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Understanding and responding to the tensions between deficit discourses and inclusive education

Bernadette Macartney

Assumptions about disability play a key role in how disabled students are treated at school. Using a case study as a focus, Bernadette Macartney argues that every child has the right to be viewed holistically, because taking a deficit view creates barriers to their full participation at school.

Journal issue: 

Understanding and responding to the tensions between deficit discourses and inclusive education



•&&&&Negative assumptions and discourses about disability can create barriers to disabled children participating fully in education.

•&&&&This is in conflict with The New Zealand Curriculum, which takes a credit- or human-rights-based approach.

•&&&&Assessments that focus on identifying the assumed deficits of disabled children are not focusing on supporting children’s learning and participation.

•&&&&Every child has the right to be viewed positively and holistically.

•&&&&The classroom teacher, not the outside “expert”, knows the child best and should be the central professional.

Assumptions about disability play a key role in how disabled students are treated at school. Using a case study as a focus, Bernadette Macartney argues that every child has the right to be viewed holistically, because taking a deficit view creates barriers to their full participation at school.

As teachers, we need to be aware of and attentive to the dominant beliefs, assumptions and attitudes that lie beneath the dominant Western culture in our 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 (Ballard, 2004; Purdue, 2004). Deficit-based discourses of disability are here introduced and used to analyse one family’s experience of an assessment and planning process at a New Zealand primary school. 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, resisting and removing from primary school teaching. As an alternative to drawing from deficit understandings around disability, I suggest that teachers and educational settings adopt a social- and rights-based approach to disabled children’s participation and learning in schools.

Methods and methodology

Research participants and design

This article draws on a qualitative, interview-based study of two families who each have a young child with disabilities. Here I focus on the experiences of primary school education from the perspective of one family—my own. My partner, Tony, and I were interviewed on two occasions by other researchers. Maggie, our daughter, was seven and eight years old when the interviews took place. In addition to the interview transcripts, our family’s data includes documents such as special education assessments and Individual Education Plans (IEPs). Excerpts from an assessment document and a description of the assessment situation are presented and analysed in this article. Alongside the examination of deficit constructions of disability, I use The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007) and a social- and rights-based discourse to interpret how Maggie was constructed and responded to in the primary school situation that is described (Barnes, Mercer, & Shakespeare, 1999; Fulcher, 1989; Minister for Disability Issues, 2001; Oliver, 1990; Rinaldi, 2006).

Researcher positioning

I am the mother of a child who has been labelled and diagnosed as disabled, and I am also an early childhood teacher. 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 (Macartney, 2002, 2008).

Theoretical framework

The key theoretical framework that I have used is 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 education. 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. Other discourses, however, may be viewed as less important and are marginalised or rejected. (MacArthur et al., 2003, pp. 134–135)

Many of the assumptions and beliefs that we draw from and “speak into existence” (Davies, 1991, p. 43) in our lives, relationships and teaching are taken for granted by us and therefore remain unquestioned—for example, the belief that disability is “a problem” or that disabled children need “special” interventions in their education. An unquestioning stance allows the status quo to be maintained by default and without critique. “Discourse” can be a useful lens through which to look at the relationships between our meanings, beliefs and teaching practices, and the effects of these on children’s learning, sense of belonging and participation.

Discourses of disability

There are several discourses constructing the dominant Western views of disability.

Medical and special education discourses

The dominant discourse is the medical discourse (Ballard, 1994; Barnes et al., 1999; Fulcher, 1989; MacArthur et al., 2003). This defines disability as a pathological condition or a deficit within the individual. It relies on statistical measurement and comparison of individuals who are then classified in terms of their relationship to “the norm” (Graham, 2005). People who deviate significantly from “the norm” are seen as being in need of “diagnosis” and “treatment” by “experts” (Allan, 1999).

Developmental psychology translates the medical model into educational knowledge and practice (Skrtic, 1991, 1995). Disabled children do not conform to “normal” expectations and criteria for learning, growth, relationships, communication and development. Based on a universalised understanding of learning using predetermined, normalised milestones, ages and stages of development, disabled children are separated out as having “special education needs” that require specialised interventions.

