing to pursue to address the child's disabilities or special needs. As educators work with families, they should address these issues and reflect sensitivity to the various perspectives family members bring to conversations about individual students.

The sociological perspective or orientation presents yet another way to think about individuals with disabilities. Instead of focusing on people's strengths or deficits, it construes differences across people's skills and traits as socially constructed (Danforth & Rhodes, 1997; Longmore, 2002). In this perspective, how a society treats individuals is what makes people different from each other, not a condition or set of traits that are part of the individual's characteristics. The idea is that if people's attitudes and the way society treats groups of individuals change, then the result and impact of being a member of a group change. In other words, according to this perspective, what makes a disability is how we treat individuals we think of as different. Some scholars and advocates hold a radical view, suggesting that disabilities are a necessity of American society, its structure, and values. Some scholars, such as Herb Grossman, believe that when societies are stratified, variables such as disability, race, and ethnicity become economic and political imperatives (Grossman, 1998). They are necessary to the maintenance of class structure. Classifications result in restricted opportunities that then force some groups of people to fall to the bottom (Erevelles, 1996; Grossman, 1998).

Clearly, debate about this rationale or explanation for disabilities is controversial, but let's see how the sociological perspective might apply to at least one disability. According to this perspective, mental retardation exists because society and people treat these individuals poorly. The logic continues that all people have strengths and weaknesses, so if supporting services were available to help every individual when problems occur, then people with mental retardation would not be negatively treated and would be successful. In other words, if individuals with significant differences are just treated like everyone else, problems associated with mental retardation will disappear.

Serious issues have been raised regarding sociological perspectives on disabilities. Jim Kauffman, a scholar at the University of Virginia, voices many concerns about this orientation and maintains that disabilities are real, not just sociologically constructed. Despite how people are treated, disabilities significantly affect the people involved (Kauffman, 1997). To him, this perspective arises from a need for "sameness," where everyone is truly alike. This position, Kauffman contends, is dangerous because it (1) minimizes people's disabilities, (2) leads to the conclusion that individuals with disabilities do not need special services, and (3) encourages the attitude that needed services can be discontinued or reduced. All three of these scenarios leave individuals with disabilities vulnerable to diminished outcomes. They also leave students with disabilities at risk of losing their rights to an appropriate education tailored to meet their unique learning needs (Kauffman & Hallahan, 2005). Whether or not you believe that the sociological perspective can be used to explain disabilities, it does explain why many people with disabilities feel they experience bias and discrimination and believe that they belong to a true minority group.