Bowe on Barriers to Disabled People

At the age of three, Frank Bowe lost his hearing as a consequence of complications connected with measles. He attended Gallaudet College in Washington, DC, which taught in American Sign Language. He received a PhD from New York University, and then went on to write his landmark book, The Handicapping of America (1978). As well as a thinker and teacher, he became an activist, promoting the rights of disabled people.

Bowe critically analyses the concept of ‘disability’:

The practice in education has been to find something wrong with a child who does not seem to be progressing adequately in school more than to find something wrong with the instruction being offered. The child is removed from the classroom and subjected to a battery of tests and diagnostic procedures educators themselves admit are generally inadequate, invalid, and unreliable. A disability is ‘discovered’, a label applied and everyone sighs with relief: ‘No wonder Johnny wasn’t learning. He is learning disabled’. And he is learning disabled because he was not learning. The circularity defies reason, but more than that it removes responsibility. The blame for failure now rests entirely with the child.

Once applied, a label is extremely difficult to remove. Teachers, administrators, counsellors, and parents now view Johnny differently. Formerly a child with positive and unique traits, he now becomes a child with a disability. Compounding the difficulty is the fact that the label itself is often ill-defined. When Johnny is referred to a special-education program, the school officials there may have a dramatically different understanding of the meaning of the label Johnny now bears …

The overall focus of special education is more on the disabilities than on the abilities of the children. Teacher training programs, for example, provide extensive instruction to prospective teachers on the anatomy and physiology of particular disabilities but little by comparison on their unimpaired abilities. In the field of education for deaf children, to take one instance, the program of instruction for teachers-in training approved by the Bureau of Education for the Handicapped (which funds most of the programs) and required by the Council on Education of the Deaf (which certifies teachers) contains courses on the anatomy and physiology of the ear and of the speech mechanisms, but does not include courses on the eye, visual perception, nonverbal learning, or manual communication. The latter may be optional in some programs but to take them would normally mean the student must delay receiving his or her degree or take an unusually heavy load of courses. Analogously, schools for deaf children routinely include on their staffs audiologists and even otologists, but rarely optometrists or ophthalmologists. Extensive training is provided for the children in optimal use of whatever residual hearing they have, which is important, but far too little is done to teach the children to use their eyes effectively and efficiently, which is also important. The focus is not unique to deafness. Rather, it is a general problem. The stress is upon remediation of disability without corresponding emphasis of abilities.

Even more basic is the entire question of segregation of children by their disabilities rather than by their abilities and interests. Educators have come to understand that removing disabled children from their community schools and classrooms may not be in their best interests and that the fact that children share a disability does not mean they share abilities. Still, education of disabled children that focus upon developing their strengths and preparing them for constructive lives and careers in the mainstream of American life remains more a goal than a reality …

Are children in fact better served in special classes, special schools, or institutions equipped with better trained teachers, more specialized equipment, greater per-capita financial resources, smaller classes, more individualized instruction, and specially designed curricular? The answer surprisingly, is that we do not know. The available evidence seems to indicate that equal progress is made in regular and in special programs. Research studies evaluating the relative efficacy of regular versus special programs for visually impaired, hearing impaired, emotionally disturbed, mentally retarded, learning disabled, orthopedically impaired, and neurologically disabled children have generally failed to support the intuitively reasonable assumption that special procedures are more effective. The chief advantages of special programs seem to be administrative rather than educational, convenience and community appeasement rather than personal growth.


Bowe, Frank. 1978. Handicapping America: Barriers to Disabled People. New York: Harper & Row. pp. 137–138, 25–26, 159–161. || WorldCat


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