Disabilities and Educational Opportunity:  A Deweyan Approach




Consider a second-grade classroom of 18 students with one autistic child named Jacob.  Jacob’s autism is mild comparatively speaking.  He is an excellent reader and has above average math skills.  Jacob excels in activities like reading and math games.  In these situations, the teacher encourages other students to appreciate his special talents, without making Jacob seem eccentric.  In short, the entire classroom regards Jacob as full-fledged member of the group.  Obviously they cannot overlook the facts of his Jacob’s autism. But they do not regard him as an “outsider.”  He has a special tutor assigned to spend time with him.  Jacob’s teacher has taken the goal of integration seriously by involving other students in his learning, doing an admirable job in helping children to empathize with Jacob.  Some of them have become quite good readers of his behavioral cues so much so that they are even able to alert substitute teachers of potential outbursts.

Jacob does, however, have behavioral problems, which disrupt the classroom.  Most of these problems come from changes—even the slightest—in classroom routines.  Usually, Jacob responds to such changes with behavioral outbursts. These periods of disruption will sometimes last several minutes, at times longer. Jacob has come to fixate on a girl in the class, Jenna.  He gets upset when he cannot be with her in a variety of contexts including reading groups, playground activities, and lunchroom time.  Jacob’s parents and his teachers are doing their best to integrate Jacob into the classroom.   The teacher successfully protects Jenna from being distracted with Jacob’s outbursts and disruptions.  In fact, Jenna has come to express a great degree of sympathy and patience towards Jacob.

Imagine a parent of a “normal” child in the class arguing this way.  “Of course it is good for schools to provide accommodations to children like Jacob.  I have no problem with that at all.  But I pay taxes too.  My child has a great deal of academic potential—she seems to be ‘gifted.’  By spending classroom time and resources to integrate Jacob into the classroom, the teacher is taking time and resources away from academic achievement, particularly for those gifted students like my daughter.”

The challenge offered in this hypothetical parent’s complaint reflects a certain “liberal individualist” conception of education.  Such a conception views education primarily as an academic resource to be distributed in accordance with the equal rights of all. In this paper, I want to challenge the assumptions behind this liberal conception of education by developing an alternative Deweyan account of our educational responsibilities to the disabled. Although he never wrote about disabilities and education, John Dewey’s philosophy of education and democracy offers insight into our educational responsibilities to the disabled.[i]  I ground my argument in Dewey’s conception of growth, which I analyze in terms of an ideal called “ordered richness.”  This conception of growth both justifies and explicates the strategy of rich social integration of disabled children in the classroom. In addition to laying out a framework for the integration strategy, this paper seeks to achieve a clearer understanding of the educational import and value of Dewey’s conception of growth. Dewey’s educational and philosophical writings, for all of their insights, often lack concrete illustration.  Thus, there will be some value in interpreting his concepts by fleshing out their concrete ramifications. 

I proceed as follows:  in section one I give a brief overview of the standard liberal approaches to justice and disabilities.  In section two I explore the educational implications of liberal approaches.  Sections three and four treat Dewey’s ideal of “growth as ordered richness,” and its relevance to interpreting the nature of disablement.  Section five examines the educational implications of Dewey’s concept of growth, especially as it pertains to the proper treatment of the disabled.[ii]  Section six concludes by considering an objection from one liberal approach.  My reply will help to clarify the status of the paper’s central argument.


I) Standard Liberal Approaches to Disabilities Rights

Recently, the debates about disabilities rights have been couched in the contrast between formal and distributive approaches to justice.  Both approaches fit within the tradition of liberal political theory with its focus on equality and freedom.  Wasserman describes the liberal-distributive approach as follows, “They (liberal-distributive philosophers) all treat impairments as deficiencies in the individual’s capacity to convert external resources into well-being or to press external resources into the service of their chosen ends.  Like expensive tastes or vaulting ambitions, impairments result in frustration and unhappiness, but because unlike most tastes and ambitions, they are involuntary, a just society must somehow compensate for the shortfall in well-being that they produce.  These philosophers all tend to think that the “core problem is a lack of generally valuable internal resources.”[iii] Liberal approaches thus tend to require various extraordinary forms of compensation; for example, monetary payments or other financial aid to offset the inability to convert external resources into meaningful opportunities. 