Charity and personal-tragedy discourses

Other discourses interact with medical and special education discourses in ways that support them. A charity discourse positions disabled people as pitiable, dependent on others for care and victims of a personal tragedy. Disabled people are seen as needy, a “disabled life” is viewed as less than an “able-bodied life” and disabled people and their families are viewed with pity, discomfort and fear. Disabled people are constructed as passive recipients of specialised services and “help” rather than as active consumers and citizens with rights and desires (Ferguson & Sullivan, 2005; Fulcher, 1989).

A major effect of a dominant medicalised view of disability is that it ignores and silences the social construction of disability and impairment, and the negative impacts of those constructions on people who are classified as “impaired” or “disabled”.

A social model or rights-based discourse

In contrast, underpinning a human rights discourse is a view of disability as a political and social issue, rather than a private, individual medical condition (Allan, 1999; Fulcher, 1989; Oliver, 1990, 1996).

The “social model”

Michael Oliver (1990, 1996) and other disabled writers in the 1970s and 1980s developed a theoretical framework for challenging medicalised, deficit views of disability. This framework is termed the “social model”. The social model separates the terms disability and impairment. The term impairment refers to bodily experience. For example, disabled people may describe their impairments as being unable to see or hear clearly, or as having one side of their body that does not “work properly”. Disability refers to the experience of living in a society that does not take into consideration the experiences of people with “impairments”. Under this model, it is society that disables individuals with “impairments” by creating barriers to learning, full participation and respect. It shifts the causes and experience of disability from the “deficient” individual to the social construction of disability, and the workings of oppressive and disabling barriers in society. The social model champions the human rights, voices and desires of disabled people (Oliver, 1990, 1996). It suggests that deficit views lead to the denial of disabled people’s rights to full participation in society and enjoyment of life. It argues that, rather than stemming from the individual, most difficulties that disabled people face are extrinsic to the disabled person—they are socially, culturally, economically, physically and historically created (Barnes et al., 1999).

The New Zealand Disability Strategy

There is much support for a social model or rights-based perspective in Aotearoa New Zealand (The New Zealand Education Act 1989; The Human Rights Act 1993; Minister for Disability Issues, 2001; Ministry of Education, 1996a, 1996b). A key example of a rights-based perspective is The New Zealand Disability Strategy (Minister for Disability Issues, 2001). Government ministries and agencies, including the Ministry of Education, are expected to regularly report on and review their progress in terms of the strategy’s objectives. The purpose of the disability strategy is to change New Zealand “… from a disabling to an inclusive society” (p. 1). In this regard, it states that:

Disability is a process which happens when one group of people create barriers by designing a world only for their way of living, taking no account of the impairments other people may have … (Minister for Disability Issues, 2001, p. 1)

The New Zealand Curriculum and a rights-based discourse

Vision, principles and values

The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007) provides a foundation, framework and direction for teachers in relation to how learning and teaching are conceptualised, the teacher’s image of the child and the implications of this for teaching practices and orientation.

The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007) draws from “credit”-based, social justice and human rights discourses to describe and respond to children’s learning and participation. The government’s overall vision for young New Zealanders is that they will develop into “… confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners” (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 7). The curriculum principles include an expectation that:

The curriculum has meaning for students, connects with their wider lives, and engages the support of their families, whānau and communities …

and that:

… students’ identities, languages, abilities, and talents are recognised and affirmed … (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 9)

Responding to each child’s identity, abilities and talents has implications for the role of schools and teachers as they are expected to take responsibility for the learning and experiences of all children, including those labelled as having “special educational needs”. The curriculum values include the requirement that schools create an environment where students develop a shared sense of belonging, take responsibility for themselves and others and develop an understanding of and respect for equity, diversity and human rights (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 10).

Tensions exist between dominant deficit-based discourses and the espoused credit-based discourses underpinning the curriculum (Alton-Lee, Rietveld, Klenner, Dalton, Diggins, & Town, 2000). This presents a challenge to schools and teachers in understanding and enacting the inclusive vision, principles, values and expectations of the curriculum for all students including those constructed as “having” “special education needs” (MacArthur, Kelly, & Higgins, 2005).

The New Zealand Curriculum and “effective pedagogy”

The New Zealand Curriculum describes the orientation of the effective teacher as, “… cultivating the class as a learning community. In such a community, everyone, including the teacher, is a learner …” (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 34). Children are viewed as active participants and co-constructors of their learning. A view of teachers as learners and children as teachers challenges the idea of teachers and other professionals being the only experts when it comes to influencing the teaching, learning and participation of students.

