Overcoming the ‘ordinary’ through Disability Studies

by Rhea Kuthoore | on 22 May 2023

In this ThinkPiece, I wish to articulate how a particular understanding of disability can allow educators to transgress frameworks of accommodations to reinvent aspects of schooling and education beyond able-bodiedness and able-mindedness. I first lay out Erevelles’ argument in relation to how disability, when understood as a historical materialist category, is something that one becomes within the current system of production, rather than something that one already is. Next, I build on Lakshmi Krishnakumar and Shilpaa Anand’s work and employ the idea of becoming disabled to rethink two ‘ordinary’ assumptions of learning environments. I reveal how, in maintaining specific value judgements, standards of learning contribute towards becoming disabled and hence, perpetuate ableism.

Erevelles, in steering away from theorising disability as “natural,” invites us to pay attention to the social relationships that produce disability as a lack (Erevelles 63). Relatedly, she is also asking us, “within what social conditions might we welcome the disability to come, to desire it?” (Erevelles 63). In order to throw light on the social conditions/relationships that produce disability as a lack/undesirable and that which needs to be accommodated, Erevelles asks us to consider the historical events and material contexts that produce bodies as disabled (Erevelles 26). Here, two examples substantiate her argument. First, she lays emphasis on the historical events of the transatlantic slave trade wherein black bodies were made disabled by the violent commodification of their bodies (Erevelles 39). Second, she draws our attention to how people’s class status and material realities determine how much their life is worth, and hence, contribute towards the creation and proliferation of ability/disability. Consider the example of a community of people living near a factory, that pollutes the water body that sustains this community. If the people do not have the power to stop the factory nor the monetary resources to access medical care, they become disabled in the face of the impending illnesses, and maybe so for generations to come. Through these examples, we learn how material contexts and transnational capitalism cause bodies to become disabled, and realise the fine thread that connects historical events of the past to the bodies that are categorised as naturally disabled in the present. Most significant of these historical events, for Erevelles, is Global capitalism and its relationships of production, whereby the ‘whole’ and ‘undamaged’ body is deemed most valuable/desirable — how then can we resist ableism or desire disability in the face of the current system of production? Moreover, would anybody be ‘born’ disabled if the ability was not defined in such a straight-jacketed way and newer abilities were recognised rather than denied? And, what about the closeting of unrecognisable disabilities amongst presumably abled bodies? The obscuring of these questions, I believe, is one of the biggest losses of looking “straight” (Erevelles 594) at disability.

Having emphasised how certain social conditions/relationships come to define, cause and perpetuate disability, I will now turn to uncover the discrete prevalence of such conditions within learning spaces. What Erevelles’ argument gives us is an opportunity to disrupt the ‘ordinary’ rather than merely look for ‘special’ ways to accommodate children with disabilities. However, she merely hints towards the possibilities of challenging the everyday taken-for-granted conceptions of schooling by mentioning how the desire for exploitative efficiency and productivity can be resisted by acknowledging the disruptive potentialities of disabled subjectivities (Erevelles 604). Here, I build on the observations of Lakshmi Krishnakumar and Shilpaa Anand to question the hidden value judgements within standards of learning.

Lakshmi Krishnakumar, the director of Sankalp, an open school based in Chennai that caters to children with learning disabilities, questions how achievement is measured in mainstream schooling. Besides the host of critiques against exams, disability studies throw light on the ableist assumptions of current methods of evaluation. She asks, “why don’t we use other parameters and measures to assess children? Why don’t we assess them on the basis of their dance, music or cooking — if that is where their interest lies? If they learn the vocabulary that forms part of a play, why can’t we assess them on that?” (Srilata 234) Adding to these pertinent questions, I believe it is crucial to also question, not only what we assess, but also the assumptions that underlie ideas of achievement and assessment as well. Does achievement presuppose that, with time, I must have newer, different, higher, more complex, or more complete achievements? What if I pendulum between achieving and failing with respect to my interest? Does assessment imply certain standards of the outcome? What if I can no longer succeed in my interests, regardless of effort? How is it possible to assess effort? I believe that these questions must be taken seriously to allow newer conceptions of success and failure to emerge and to even consider steering away from coupling learning with achievement and assessment. The anxiety around delving into these questions often arises from a further question: but how would children “move forward” in time (class) without having standards of success and failure? How can everyone be promoted?

Shilpaa Anand, a researcher of disability studies, shares certain insights on promotions that are based on standards of achievement. She says,“one is meritorious when their capacity to be able-bodied and able-minded is fulfilled.” By paying attention to how intellectual calibre 1 presupposes certain emotional and physical abilities, she reveals how the idea of merit perpetuates ableism. As examples, she reminds us of how exams require us to sit for several hours and recall everything without being distracted. Here, I think it worth questioning, not only the assumed emotional and physical abilities embedded within the intellectual calibre, but also the ways in which “moving forward” in time is being gate-kept by certain criteria. For instance, even in today’s day and age, there are many tests and exams that rely on memory, instead of allowing students to have supporting material. Moreover, what are the assumptions of excellence embedded within “moving forward” in time (class)? Why must it be the case that some people can move forward while others do not?

I believe that possibilities exist if educators give up on assessing one another’s growth through a linear path. Alternatively, we can create frameworks wherein each of us develops fluid ideas of growth for ourselves and also trust ourselves to be accountable for our own and others’ growth. Moreover, through such a framework, rather than allowing some people’s promotion, everyone would be involved in “moving forward” together by supporting one another in their areas of need and by redefining calibre more expansively. Crucial to such a framework however is to begin learning interdependently rather than solely emphasising independent learning in order to feel and embrace the ways in which we rely on one another to understand ourselves and the world. Finally, it is within such a framework that we lose the idea that progress can come from some becoming more able and others becoming “disabled.”


Work Cited

Erevelles, N. Disability and Difference in Global Contexts Enabling a Transformative Body Politic. 1st ed. 2011., Palgrave Macmillan US, 2011, https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137001184.

Erevelles, Nirmala. “‘Scenes of Subjection’ in Public Education: Thinking Intersectionally as If Disability Matters.” Educational Studies (Ames), vol. 55, no. 6, 2019, pp. 592–605, https://doi.org/ 10.1080/00131946.2019.1687481.

Srilata, K. This kind of child: The ‘Disability’ Story. Westland, Non-fiction, an imprint of Westland books, a Division of Nasadiya Technologies Private Limited, 2022.


Author Information: Rhea Kuthoore is currently pursuing her PhD in Childhood Studies at Rutgers, Camden. Her interest is in doing philosophy with children (PwC) and she designed the curriculum and pedagogy for the same at Sholai School for two years. Through her research, she hopes to develop material to do PwC, Gender studies with young people and explore the praxis of holistic education curriculum in different contexts in India. More about her and her work can be found at www.thinkingrhizomatically.com .


Suggested Citation: Rhea Kuthoore. 2023. ‘Overcoming the ‘ordinary’ through Disability Studies ‘, Think Pieces Series No. 33. Education.SouthAsia (https://educationsouthasia.com).