According to critics of the distributive approach, “framing the problem as one of appropriate compensation for a deficit in internal resources conceals the primary injustice:  the construction or maintenance of a handicapping environment.”[iv] Frequently, the “handicap” is the result of past discriminatory practices, which has resulted in social environments that exclude individuals with various kinds of impairments.  Justice requires that we repair the environments, not the people.

Silvers, the primary advocate of formal justice puts it this way:  “formal equality requires sameness of opportunity with respect to securing equitably effective instrumentalities.”[v]  According to Silvers, such formal justice is the moral conception behind the Americans With Disabilities Act. This act requires that institutions make reasonable accommodations for disabled people, especially concerning matters such as access to public places.  Formal justice is based in a conception of disabilities that Silvers calls the social model.  According to this model, a person is disabled when social environments prohibit effective functioning due to past and ongoing discrimination.  Justice requires changing the social environments so as to enable equal access or opportunity for the disabled. Distributive models understand justice for the disabled in terms of allocation of resources to correct or mitigate natural deficits.  Thus distributive models appear to be based upon a medical model of disabilities—treating these as biological defects that need to be corrected or mitigated.  One likely consequence of the medical model’s interpretation of disabilities is the physical and social marginalization of disabled people.  If the primary disadvantage from impairment is the result of a biological failure, then the natural responses will be placement in medical institutions, or compensatory payments of one sort or another.  Silvers claims that such responses are not compatible with proper respect for the disabled.  Respect requires that society accept disabled people for who they are—groups of people with impairments that, at least in many cases, are not reasons for social exclusion. Another problem for the distributive approach is that it places strong demands on social resources, setting up potential conflicts between the disabled and other disadvantaged groups.   

Thus, formal justice requires equalizing the opportunities of the disabled by repairing, transforming or re-creating social environments so that these do not unduly shut out those with physical impairments.  Rather than monetary payments or even expensive medical treatments, formal justice requires removing socially created obstacles to full and fair participation.  So, for example, formal justice might advocate constructing wheel-chair ramps to a college rather than government funding of expensive procedures that might repair various crippling conditions.

Silvers’ formal justice approach has much to recommend itself over the liberal distributive approach.  Formal justice acknowledges the complex way that a person’s ability to function depends on interplay of both social and natural factors, and thus it acknowledges that much of the “handicapping” experienced by the disabled is socially created. Finally, formal justice avoids the pitfalls associated with ideas about “norms of proper function” that assume all impairments are disadvantages that require mitigation, cure, and correction.  These ideas are frequently descriptively inaccurate as well as morally dangerous.  For the rest of the paper, I will take the position that the formal approach is, if not superior to the distributive, at least complements the latter in a crucially necessary way.

Even though the formal approach is an advance over the distributive, it is important to bring out the assumptions common to both.  Both approaches are “liberal” in the fundamental sense that they conceive of the primary political value to be the equal rights of individuals to pursue their life plans according to their own private choices.  The core essence of the person is defined as an autonomous chooser. Disabilities are contingent features, which impede autonomous choice. The goal is to eliminate the unfair disadvantage caused by the contingent disabling feature.   According to the distributive approach, the disabling features are understood as unfortunate natural endowments.  The task of justice is to compensate individuals by correcting or mitigating the disabling natural endowments.  According to the formal justice approach, the disabling contingent features are primarily features of the social environment.  Justice for the disabled is primarily a matter of mitigating or transforming features of the environment so that impairments are no longer disadvantageous.  Disabilities are obstacles that impede autonomous choice, whether these are conceived according to the medical model as internal obstacles, or on the social model as obstacles resulting from social arrangements.  

Although the formal and distributive approaches contribute much to our moral understanding of macro-level issues about justice and disabilities, the liberal ideal of personal autonomy may distort our understanding or moral issues such as how to build a nourishing community in the classroom.  In the next section, I want to explore the implications of the liberal approach for questions pertaining to proper treatment of disabled children in the classroom.



II) Educational Implications of Liberal Approaches to Justice and Disabilities

The formal and distributive accounts of justice for the disabled concern macro-level questions about the distribution of resources and the organization of basic economic and political institutions.  One might think that these do not directly dictate particular educational arrangements pertaining to classroom treatment of disabled children. Consider that our conceptions of justice are tied to conceptual frameworks that organize our understanding of our roles, responsibilities, and social practices. Both medical and social models, as used by these liberal theorists, tacitly accept an ideal of personal autonomy.  Contrasting it with a Deweyan view that I will call “growth as ordered richness” can reveal the limitations of this ideal. 