The Curriculum emphasises learning as a sociocultural process. A sociocultural approach to education is based on a social constructionist view of knowledge, experience and reality. Social constructionism views knowledge and “truth” as being constantly produced and reproduced through the social and cultural contexts and society in which it is situated. Learning is viewed as a process of interrelationship and the co-construction of knowledge. In this regard, the Curriculum states that:

Learning is inseparable from its social and cultural context. Students learn best when they feel accepted, when they enjoy positive relationships with their fellow students and teachers, and when they are able to be active, visible members of the learning community. (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 34)

Because learning is viewed as being strongly influenced by the social and cultural context, a sociocultural view is critical of traditional views of teaching and learning as the straightforward transference and reception of predetermined “truths” and knowledge (Carr, 2001). On the contrary, a sociocultural view recognises and privileges diversity, dialogue, multiple perspectives, divergent viewpoints and negotiation as cornerstones of an effective pedagogy and curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007; Rinaldi, 2006). The New Zealand Curriculum describes teaching as a process of “teaching as inquiry” (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 35). Rather than constructing children’s learning and development as universal and children as passive recipients of knowledge, teaching as inquiry notices and responds to students within the specific learning context. Assessment and planning using observation and documentation within the school and classroom context should guide and inform teachers’ ongoing reflection, evaluation, planning and decision making. That is, the Curriculum “… requires that teachers inquire into the impact of their teaching on their students” (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 35).

A sociocultural view challenges individualised, deficit discourses that explain the success or failure of a child as being caused by factors within the individual student (Ballard, 2004; MacArthur et al., 2005). Instead, the onus for success or failure, inclusion or exclusion is on the social and cultural environment and how that impacts on children’s participation and learning.

The next section of this article represents the experiences of a disabled child from the perspective of her parents. These experiences are interpreted using a social- and rights-based discourse, and in the context of The New Zealand Curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007).

Assessment: A tool to improve learning and teaching or an instrument of separation and control?

Following is an examination of an assessment practice that was based on a medical-special education discourse, and the possible effects of this on a disabled child’s learning, participation and inclusion at school. The key adult within this situation was a special education professional. However, the practices typify the experiences of many New Zealand disabled children in state schools and have serious implications for the orientation and practices of classroom teachers.

In 2002, when Maggie was six years old, a special education professional came to school to carry out some “assessment” with Maggie. Maggie had met this person once or twice before. The specialist removed Maggie from her classroom for the assessment. The assessment, or “test” as it was referred to by the specialist, involved showing Maggie a series of illustrations, and asking her questions about each picture in turn. According to the specialist’s report, the purpose of showing and asking questions about each picture was to:

Determine Maggie’s ability to maintain attention to task … gain some knowledge of her expressive language abilities in connected speech, and gauge Maggie’s ability to maintain the topic when asked a question.

Assessment: What for?

Assessment can be used as a process for getting to know and learn about a child through an orientation towards understanding the child within their context of learning and sometimes other contexts (Carr, 2001; Ministry of Education, 2007). The assessment situation introduced above raises issues about what counts as valuable learning and knowledge, who defines what is of value and the effects of the particular goals and teaching methods that are recommended for students in classrooms. To understand the implications for students of particular approaches to assessment, it is useful to explore how the context(s) in which assessments are carried out, the assessment methods and the focus of assessment might foster inclusion or create barriers to participation and learning.

In her “test results” the specialist wrote:

Maggie-Rose’s ability to maintain attention to task was limited. The test was abandoned after the 7th card as she became fixated and very amused by the previous card. (A picture of a girl who had fallen down some stairs and broken her glasses.)

Pathologising difference and disability: Disability as deviation from the norm

The use of a psychological term, fixated, to describe Maggie’s response to the illustration of a girl falling down the stairs indicates that Maggie’s reaction was viewed and constructed as pathological or “abnormal”. This suggests that, at least in this situation, the specialist viewed and positioned Maggie primarily in relation to her (perceived) differences or deficits.

