9th Conference European Sociological Association

RS01 Sociology and Disability

2009-09-05 09:00:00 2009-09-05 10:30:00 Saturday, 5 September 09:00 - 10:30 Spaces of Education/Exclusion Building II, C3.01

"Safe territories": How the special education discourse legitimises the classification of students as "learning disabled" and their segregated schooling in Germany

This contribution addresses the ideologies and history of remedial or healing pedagogy ("Heilpädagogik") and its impact on life courses and the selves of youth transitioning from school-to-work in Germany. The paper analyses:

a) the special education discourse over the 20th century using an archive of the "Zeitschrift für Heilpädagogik", the journal of the German special education professional association that is the main actor that constructed and legitimised disability in the German educational system up to the present day.
b) standardised survey results on the life courses of children who are classified as "learning disabled". These students' backgrounds are characterized by social and economic disadvantages and unsuccessful school careers; about 80 percent who leave segregated special schools lack any qualifying school certificate.
c) biographical case studies of four special school-leavers at two points in time: as they left compulsory schooling and as they entered vocational training. These reveal how the themes of the scientific discourse of "learning disability" are adapted in these individuals' life stories.

The professional construction of learning disabilities focuses on "healing individual cognitive deficits" of students who attend segregated schools. Segregated educational environments, viewed by educators as providing special support by offering a "comforting space" (Schonraum), actually limit the educational attainment and personal development of their students. Additionally, the incorporation of scientific discourse elements of physical "incompleteness" and "disruptiveness" shapes the biographical selves of youth, such that they remain in purportedly "safe territories", which restrain and constrict their participation and inclusion.

Theoretically, we distinguish two mechanisms: 1. Students are subjectivated (Foucault 1976) through the educational system's hierarchical structure, which "limits" their educational success and allocates them to low social and occupational positions. 2. The segregation of students with learning disabilities stigmatises (Goffman 1975) them as "incompetent" (Jenkins 1998); as it simultaneously shields persons -- via the territories (Foucault 2004) in which they are socialised -- from educational standards and societal expectations.

Thus, Germany offers an ideal typical case of segregated spaces, educational and environmental. Moreover, for the sociology of disability, the biographies of classified students provide a crucial source for the (de-)construction of learning disability in meritocratic societies.