Consider Christopher Jencks’s analysis of equal opportunity in education.  He uses a hypothetical case study of a third grade teacher he calls Ms. Higgins.  He writes,  “Her problem—and ours—is what her belief in equal opportunity implies about the distribution of the main educational resources at her disposal, namely her time and attention.”[vi]  Jencks believes that reflective teachers will quickly see difficult issues relating to questions about the proper distribution of their time and attention.  He considers, and finds wanting, five moral principles for addressing the problem of how a teacher ought to distribute her time and attention:  democratic equality, moralistic justice, weak and strong moralistic justice, and utilitarianism.  My concern is not to assess his evaluation of these five principles, but rather to explore the underlying assumptions about educational practice that appear to be guided by the liberal ideal of personal autonomy.

Let’s unpack the conceptual framework presupposed by the liberal way of framing educational practice.  It will be useful to do this in terms of deep assumptions about the proper roles of teachers and students. 

1)      The teacher’s moral position:  The teacher’s time and attention are scarce resources that must be allocated to students who have legitimate claims on them.  Her or his primary moral concern is how to fairly allocate these resources. 

2)      The student’s moral position:  Each student is vying for his or her fair share of resources, implying at least potential conflict and competition with the other students. 

3)      A conception of educational practice:  Education is a set of discrete episodes between individual students and teacher.  The primary purpose of these educational episodes is to equip students with resources and opportunities to pursue whatever life plans that he or she will have. 

4)      A conception of educational justice for disabled:  the disabled suffer from underserved disadvantages that prevent making adequate use of basic social resources, including those provided by the teacher.  Justice requires mitigating these disadvantages so that the disabled have an equal opportunity to use basic resources in the classroom.

I do not mean to imply that anyone who accepts the liberal approaches to macro-level issues about disabilities and rights must accept the assumptions about education just listed.  Nor do I mean to imply that Jencks himself thinks that the same moral principles and frameworks that address macro-level issues can answer micro-level questions.  My point is that if we are not careful we can import a network of moral conceptions and images into a domain where they are not only inappropriate, but where they can positively distort our understanding of the issues.  In the next section, I outline Dewey’s conception of “growth” understood as “ordered richness.” I argue that this view provides a compelling conception of our educational responsibilities to the disabled.  Liberal conceptions such as Silvers’ formal justice move in a significant direction of according the disabled proper respect by viewing their impairments as not internal deficits that need correction.  However, Dewey’s view goes further in demanding not just respect for individuals with impairment, but rich social integration of disabled and non-disabled people—a social integration that mutually enriches all.


III) Dewey’s Concept of Growth


There are two basic themes in Dewey’s theory of growth that I wish to consider in relation to the education of the disabled. The first is Dewey’s espousal of a radical individualism about well-being.  For Dewey, the question of how well an individual is faring is measured in terms how well he or she is exercising his or her unique capacities. The second facet of Dewey’s account of growth is a normative ideal that I, following Eldridge, call “ordered richness.” 

i) Dewey’s Radical Individualism

Dewey’s concept of growth, at least as it figures in his educational writings, is offered from and for the perspective of those charged to care for the development of the young. Educators, like parents, have responsibilities to promote the welfare of particular others for their own sakes.  This might seem too obvious to state.  But it is worth bearing in mind precisely because it is this “caring context” that might be lost from view when we view the primary moral concern in the classroom as that of how to fairly distribute resources to students.  This liberal view may engender an impersonal attitude towards students that may distort moral relations and pedagogical practices.[vii]