Looking at the situation from an orientation that positions Maggie’s learning and participation as being nested within a sociocultural network and environment, other interpretations of Maggie’s responses become available. An alternative interpretation of Maggie’s response to the picture card could be that it was evidence of her developing sense of humour in line with the dominant culture’s propensity to laugh at and make fun of the misfortunes of others, rather than as a marker of her deviation from the “norm”. It can be argued that it was not Maggie but the situation and context that were unusual, out of the ordinary or abnormal. If the context of the situation were changed, it would be quite possible to view Maggie’s behaviour as appropriate, creative, acceptable and productive of learning. For example, if I had been reading Maggie a nursery rhyme with a picture of Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall and she had laughed when I said “Weeee! Bang!” when Humpty fell down, and Maggie had wanted to read it over and over, I would not have interpreted her behaviour as evidence of a “fixation”. On the contrary, I would have interpreted the situation as one of her and I experiencing a period of joint attention that involved sharing a joke.

Maggie’s presumed reluctance to answer the specialist’s questions was used as evidence of her “limited” attention to task. It is not surprising that she wasn’t keen on answering the specialist’s questions given that she had been removed from her classroom to answer questions about some pictures by a near-stranger. Although she wasn’t keenly focused on the required task, Maggie did demonstrate that she could “maintain attention” to what captured her interest within the situation. This “attention to task” was not recognised as relevant to her ability to attend. Instead, the “test results” were used to support the specialist’s (pre)conception that Maggie’s attention span was limited. Maggie’s ability to concentrate on and engage with a topic when it was meaningful, relevant and of interest to her was irrelevant and problematic within this assessment situation (Ministry of Education, 2007).

Defining disability as an internal, individual “problem”

Several weeks later the specialist came back to school and re-presented the picture card “test” that had previously been “abandoned”. These were the (or her) “results”:

Maggie demonstrated that she was able to maintain the topic when asked a question. However, this linked with her attention span. When presented with the remaining three pictures left over from the previous session, Maggie-Rose once again became fixated on the picture that she found amusing. Consequently the tenth picture card was abandoned.

The specialist’s conclusions utilised a medical, individualised view of disability to explain why Maggie did not conform to the specialist’s expectations about how she should respond to the test. The “problems” that the specialist experienced were explained in terms of Maggie’s inability to maintain attention, rather than any consideration of problems associated with the task and situation.

An emphasis on perceived deficits within the individual, when this is accepted by a classroom teacher, can work in ways that divert teacher attention from interpreting the child and their behaviour positively, and noticing and responding to opportunities for teaching and learning. Viewing the child’s “deficits” or “impairment(s)” as being the defining influence on their behaviour, participation and learning also diverts attention away from the influences that other people, dominant cultural assumptions and the environment have on a child. There is a danger that the intensified and narrowed scrutiny or “gaze” a disabled child is under, coupled with their disability being seen as their defining characteristic, will lead to the child’s actual and potential attributes, interests and strengths being transformed from positive and productive of learning to negative, pathological and something that needs fixing. This pathologising process was occurring when Maggie’s enjoyment and developing sense of humour was interpreted as a limiting “fixation”.

Meaningful teaching and learning, or control and conformity: What is valued?

Following the repeat assessment, the specialist wrote a report recommending “targets” to Maggie’s classroom teacher. These included that:

To facilitate Maggie-Rose to remain on-task it is recommended that a visual schedule be implemented to support and enhance organisation, functional communication and attention skills. Further, that she will be expected to remain ‘on-task’ for a given amount of time, e.g., 5 minutes, then she is allowed to choose an ‘off-task’ activity for a given period of time. Once this time is up she will be expected to return ‘on-task’, for a given period again … (and that Maggie learn to) … identify the days of the week; and to identify what day it is today, what day it was yesterday, what day comes after and what day comes before.

The recommendations in the report don’t appear to have come from the assessment so much as from a predefined checklist of “functional” knowledge and skills deemed important or appropriate for “special needs” children to learn. Rather than being indicative of Maggie’s abilities, the specialist’s assessment “results” and “targets” can be interpreted as evidence of a pre-existing, deficit knowledge base and assumptions about disability and disabled children. An emphasis on the remediation of perceived deficits through a focus on maintaining “functional” attention to task, responding in a “normal” way to someone else’s topic or agenda and engaging in “functional” communication represents a view of the learner as a passive object to be manipulated and shaped so as to fit in with dominant expectations about what is normal and appropriate behaviour.

