Brief Overview of Disability Theories

Why use Universal Design for Learning? One reason is because students with disabilities can be consciously or unconscious labeled as inferior learners. Examine the quote below and keep it in mind as you read about some common theories on disability.

I feel so bad for my student, being born blind is a complete tragedy.

Throughout Western history, people have viewed disability through a number of lenses. For example, in biblical times, people with disabilities were considered forsaken by God. Disability theory names several patterns of thought including:

  • Medical model- people with disabilities should live under the confines of medical professionals, they perhaps do not belong in the classroom
  • Functional limitation- disability is a limitation that must be overcome, disability is at best a nuisance and at worst, a tragedy
  • Minority group paradigm- people with disabilities are thought of as an oppressed minority group, they are only victims in society
  • Social justice perspective-disability is socially constructed, society needs to reinterpret “normal” so that disability is no longer considered abnormal.

Consider the quotation above. What underlying ideas about disability might the person who made this statement have?

Educators are encouraged to take a social justice perspective on disability. A strengths model empowers students to focus on what they can bring to the classroom, rather than on any limitations. Courses should be designed to incorporate a variety of ways to participate so that everyone is included, instead of pitied. Read more about the theoretical foundations for Universal Design for learning in this brief summary by Nancy J. Evans.

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