Dewey’s account of growth bears some affinities with self-realization theories endorsed by the Ancients, especially in a shared concern about the proper development of the young.  Self-realization theories maintain that human well-being is dependent upon, perhaps even constituted by, the successful exercise of one’s human capacities.  The job of the discerning educator is to create the conditions that enable the young to realize their potentials. Dewey agrees with this basic idea.  However, unlike, say, Aristotle’s concept of  “eudaimonia, “growing” in Dewey’s sense is not about developing those qualities that constitute some fixed species essence. For Dewey, growth is more radically individual.  Whether a person is growing—and thus attaining an acceptable level of well-being--is determined by an idea of optimal functioning according to his or own unique capacities. Although he finds much of value in Plato’s educational philosophy, he rejects what he regards as Plato’s failure to take human individuality seriously.  Plato famously divides human beings into three classes defined by dominant capacities (the so-called “rational,” “spirited” and “appetitive”).  Dewey regards Plato as essentially right in seeing the ways that individual capacity is developed through contributions to community.  He writes, “It would be impossible to find a deeper sense of the function of education in discovering and developing personal capacities, and training them so that they would connect with the activities of others.”[viii] Nevertheless, Dewey thinks Plato was wrong for thinking there were only a few social functions that could suit individuals.  This flaw was based upon Plato’s lack of “recognition that each individual constitutes his own class,” which in turn blinded Plato to the “recognition of the infinite diversity of active tendencies and combinations of tendencies of which an individual is capable.”[ix]

The passage suggests the following argument.  Each person is a unique conflux of capabilities.  Dewey would urge that this conflux is dependent on a variety of factors including the biological, psychological, and social dimensions of a person’s life. Whatever else it is, individual growth consists in the successful exercise of capacities in the context of social functions. Given the rich, variegated permutation of factors that determine individual growth, evaluations about how well a person is growing must be made relative to that same individual’s unique capacities. 

One might worry that Dewey exaggerates here.  It is trivially true that each person has unique biographical circumstances such that no one else can precisely replicate these.  However, so long as there is sufficient overlap in basic human capacities, there is no reason to be skeptical that people can be classified in terms of some common measure of successful exercise of capacities. 

I think Dewey’s claim that “each individual is a class by him or herself” is a hyperbolic corrective to the Platonic tendency to deny individual difference so that individuals can be sorted into social straightjackets (usually for the purposes of the powerful elite).  Dewey need not deny that meaningful comparisons between individuals can be made. For practical purposes we can group individuals, acknowledging that we are ignoring some differences.  Dewey’s point is rather a cautionary warning to acknowledge the limitations on classifications.  All classification involves selecting features we regarded as important for certain purposes.  This principle of selective emphasis is not itself a problem, however, failure to acknowledge it may lead us to ignore aspects of a person’s capacities and experiences that are crucial for his or her overall well-being.  

The caution about rigid classification ties into a second aspect of Dewey’s individualism.  Dewey maintains that even if there are commonalities between people—even common experiences that result from the development of similar capacities—it is still the case that the individual frequently experiences these “commonalities” as novel discoveries. Dewey uses this observation to emphasize the educational strategies that encourage individual discovery and initiative.  He puts it like this,

 “An individual is not original merely when he gives to the world some discovery that has never been made before.  Every time he really makes a discovery, even if thousands of persons have made similar ones before, he is an original.  The value of discovery in the mental life of an individual is the contribution it makes to creatively active mind; it does not depend upon no one’s ever having thought of the same idea before.”[x]

Any measure of how well a student is growing requires careful attention to his or her own experiential perspective.  This policy is not only good from the student’s perspective, it also helps educators learn about learning styles.  Dewey writes, “ . . . even young pupils react in unexpected ways.  There is something fresh, something not capable of being fully anticipated by even the most experienced teacher, in the ways they go at the topic, in the particular ways in which things strike them.”[xi]  Dewey then notes that these novel ways of learning are sources of insight for educators that can be used to improve pedagogy.  Dewey’s insight has particular relevance to teaching students with disabilities.  The atypical learning styles of an autistic child may reveal important insights relevant that pertain to both “normal” and autistic children.

ii) Growth as an Ideal of Ordered Richness

Although the subject of much debate in Dewey scholarship, it does seem apparent that Dewey has an answer to the question “what sort of growth is desirable?”  Desirable growth, for Dewey, is an ongoing activity with a quality we can call “ordered richness.”[xii]  Ordered richness is not an end beyond the activities that constitute growth, it is rather an ideal of the way that growth-constituting activities should unfold.