It is timely and crucial to question such practices as withdrawing children, and using decontextualised, predetermined fragmented approaches to assessment and planning, particularly in light of the new curriculum document and its emphasis on the importance of the lived classroom context, student culture, identity and relationships for assessment, teaching and learning (Ministry of Education, 2007).

The first curriculum principle states that, “The curriculum supports and empowers all students to learn and achieve personal excellence, regardless of their individual circumstances” (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 9). What spontaneous interactions and learning opportunities alongside her peers could Maggie have been excluded from if she had been subjected to a rigid scheduling of “on- and off- task” activities within the classroom?

Significantly lowered expectations are a potential effect of deficit views of a child and the ensuing remedial response to teaching (MacArthur et al., 2005). Lowered expectations are a real danger if deficit views and responses are accepted and enacted by classroom teachers and others that influence a child’s learning, participation and environment.

Assessment: With what “results”?

Disability researchers in education have suggested that the assessment and labelling of particular groups of children as “special” has much more to do with the administration, separation and control of children who do not fit expectations for “normal” behaviour and development, than supporting children’s learning and participation (Baker, 2002; Ballard, 2004; Graham, 2005). Rather than being of benefit to “disabled” or “special” children, deficit and special educational approaches to assessment, teaching and learning create barriers that deny or restrict full participation and access to the same social and academic learning opportunities expected as of right for nondisabled children (Baker, 2002; Ballard, 2004; Gable, 2005; Graham, 2005; MacArthur et al., 2005).

In reference to the use of language, categories and practices that divide children into the groups of “special or abnormal” and “not special or normal”, Keith Ballard concludes that, “… it would seem evident that the categories themselves are more tools of control and administration than diagnostic groupings that are meaningful for teaching” (2004, p. 317). According to The New Zealand Curriculum, “The primary purpose of assessment is to improve students’ learning and teachers’ teaching …” (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 39). The generalised conclusion that Maggie’s “attention span” was limited as a result of an outsider’s use of one decontextualised assessment tool is at odds with current sociocultural approaches to assessment, including those in The New Zealand Curriculum (Carr, 2001; Ministry of Education 1996a, 2007). The writers of these texts suggest that fair, useful and effective assessment involves educators using a variety of methods to gather information, inviting and considering the contribution of a range of perspectives about the student’s learning and participation—particularly those of the child and their family, benefits to the student and their learning as an outcome of assessment and the use of assessment tools that “… suit the nature of the learning that is being assessed and the purpose for which the information is to be used” (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 40).

Once children are sorted through labelling, testing and documentation according to their deviation from the “norm”, they can be separated out for differential treatment within regular educational settings. The differential treatment usually involves an emphasis on learning functional skills, and other remediations to assist a child to behave and act as normally as possible (Hehir, 2002). This “fix-it” emphasis leaves little or no time and space in the educational environment for acknowledging and using a child’s strengths, interests and abilities to foster their learning, identity and relationships with their peers within an inclusive context (Hehir, 2002). It also denies the reality and importance of diversity amongst children in New Zealand schools. Therefore, it is crucial that teachers recognise and identify mismatches between deficit-individualised and sociocultural approaches to learning and assessment, as a pathway towards resisting and challenging deficit discourses and associated practices in ourselves, and in our classrooms and schools.

Who is responsible for the student?

An exclusionary effect of classifying processes is that classroom teachers may feel discouraged from taking full responsibility—alongside the child and their family—for the child’s learning and participation. When a child’s “impairment” is viewed as their defining characteristic, the focus is on how they differ from others much more than what they have in common (Rietveld, 2005). As a result of perceived differences, the presence and input of “experts” is viewed as necessary and desirable. Rather than the classroom teacher taking the central responsibility for assessing and planning for every student, this responsibility may be assumed by a “special educator”. This situation creates barriers to every child’s right to equal access to their classroom teacher and the curriculum (Ministry of Education, 2007). Allowing outside “experts” to assess, use and recommend particular approaches when these are inconsistent with current best practice and effective pedagogy is detrimental to the child and counter to the expectations and requirements of The New Zealand Curriculum. The classroom teacher, the child’s family, the child and the child’s peers are the experts about a student’s identity, abilities, interests, needs, learning and participation. I suggest that teachers consciously and actively work in ways that place themselves as the central professional in relation to assessment, planning, teaching and evaluation of every child in their care. To do this, teachers need to critically and openly advocate for every child’s right to be viewed positively and holistically and to experience success in their learning and social relationships as a respected member of a community of learners (Ministry of Education, 2007).


