An Autoethnographic Exploration of Disability Discourses: Transforming Science Education and Research for Students with Learning Disabilities

By Baurhoo, Neerusha Gokool | Educational Research for Social Change, September 2017 | Go to article overview

An Autoethnographic Exploration of Disability Discourses: Transforming Science Education and Research for Students with Learning Disabilities


Baurhoo, Neerusha Gokool, Educational Research for Social Change


Introduction

I cannot drop the feeling that this matters. It seems so important, what we are doing here for these people: to give them what they need most, to provide them what is most indispensable for their bare survival. This is what makes a difference in people's lives, and isn't that what it is all about: to make a difference? (Hemelsoet, 2014, p. 220)

In 2009, I began to work as a science and math special needs educator in the Office for Students with Disabilities at a college in Montreal, Quebec. My tasks involved assessing the psychoeducational reports of students with special needs to provide them with the necessary accommodations (e.g., notetaker) to support their learning. I was also responsible for designing and conducting individualised remedial tutorials for students with learning disabilities (LD) to favour their success in science and math.

As the semesters went by, I found that the majority of students with LD were struggling or failing in science. Science teachers shared with me their internal struggles to understand and academically support students with LD. Each semester, students with LD were dropping out of the science programmes and embracing other fields of study (e.g., computer science). The disappointment and sadness were evident in their voices as they told me that science was no longer for them. As a biologist (with a master's degree in animal science), I could fathom their sentiments of having their beloved science snatched away from them. Their dreams of becoming medical doctors, veterinarians, or engineers were crumbling.

I felt that these students deserved to be understood and supported to pursue their studies in science. I was determined to make a difference in their academic lives. As such, I kept asking: "What academic struggles do students with LD face in learning college science? How can we3 support these students in overcoming their struggles and enjoying success in science?" I began exploring the literature on students with disabilities in science education to comprehend their academic barriers. To my disappointment, studies researching barriers faced by students with LD were very sparse in the science and special education literature. In fact, the term learning disability is rarely found in science education literature, as pointed out by Brigham, Scruggs, and Mastropieri (2011). These authors discussed that the Handbook of Research on Science Education by Abell and Lederman (2007), which is the "holy grail" in science education, "omits the term learning disability from the index describing over 1,300 pages of text devoted to science education" (as cited in Brigham et al., 2011, p. 224).

Disappointed with the lack of research on students with LD in science, I embarked on my doctoral journey in 2011, determined to listen to voices of students with LD on obstacles that impede their learning in science. Being a critical and interpretivist researcher, I could not ignore that "a researcher's own individual mindset, bias, skills, and knowledge become an intrinsic part of the research process" (Knight & Cross, 2012, p. 44). As I engaged in the research process, I realised that I was also "part of the world being studied" (Knight & Cross, 2012, p. 44) because I was interacting directly with students with LD on a daily basis to understand their difficulties and support them academically. My practical experiences-as a special needs educator and a biology teacher working with students with LD-were central and influential in adopting a particular disability discourse to inform my doctoral study. For example, embodied in my role as a special needs educator (from 2009-2014), I solely focused on the specific disability types that these students displayed when I provided them with the necessary accommodations. As such, I found myself positioned within the medical model of disability, which views learning disability as a brain-based pathology. This model attributes the academic failure of students with LD solely to their disability, while ignoring other issues (e. …

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