The ideal of ordered richness states that the best, richest kinds of human experiences arise from the development of cognitive, affective, and imaginative capacities, which are expressed in shared, self-directed activities. The pedagogical upshot of this “self-directive” dimension of growth is the importance of equipping students with second-order learning habits.  Effective education should equip students with the capacity to direct their own growth—to learn how to learn, so to speak.  The second-order habits necessary for self-directed growth include social skills and competencies.  Dewey makes explicit the connection between self-directed growth and the engagement in a wide variety of groups.  He claims that in a democratic society

“the aim of education is to enable individuals to continue their education—or that the object and reward of learning is continued capacity for growth.  Now this idea cannot be applied to all members of a society except where the intercourse of man with man is mutual, and except where there is adequate provision for the reconstruction of social habits and institutions by means of wide stimulation arising from equitably distributed interests.  And this means a democratic society.”[xiii]

I think that Dewey’s view is that there is a symbiotic connection between thriving democratic societies, in his specific sense, and individuals with strong capacities for self-directed growth.  Obviously, if a person is a member of a social group that thwarts the development of his or her capacities, she or he will have little ability to grow beyond what can be made of meager circumstances.  However, even if a person can thrive in one social group, he or she may fail to grow as much as possible if there is little or no opportunity to interact with other social groups.  Thus, Dewey has two criteria for evaluating social groups:  “how numerous and varied are the interests which are consciously shared?  How full and free is the interplay with other forms of association?”[xiv]  Using a “gang of thieves” as an example, he shows that many social groups will fall short of one or both of these criteria.  Presumably even if a gang consciously shares interests, and this sharing involves some degree of mutuality (the gang organizes itself in an egalitarian fashion) it does not share many interests and it does not engage in free and full interplay with other groups of association.[xv]

Think of it this way.  One aspect of the “order” in growth as ordered richness is harmonious integration with a social group.  One aspect of “richness” is an increasing diversity of interactions with a variety of social groups.  Thus, Deweyan growth, although primarily about individual well-being, is not just the growth of any capacities in any social situation.  It is the growth of capacities that promote rich social integration and that are nourished by that same social integration. An individual is growing to the extent that he or she contributes to the shared interests of a wide variety of social groups. The social groups that conduce to growth are democratic in the sense that they involve a high degree of mutuality between members, and they foster free and open interaction with other groups.[xvi]

IV) The Application of Deweyan Growth to Models of Disabilities

Dewey’s theory of growth involves two parts:  a strong attentiveness to the specific capacities of individuals and an ideal of ordered richness, which involves social integration.  What interpretation of disabilities is implied by this account? Given the strong focus on measuring individual well-being by reference to the development of person’s very particular capacities, Dewey’s view converges to some degree with the medical model. Assessment of how well an individual is growing requires looking at his or her own capacities, and these are, at base, natural endowments of a biological creature. Determinations about what counts as growth for an individual must be responsive to impairments of these natural endowments.   Nevertheless, Dewey’s view also converges with the insights of the social model of disabilities. The arrangements and structures of social groups ultimately determine whether a capacity and its impairment is an advantage or disadvantage.  Any pronouncements about advantages or disadvantages must be qualified relative to particular social contexts.   Silvers is right to emphasize that social obstacles are frequently the primary cause of an impairment being a disadvantage.  But the Deweyan view of disabilities demands that we look beyond the removal of obstacles in order to determine what kinds of social environments will mutually enrich the particular individuals involved.  In other words, removal of barriers is one part of promoting growth as ordered richness.  But the other part is the creation of social environments that mutually enrich all involved.  The capacities of individuals form a set of variables that must be considered in this process.  A capacity that may be a disadvantage in one social context, may be quite useful in another. 

Consider the example of Temple Grandin, autistic animal behavior scientist.[xvii]  Grandin’s autistic condition affords her deep insight into animal psychology.  She has provided invaluable advice about how to arrange livestock facilities in ways that improve the animal welfare.  She says that her insights arise from her perspective of an autistic person—a perspective similar in certain respects to the way that animals process perceptual details, in highly visual ways. Even though autism might count as impairment in some contexts—say those capacities that require abstract reasoning about the motives of others in a social group such as family— it is clearly an advantage in others.

