By Kendall MacLaughlin and Shannon Connelly


  • How has the perception of people with disabilities in California changed over time and impacted the marginalization of them in education?

  • What California State Laws or lack thereof, have affected people with disabilities from obtaining equality in education?


Students with disabilities have faced numerous challenges in California’s public education system since the 1900s. While the U.S. has been made great advancements in the last century through certain legislation, such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and progressive mandates like “mainstreaming”, students with disabilities in California continue to face marginalization.


The following artifacts, including chart data, court cases, statutes, and reports, represent how the treatment of students with disabilities in California has changed from the 1900s to the present. These artifacts aide in the analyzation of how the state of California schools accounted for people with disabilities before federal provisions established certain requirements. The following artifacts represent how the  the marginalization of people with disabilities impacts their experience in California schools while also giving insight as to how it might affect their access to an equal education.



This tool analyzes the use of a specific word during an allotted time period. The word chosen is, “retard,” and shows the trend in which published books have used this term. We narrowed the time search between 1900-2000. The reason why we chose the word, “retard,” is because it has been used by non-disabled individuals to categorize people with disabilities. It carries a strong, negative connotation and has many different implications. This analysis of frequency with the word is a great tool to distinguish how people with disabilities are perceived over the given time period.


“As typically used, the term disability is a linchpin in a complex web of social ideals, institutional structures, and government policies. As a result, many people have a vested interest in keeping a tenacious hold on the current meaning because it is consistent with the practices and policies that are central to their livelihood or their ideologies” (Linton, 1998, p. 10).



This book highlights the way that disability is portrayed in institutions and in terminology. This quote specifically details how history has written disability and how its’ negative image still shines through today. Many non-disabled individuals fail to construct disability in a positive light and perpetuate the perspectives of long ago. This book will be useful in analyzing how an institution, such as, a school perpetuates or challenges views on disability.

Linton, S. (1998). Claiming disability: Knowledge and identity. New York: New York University Press.


This artifact provides the law, passed in 1975, surrounding how students are placed in special education and how special education students have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Specifically, the screenshot above displays how children are categorized in order to receive “special education” and an IEP. This document uses derogatory terminology in expressing disability. Seen above, the document creates a binary between physical and mental disabilities, displays the subjective terms of strengths and weaknesses, and depicts the need for a diagnosis. These factors will be helpful in determining how students are marginalized in the IEP process.

Title 5, California Code of Regulations, sections 3000-3100 (DOC; Posted 04-Oct-2012)


This document shows the amendments made to Title 5, California Code of Regulations, sections 3000-3100. As seen below, this document shows how a California State Legislature from the California Department of Education made vital changes to an important document. These changes were made in October 2012 to place greater emphasis on more equitable terminology. This exemplifies current changes that are being made to create a more open environment for people with disabilities.


This artifact exhibits the unequal educational opportunities for Students with Disabilities through SWDs’ lower graduation rate, higher dropout rate, and longer time to complete degree.  With a variety of explanations, chart data, and descriptions of special education laws, this source shows how special education is not just characterized by laws and policies at the federal level, but at the state and local levels as well.

Roncker v. Walter, 700 F2d. 1058 (6th Circuit Court 1993)


This case, Roncker v Walter (1993), is important because it was one of the first cases to address the LRE Mandate (least restrictive environment). In this case, the Cincinnati School District thought the student with a disability (Neill Roncker) would be better off attending a separate “special school for mental retardation”. The parents of the student disagreed and challenged the placement of their son under what was then known as the Education for all Handicapped Children Act. This case is important to analyze because for the first time, the U.S. Supreme Court had to determine what “free appropriate education” meant in the context of the Act.

Colker, R. (2013). Disabled Education: A critical analysis of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. New York: New York University Press. 


Colker dedicates an entire chapter to discussing a variety of hearing officer decisions in California. These hearing officer decisions show how difficult it is for students with disabilities and their parents to fight for equal education rights. With real-life cases, Colker depicts the many struggles and setbacks families, especially those from low-socioeconomic backgrounds, face within the legal system when attempting to obtain an equal education for their children. This source is useful in comparing the enforcement disparity of the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Act) between wealthy and poor families. This source provides evidence as to how students with disabilities in California are more likely to succeed in obtaining equal education if they are from a higher socioeconomic status. This book also serves as a good reference tool as it includes many explanations of disability education laws and cases.

California State Postsecondary Education Commission S. Services for Students with Disabilities in California Public Higher Education.

