"If You Don't Know Her, She Can't Talk": Noticing the Tensions between Deficit Discourses and Inclusive Early Childhood Education

Article excerpt

This article argues that, as teachers, we need to be aware of and attentive to the beliefs, assumptions, and attitudes that underlie our culture and society and how these relate to our thinking and behaviour in our work. This is particularly important when some of our taken-for-granted beliefs and assumptions around disability can create barriers to a child's right to learn, belong, and participate in the contexts and curriculum in which we teach. In particular, this article highlights negative or deficit orientations towards disability as leading to exclusionary practices that create barriers to disabled children's participation in education (Purdue, 2004). Deficit-based discourses of disability are introduced and used to analyse one family's experiences of early childhood education. I argue that these discourses, the practices they lead to, and the effects of those practices on children's learning, participation, and sense of belonging, need challenging, resistance, and removal from early childhood teaching. As an alternative, I suggest that teachers and educational settings adopt a social model/rights-based approach to disabled children's participation and learning in early childhood and school settings.

Methods and methodology

This article draws my qualitative, interview-based study of two families who have a young child with disabilities. Here I focus on the experiences of early childhood education from the perspective of Fran, one of the mothers. Over a year I interviewed Fran for two hours on each of four occasions. Fran's daughter Clare was four and five years old during the period of the interviews. I highlight examples of Fran and Clare's experiences and consider the effects of particular constructions of disability or difference on Clare's learning, sense of belonging, and participation in her early childhood centres.

Researcher positioning

I am a mother of a child who has been labelled and diagnosed as disabled, and I am also an early childhood teacher. One of the families in the study is my own. Data from our family were based on interviews of my partner and myself carried out by other researchers, and medical and educational assessments of our child. Rather than ignoring my multiple positionings, I have attempted to use my experience and knowledge as a lens through which to make meaning of the social construction of disability in education and society.

Theoretical frameworks

The key theoretical frameworks and ideas that I have used are social constructionism and discourse theory and analysis.

Social constructionism

This research is underpinned by a social constructionist view of knowledge and reality. Social constructionism is based on the view that knowledge about the self and "reality" are socially constructed (Crotty, 1998). Reality is seen as something to be interpreted rather than discovered, and people are viewed as being actively engaged in the social construction and interpretation of their world, which is largely influenced by language or "discourse" (Burr, 1995; Crotty, 1998; Ferguson & Ferguson, 1995; Gergen, 1999). Social constructionists take a curious and critical stance towards taken-for-granted knowledge and meanings (Burr, 1995).

Discourse theory and analysis

New Zealand disability and inclusive-education researchers MacArthur, Purdue, and Ballard (2003) suggest that "discourse" is a useful conceptual tool for reflecting on the social construction of disability within early childhood centres. They define a discourse as:

 
   ... a set of ideas that shape our knowledge and understandings of 
   disability. Some discourses can be very powerful; they are accepted 
   as 'the truth', and influence, reinforce and control our thoughts, 
   ideas, language, actions, and practices as teachers, and our 
   reactions to people with disabilities. …