We might put the claim in a somewhat exaggerated way:  there is no such thing as an intrinsically disabling impairment.  Social contexts determine what capacities are advantageous or not.   The claim is exaggerated in the sense that certain extreme impairments such as severe brain damage prevent any meaningful interaction in any conceivable social context.  Nevertheless, beyond certain limiting physical thresholds, many variables, not the least of which include the technological and institutional available resources, determine whether or not a human capacity is an advantage or disadvantage.  Indeed, this point holds true for so-called normal human capacities.  A person may be successful as an athlete in a family or community that values and supports people with such physical capacities.  In other contexts, such physical endowments may not be an advantage. 



  V) Rich Social Integration As an Educational Strategy

Let’s spell out the educational implications of Dewey’s notion of growth as ordered richness by returning to the question of the educational roles of teachers and students, some of whom may be disabled. 

1)      The moral position of the teacher:  the teacher’s time and attention should be devoted to determining how student capacities—particularly second-order capacities that enable self-directed learning-- can be developed in the context of contributions to the school community.  The teacher directs this developmental growth by paying careful attention to a variety of context-specific objective conditions.  These conditions include the capacities of the specific members of the class (teachers and students). [xviii]

2)      The student’s moral position: Students conceive of themselves as members of a community, which values their contributions.  They actively shape their own educational growth participating in collective problem solving about matters with which they are concerned but which are also experienced as involving discovery and novelty. 

3)      A conception of educational practice:  Education at its best occurs in a community that values the contributions of its members.  This community promotes growth in its members through active inquiry into what are, relative to their perspectives, novel experiences. These practices enrich experience now and develop capacities necessary for self-directed growth in a variety of social groups.

4)      Conception of educational justice for the disabled:  The primary educational objective should be to develop the specific capacities of the disabled by creating a social environment to which they can contribute.  This may involve mobilizing resources to compensate the disabled for their disadvantages.  However, the ultimate goal is rich, meaningful social integration.  As important as it may be to remove social obstacles so as to enable the disabled to participate in social groups as equals, the Deweyan approach implies an ideal of mutual transformation of everyone involved in the learning process. 

Return now to the parent who complains that the teacher’s strategy of integrating Jacob is diverting resources from developing the academic skills of her gifted daughter.  The parent’s worry reflects a value judgment about the importance of acquiring certain academic skills or pieces of knowledge for their own sake, and the right of all to get their fair share of academic skills.  The Deweyan answer to this kind of complaint is to emphasize the broader personal and social values served by the integration strategy.  Indeed, the integration strategy benefits the non-autistic children precisely because they get the opportunity to develop social skills like empathy and the appreciation of difference.  They also acquire more all-purpose learning skills such as the capacity to deal with novel social situations.  It is not that basic academic skills are unimportant.  Rather, the Deweyan view implies that these ought to be embedded in a larger context of growth as ordered richness, which, as I have argued, involves cultivating the capacity to participate in a rich variety of social groups.

VI) Conclusion

Finally, consider an objection.  One might imagine a defender of formal justice arguing as follows.  “We can agree with much of what you say about Dewey’s approach to an integration strategy in the classroom.  However, our theories apply to a macro-level analysis about questions pertaining to the distribution of resources and the allocation of social opportunities.” Silvers would point out that her philosophy would require that an autistic child have appropriate textbooks, a disabled child have a wheel chair ramp and so forth.  Once such issues of basic equality of access are settled, it remains open to debate what educational strategies will benefit the students involved.  Theories of justice simply are not relevant to that sort of issue.

There are several replies to this potential objection.  First, I am willing to concede that for the purposes of, say, determining what a reasonable accommodation in the work place is, formal justice may be enough in its emphasis on correcting disabling conditions so that all have a roughly fair starting point to compete.  Thus, one way of taking my argument is as a modest recommendation to keep principles of justice in their appropriate domains.  A Deweyan conception of growth yields normative considerations more adequate for micro-level issues concerning appropriate classroom strategies, however, at the macro/institutional level formal justice may be sufficient. 

