"I am not like rally, really, really disabled". Exploring Identities of Young Disabled People at School
Sociology, Social Policy & Social Work Queen's University Belfast Belfast, Northern Ireland
Research Donald Beasley Institute Dunedin, New Zealand
Centre for Research on Children and Families University of Otago Dunedin, New Zealand
This paper is based on an ethnographic study exploring the identities of nine disabled young people (11-14 years) in schools in New Zealand. The researchers observed these young people at school and conducted semi-structured interviews with the young people, their parents and relevant school staff. The study draws on disability theory, geographies of youth identity and the sociology of childhood to further develop understanding of young disabled people´s identities. This paper will present findings on young disabled people?s identity experiences at school, including their views on the integration of impairment and disability into their sense of self and how others see them. Social relational aspects of the construction of identities will also be explored, including the impact of complex peer and teacher relationships at school.
Findings reveal that whilst young disabled people prioritise youth identities, their efforts to "fit in" alongside non-disabled peers can be compromised by disabling school cultures and structures that emphasise impairment as a master identity. In addition, youth consumer culture and preoccupation with aesthetic ideals served to ostracise and exclude disabled young people. As a result, young disabled people often experienced non-recognition or mis-recognition in their interaction with peers and adults in their daily school lives. However, young disabled people in this study also demonstrated agency by developing various strategies to challenge oppression and present a counter-narrative to disabling and exclusionary discourses at school. In the context of complex and changing peer and adult relations within school, young disabled people negotiated multiple identities and representations of self depending on learning needs, social contexts and school practices.
It is suggested that peers and adults at school can play a key role in counteracting imposed master identities and challenging disabling discourses that detrimentally impact on self-identity and positive self-esteem. Creating further opportunities for recognition and affirmation at school helps to strengthen this counter-narrative. Such developments within schools will require more active engagement with diversity issues and critical social model thinking, alongside efforts to promote the psycho-emotional wellbeing of all young people at school.