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'Learning Difficulties', the Social Model of Disability and Impairment: challenging epistemologies

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Critical researchers enter into an investigation with their assumptions on the table, so no one is confused concerning the epistemological and political baggage they bring with them to the research site (Kincheloe & McLaren, 1998, p. 265). A theory of disability as oppression … recognises and, in the present context, emphasies the social origins of impairment. (Abberley, 1987, in Barton and Oliver, 1997, p176, my emphasis.) Identification with the label of 'learning difficulties' has contradictory personal and political implications for people so-labelled. While this identification has allowed people to organise collectively through the self-advocacy movement, pervasive understandings of 'learning difficulties' that permeate many societal settings tend to be framed in ways that directly confirm a personal tragedy model of disability and impairment. This paper argues for a reconsideration of impairment in relation to 'learning difficulties', to challenge pervasive assumptions in relation to 'learning difficulties' - at the level of epistemology - and to construct four inclusive epistemological foundations. The first, deconstructing impairment, draws upon a body of literature that has exposed the social nature of diagnostic criteria and destabilised naturalised notions of 'learning difficulties'. The second, impairment, as storied, brings in the accounts of people with 'learning difficulties' that locate impairment in, and as, personal and social narratives. Thirdly, reculturising impairment highlights emergent resilient cultures of people with 'learning difficulties' that re-culturise impairment. Fourthly, epistemological impacts, grounds the analysis by calling for an attention to the ways in which assumptions about the origins of 'learning difficulties' impact upon the treatment of people so-labelled.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: March 1, 2001

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