But I think the Deweyan argument cuts deeper, considering the fact that, at least according to Silvers, the formal approach rests on deeper assumptions about the nature of disabilities and an ideal of the sort of non-discriminatory social arrangements we seek to realize.  Silvers is explicit that the ultimate social goal of laws like ADA is to unseat prejudicial behavior and action against the disabled.  She writes,

“The ADA protects individuals from being penalized because their group has been unfairly identified as being incompetent.  It thus is incorrect to think of a reasonable accommodation as advantaging the individual for whom it is made.  Rather, an accommodation refashions an existing practice or site to eliminate bias against the group of people whom that individual represents.  The summative result of making reasonable accommodations will be to remodel disablist behaviors and practices shaped by disablist theoretical assumptions.”[xix]

Silvers is clear in this passage that the reasonable accommodations mentioned in ADA are part of a long-term effort guided by a social ideal of non-biased, equal treatment of the disabled.  Silvers is right to suggest that society needs to move beyond the association of disabilities with stereotypes such as incompetence and abnormality in need of correction.  Nevertheless, the advantage of Dewey’s approach is that it asks more than this.  Dewey’s ideal of growth demands not just that we get beyond associating disabilities with negative stereotypes.  Nor is it in enough to simply rework the social environment so that disabled people have equal access to social opportunities.  The Deweyan democratic ideal of growth requires rich social integration of individuals by finding ways to use their unique capacities to contribute to social groups.  Dewey’s individualism here sharply diverges from Silvers. For Silvers, respect for individuals requires removal of social obstacles in order to provide individuals with a fair starting point so that they can choose their life plans as they see fit.  For Dewey, proper respect requires deep inquiry into context, asking how we can best draw upon the unique capacities of all involved; how we can contribute to common goals, and enhance each other. This means we need to focus on our unique capacities, and what would thwart or promote them in specific contexts.  Granted, there may be some social environments, which, by nature of their activities, permit only low-grade integration.  If I’m working in an office stall, I might have little or no interaction with others that requires we mutually enrich each other.  Nevertheless, the Deweyan approach demands that we sustain an open and experimental attitude towards the possibilities of rich social integration.  Even those social contexts most recalcitrant to rich integration might, with creative thought and foresight, be transformed to permit rich integration.

My claim in this paper is that the best way to test the underlying moralized conceptions of disabilities is by fleshing out their implications for micro-level issues, such as how to best integrate the disabled in the classroom.  I take it that this is at least one legacy of the pragmatic tradition’s continual emphasis on developing philosophical conceptions that arise out of, and address, problematic situations.




1John McDermott analyzes the treatment of the handicapped from the perspective of Dewey’s philosophy in McDermott (1992).  His approach usefully situates the movement to integrate the disabled in education to two Deweyan ideas:  a “vision of the human condition . . . as continuous with nature and therefore in general, ‘handicapped’ in the attempted resolution of our problems, because nature gives no quarter and often demands of us a response that is not humanly possible” (235).  In other words, Dewey’s metaphysics starts from basic assumptions about human fallibility, frailty, and continuity with a nature in process.  The second idea is “education is a form of deep ‘coping,’ problem-solving, and assisting, rather than as any final solution . . . “ (235).  This secondidea ties into Dewey’s view that education is about a growth understood as an ongoing process of enriching experience, especially as McDermott puts it “to recover from loss” (240).  I think McDermott is correct that Deweyan philosophy of education would welcome the movement to integrate the disabled into the classroom.  My goal in this paper is to amplify the normative role of growth in justifying integrating the disabled into the classroom.

[ii] Before I begin, a caveat is in order.  The concern over educating the disabled involves macro and micro level questions.  At the macro-level are fundamental questions about what justice requires for the disabled, generally.  In the educational context, this macro-question relates to fundamental issues about the allocation of scarce educational resources so as to insure fair treatment of the disabled.  Finally, there are micro-level questions about appropriate treatment of students in the classroom, especially those who suffer from disadvantages resulting from disabilities. The landmark1975 Individuals with Disabilities Act says “in order to receive federal funds, states must develop and implement policies that assure a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to all children with disabilities.” At what we might call the “macro-level” the United States is committed, morally and legally, to the goal of equal educational opportunities for disabled children.  This law, together with the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 reflects a growing consensus towards thinking of the disabled as deserving of equal rights to participate in civic life.  In this paper, I take this macro-level consensus for granted in order to focus more on the micro-level issue of our responsibilities to students in the classroom.  Nevertheless, the macro-level consensus about equal educational opportunities can mask other deeper disagreements—disagreements about our fundamental moral images of social and individual well-being. It is these deeper assumptions that are usefully explored when we explore their practical consequences on micro-level issues such as our educational responsibilities to the disabled.

Daniels (1987, 173).

[iii] Silvers (1998).