A Report to the Legislature in Response to Supplemental Language in the 1982-83 Budget Act. [serial online].

March 21, 1983;

Available from: ERIC, Ipswich, MA. Accessed April 17, 2017.


This 1983 report analyzes programs at different California public colleges that served students with disabilities. This artifact will be useful in comparing and contrasting the programs implemented in higher learning institutions from the 70s to now. This artifact is an important component to our research as it depicts how students with disabilities can continue to face implications in their education careers even at the college level.


Interview #1 - Dr. Rachel Lambert


The following interview was conducted with Dr. Rachel Lambert, a Professor at Chapman University. Dr. Lambert has been an active educator for many years across different grade levels in different capacities. She has experience working in California, dating back to 1995. She has also had conflicting experiences in New York, compared to California which makes her interview interesting and valuable. Dr. Lambert is currently researching disability in the classroom and is passionate about mending the gap between general education and special education. The following interview with Dr. Lambert took place on Wednesday, May 3, 2017 at 3:45pm at Chapman University.


The quotes below are directly transcribed from an audio recording taken during the interview. These quotes contextualize how disability is perceived in California based on Dr. Lambert’s own experience.


Perception of Disability in the Classroom

“So a couple of the attitudes around disability that you thing is like being a special educator, they’ll sometimes administrators in general and general education teachers just want to push to push the kids with disabilities to the special educators. You fix it, you take care of it, they’re yours. My kids are here and then your kids. You’ll hear teachers say that all the time so there’s this big separation between where kids belong even if a kid has an IEP and then are mainstreamed into regular classes, they’re still like that mine and yours situation.”


Impact of Terminology on Students with Disabilities

“I definitely see students actively take up the language that they hear used in the classroom.”


Contrasting Approaches to Teaching - California versus New York

“Well, there is a big difference because California..ah New York, has way more inclusion. Where I was in New York City, much more inclusion. So I was shocked when I came here and I found out that there was a kid with ADHD in a separate classroom. I have never seen that working in New York... I couldn’t believe that students with learning disabilities were in separate classrooms like students with dyslexia and that was a shocker to me. And I think, it’s because of funding. The schools were way better funded in New York and so there were more resources because it takes a lot of money.”


Marginalization of Students with Disabilities

“Um, fear and loss of control. I can think of this one example of I went to study in a second grade classroom in LA, a diverse group of kids, a white teacher, African-American boy with ADHD, desk in the corner. The minute I told her I wanted to work in her class she was like but this kid...She was like I don’t know if you really want to come to this classroom because Tony is very..he has ADHD, he is very disruptive, I can’t handle him, but they are not taking him out of my class and I just have him sit there because I cannot handle him with the rest of the class. So, that’s not atypical. I see that all over. I see a kid in the corner and teacher doesn’t know how to deal with them or for him, he really threatened her control. He was a funny kid. He was very sweet, very loud...very loud and he just sort of would ramble

like he would move around the classroom kind of like running into things and all kinds of stuff and she felt like she didn’t know how to handle him and she wanted him taken out. So what she did was put him in the corner and just stuck him in the corner and then talked about him and she disliked him so much, it was obvious. But she was scared of him, I think. Which is really not that scary. He was like really sweet.”


These quotes exemplify an educator’s perspective on the treatment of students with disabilities in the classroom. Dr. Lambert relays how the perspective of teachers highly affects how students with disabilities perceive themselves and how it impacts their performance in a school setting. Additionally, Dr. Lambert reasons why the marginalization occurs and blames teachers for having fear of losing control, as well as, the lack of resources California has for students with disabilities. This interview provides information that directly corresponds to our topic by exploring how a knowledgeable educator perceives disability in the classroom.


Interview #2 - Ashley Walker


The following interview was conducted with Ashley Walker, a current student at Chapman University. Ashley Walker was diagnosed with a genetic hearing impairment during her Kindergarten school year. Her teacher at the time knew that Ashley was unable to hear what she was saying and recommended to her parents to get a professional opinion. Soon after, Ashley was diagnosed with the same condition as her father and brother, except she had it much worse. The purpose for interviewing Ashley is to get a student opinion on how students with disabilities are labeled as “other” or in Ashley’s case, labeled at all. This interview was conducted on Friday, May 5, 2017 at 3:30pm at Chapman University.


The quotes below are directly transcribed from an audio recording taken during the interview. These quotes contextualize how disability is perceived in California based on Ashley Walker’s own experience.