The power that adults have to influence what is happening in an educational environment—without their knowledge base or assumptions necessarily being questioned or challenged—has significant consequences for a child’s identity, learning and participation. In this article I have argued that, in order for disabled children to be fully included and to have equal access to educational opportunities, classroom teachers and schools must take full responsibility for every student.

A view of disability that emphasises and exaggerates perceived differences between, and the separation of disabled people from, others in education and society contributed to the differential treatment that was recommended for Maggie in her classroom. In this situation, Maggie’s behaviour and responses were attributed to her “impairments”. This situation indicates the power of medical and special education discourses to shape understandings about disabled children and about teaching in ways that lead to social and educational exclusion. Those who use approaches that recognise the powerful influence and responsibilities that others have in fostering, planning and reflecting upon the physical, cultural and social context are in a position to identify and dismantle barriers to participation and provide an inclusive, responsive and respectful learning community in which everybody belongs and is learning (Minister for Disability Issues, 2001; Ministry of Education, 2007). As teachers, we must be ready, willing and able to respond to the rights and learning of every child in ways that are consistent with government policy (Minister for Disability Issues, 2001), The New Zealand Curriculum and our espoused principles, values and aspirations for children (Ministry of Education, 2007). Educational inclusion will not just happen because we think it is a good idea. To change New Zealand “from a disabling to an inclusive society” (Minister for Disability Issues, 2001, p. 1) and to give all children access to the New Zealand curriculum, we must actively support a social-model understanding of disability and a rights-based discourse for all children. This requires an awareness and acknowledgement of the potential effects of limiting, discriminatory thinking and practices in ourselves, others, our classrooms and our schools. In order to say confidently that our schools are inclusive of children with disabilities, we must be prepared to challenge and resist arrangements, knowledge and situations that reproduce and allow deficit, personal-tragedy discourses to dictate and restrict any child’s learning and opportunity to participate, contribute and belong within their learning community.

Further reading

Ballard. K. (2004). Children and disability: Special or included? Waikato Journal of Education, 10, 315–326.

Drawing from international and New Zealand research literature, Keith Ballard provides a critique and discussion of the implications of deficit and special education discourses for inclusive education in New Zealand. Following this is a discussion of alternative, transformative views of disability and difference and other ways of conceptualising and responding to this aspect of diversity within schools and classrooms in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Alton-Lee, A., Rietveld, C., Klenner, L., Dalton, N., Diggins, C., & Town, S. (2000). Inclusive practices within the lived cultures of school communities: Research based studies in teaching, learning and inclusion. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 4(2), 179–210.

This article is about the work of a New Zealand junior primary school teacher, Ms Nikora, to create an inclusive learning environment, curriculum and school. She identified and challenged deficit and personal-tragedy discourses within the school and herself, in order to fully include a child in her class, and to teach his nondisabled peers that he is more like them than he is different.


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Alton-Lee, A., Rietveld, C., Klenner, L., Dalton, N., Diggins, C., & Town, S. (2000). Inclusive practices within the lived cultures of school communities: Research based studies in teaching, learning and inclusion. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 4(2), 179–210.

Baker, B. (2002). The hunt for disability: The new eugenics and the normalization of school children. Teachers College Record, 104(4), 663–703.

Ballard, K. (Ed.). (1994). Disability, family, whānau and society. Palmerston North: Dunmore Press.

Ballard. K. (2004). Children and disability: Special or included? Waikato Journal of Education, 10, 315–326.

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Rietveld, C. M. (2005, December). Teacher responses to children’s spontaneous reactions to differences in their classmates with Down Syndrome: Implications for teaching and learning. Paper presented to the national conference of the New Zealand Association for Research in Education, Dunedin.

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Skrtic, T. (1995). Power/knowledge and pragmatism. In T. Skrtic (Ed.), Disability and democracy: Reconstructing (special) education for postmodemity (pp. 25–62). New York: Teachers College Press.

BERNADETTE MACARTNEY is currently completing her PhD through the University of Canterbury in Christchurch.