[iv] See Silvers (1998).

[v] Silvers (1998, 127).

[vi] Jencks (1988, 519).

[vii] Dewey’s concept of growth plays several roles in his ethics and value theory, but I think its most compelling application is as a way of understanding individual well-being, especially in caring contexts. At least on one view of the matter, the concept of caring about someone for his or own sake explains the notion of well-being or welfare.  A person’s welfare is whatever a care-giver would have reason to want for that person for his or her own sake.  Whether or not we accept this account of welfare, it seems plausible enough to maintain a close connection between our normative ideas about caring and well-being.  See Darwall 2002.

[viii] Dewey (1988, 95).

[ix] Dewey (1988, 96).

[x] Dewey (1988, 128).

[xi] Dewey (1988, 313).

[xii] Michael Eldridge develops the notion of “ordered richness” as a way of understanding the most comprehensive concept in Dewey’s value theory, especially as this applies to democracy.  See Eldridge (1997, 97-119).

[xiii] Dewey (1985, 107)

[xiv] Dewey (1985, 89)

[xv] In a later work, Experience and Education, he makes a related point about growth After conceding that a person may “grow” in immoral activities like being a gangster, he writes:  “Does this form of growth create conditions for further growth, or does it set up conditions that shut off the person who has grown in this particular direction from the occasions, stimuli, and opportunities for continuing growth in new directions?  What is the effect of growth in a special direction upon the attitudes and habits which alone open up avenues for development in other lines?  I shall leave you to answer these questions, saying simply that when and only when development in a particular line conduces to continuing growth does it answer to the criterion of education as growing.  For the conception is one that must find universal and not specialized limited application.[xv]

[xvi] To the question, is individual growth valuable because it contributes to democratic community, or is democratic community valuable because it contributes to individual growth, Dewey’s answer would be “both.” For Dewey means and ends interpenetrate.  The justification of individual growth and democratic community is mutual.  Nevertheless, there is a sense in which Dewey privileges the individual in the order of justification. See for example his remarks in “Creative Democracy:  the Task Before Us” and “Experience and Education.”

[xvii] See Grandin and Johnson (2005).

[xviii] Dewey writes, “Responsibility for selecting objective conditions carries with it, then, the responsibility for understanding the needs and capacities of the individuals who are learning at a given time.  It is not enough that certain materials and methods have proved effective with other individuals at other times.  There must be a reason for thinking that they will function in generating an experience that has an educative quality with particular individuals at a particular time.” (EE, 27).

[xviii] Silvers (1998, 132).



Works Cited


Daniels, Norman.  1987.  “Justice and Health Care,” in Health Care Ethics:  An Introduction, ed. D. Van DeVeer and T. Regan.  Philadelphia, Temple University Press.


Dewey, John.  1985. Democracy and Education in Middle Works Vol. 9, ed. J. A. Boydston. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press.


-- Dewey, John.  1991. Experience and Education in Later Works Vol. 13, ed. J. A. Boydston. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press.


--Dewey, John.  1985. “Construction and Criticism”  in Later Works Vol. 5, ed. J. A. Boydston. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press.


Dworkin, Ronald.  1981.  “What is equality?”  Part 1: Equality of Resources.”  Philosophy and Public Affairs 10, no. 4:  283-345.


Eldridge, Michael.  1998. Transforming Experience:  John Dewey’s Cultural Instrumentalism.  Nashville, Vanderbilt University Press.


Grandin and Johnson.  2005.  Animals in Translation.  New York, Scribner Press.


Griffin, James.  1988.  Well-Being:  Its Meaning, Importance and Measurement.  Oxford, Oxford University Press.


Jencks, Christopher.  1988.  “Whom Must We Treat Equally for Educational Opportunity to Be Equal?” Ethics 98, 518-20.


McDermott, John.  1992.  “Isolation as Starvation:  John Dewey and a Philosophy of the Handicapped,” in John Dewey:  Critical Assessments, Vol. III:  Value, Conduct, and Art, ed. J.E. Tiles.  London, Routledge Press.


Pogge, Thomas W.  1989.  Realizing Rawls.  Ithaca, Cornell University Press.


Silvers, Waserman, and Mahowald.  1998.  Disability, Difference, Discrimination;  Perspectives on Justice in Bioethics and Public Policy.  Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.