Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Service-Learning: Empowering Students with Special Needs

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Service-Learning: Empowering Students with Special Needs

Article excerpt


Traditionally students with special needs have been viewed as recipients and beneficiaries of service-learning projects. This article demonstrates that service-learning pedagogy can be used to transform the traditional "deficit" model into a "reciprocal empowerment" model. The authors employed a qualitative and quantitative design. Using the qualitative method, "Portraiture", each project was analyzed and categorized under the "deficit," "empowerment," and "reciprocal empowerment" categories. The results showed a significant decrease in the percentage of projects under the "deficit" model, whereas the "reciprocal empowerment" model perspective became more prominent over the four years of the study. The authors conclude that by reconceptualizing and deliberately structuring the service-learning environment educators can provide opportunities for all students to become contributors, problem solvers, and partners in improving communities.


John Dewey's (1916) educational and social philosophy resonate well with the development of a theory of service-learning that includes learning from experience, reflective activity, citizenship, community, and democracy. Dewey believed that public education can and should build community.

   A society which makes provision for participation in its good of
   all its members on equal terms and which secures flexible
   readjustment of its institutions through interaction of the
   different forms of associated life is in so far democratic. (p. 55)

Service-Learning can complement this thinking as it helps students with special needs to avoid social and cultural alienation as they learn to be active and contributing members of a broader social entity. Service-Learning is naturally associated with situated-learning. Situated-learning focuses on the nature of the learning that takes place in a variety of contexts, typically outside the classroom. We think that service-learning projects that are inclusive and that involve students with special needs in a process and expose them to social settings where they can make a social contribution or provide meaningful service to others empower them and help them to view themselves as worthwhile and productive individuals.

The authors strongly advocate for changing the focus of service-learning in special education from a receiving orientation to a caring and sharing orientation, emphasizing reciprocal and like relationships with others. This "empowerment" model of service-learning will cultivate students with disabilities as joint partners in designing, planning and implementing service-learning projects. A caring and sharing orientation emphasizes the reciprocal participation of all parties involved in the project as they learn and provide services to others. This "empowerment" model matches well with Gilligan's (1982) two perspectives on moral reasoning, care and justice, and her posture on the relationship between charity and social activism as orientations of service and service-learning. We advocate for service-learning projects that empower special needs students and ensure that all stakeholders are equal chance players.

Several studies have shown the impact of service-learning in producing increased personal and social responsibility and sense of competence (Weiler, LaGoy, Grane & Rovner, 1998), and acceptance of responsibility (Stephens, 1995). Melchior (1999) indicated that students, in general, who engage in quality service-learning programs reported greater acceptance of diversity. Recent literature concerning service-learning in special education indicates that service-learning occurring within the context of inclusive classrooms has potential. For example, Gent & Gurecka (1998) propose service-learning as a creative strategy for inclusive classrooms. They suggest that service-learning can be an effective alternative methodology in inclusive settings because of its flexibility and its focus on experiences in real life situations. …

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