Perception of Disability in the Classroom

“Second through third or fourth grade, I would take them out right when I got to school...I would get made fun of because I was different from other people.”


Impact of Terminology on Students with Disabilities

“They kind of dumbed me down in a sense...cause I was capable but the fact that I had an IEP...I was in a predominantly white school and people don’t really have problems.”


“They always just labeled me. You have a disability and I’m like I’m normal. I can do everything that everyone else can so let me be.”


These quotes provide a differing perspective on the treatment of disability in California classrooms. Being a student with a hearing impairment since the start of her school years, she is able to provide a direct account of her treatment in schools. Ashley explains how she was often noticed as being different and made fun of for having a hearing impairment. This interview offers a unique perspective which is highly beneficial to our project.


Interviewing both Dr. Rachel Lambert, an educator who is currently researching the inclusion of students with disabilities in the classroom, and Ashley Walker, a student who has experienced being labeled as disabled and treated as such, provided two varying perspectives on how students with disabilities are treated in the classroom. Both viewpoints provide a people's’ history perspective as both interviewees have been immersed in the disability culture in different capacities. Dr. Lambert is able to speak to an educator’s history perspective and trace trends in which she has been exposed to. Her people’s history perspective exemplifies issues she has seen in the classroom as a teacher herself and a current researcher in the field. Dr. Lambert is able to reason with how students with disabilities are often marginalized by a certain type of teacher, but also expresses how some teachers strive for the least constrictive environment for all students. This shows that Dr. Lambert is able to provide a nonpartisan perspective while shedding light on disability in the classroom. Similarly, Ashley Walker is a person’s history perspective. Through her interview, she explains person accounts of how she was treated in the classroom. She provides a living testimonial, just like Dr. Lambert, because she expresses her own experiences and personal observations. Both interviewees provided a unique outlook on the topic and provided us with challenging narratives - Ashley told us that she does not categorize herself as disabled even though everyone else does and Dr. Lambert told us the harsh realities of how California is far behind in making progress for students with disabilities. Ashley’s narrative differs from research as some argue disability is part of their identity and the only thing wrong with being called disabled is the constructed stigma around the word. Dr. Lambert’s viewpoint challenges dominant narratives because California is seen as being progressive when in reality, they are not as progressive as many think. For the aforementioned reasons, these two interviews were extremely helpful in further analyzing how students with disabilities are perceived and treated in California classrooms.


Kendall’s Biography/Narrative: Lesson Plan


Grade Level: 1


Unit: Creating Empathy


Topic: The Treatment and Perception of People with Disabilities


  • Objectives:

    • Students will be able to recognize how people with disabilities are often marginalized and discriminated against.

    • Students will understand the importance of embracing difference.

    • Students will be able to recognize that people with disabilities have the same human rights as a typical person.

    • Students will be able to empathize with people with disabilities.


    • 1.1 - Students describe the rights and individual responsibilities of citizenship.

    • 1.2 - Students compare and contrast the absolute and relative locations of places and people and describe the physical and/or human characteristics of places.

    • 1.4 - Students compare and contrast everyday life in different times and places around the world and recognize that some aspects of people, places, and things change over time while others stay the same.

    • 1.5 - Students describe the human characteristics of familiar places and the varied backgrounds of American citizens and residents in those places.


    • The purpose of this lesson is to provide enrichment on the treatment of people with disabilities.

      1. iPads

      2. Headphones


    • Anticipatory Set: Stand up, Hand up, Pair up!
      Students will walk around the classroom with their right hand raised while music plays. When the music stops,  students will pair up with the person closest to them. They will answer the following question: “What makes you different or unique?”


    1. Step 1: Read You Can be a Friend.

      • What is happening in the story?

      • What makes Jade unique?

      • What makes Hannah unique?

      • Why might Hannah not be able to attend a waterpark party?

    2. Step 2: Show and discuss visual aid.

      • What do you notice?

      • What makes these people different?

      • Why might some people think that you cannot be friends with people with disabilities?

    3. Step 3: Jigsaw - Break classroom into groups of three students. Each student is given a number from 1-3. Each number represents a different topic -  Accessibility, Role Models, Timeline. The number groups meet and become experts on this topic. After researching the topic, students return to the original group and share what they learned.

      • What might someone who is disabled have trouble doing in this classroom?

      • What can we learn from the role models?

      • What progress has been made over time?


  • Closure: Letter Writing - Students will put themselves in the position of someone with a disability and answer the following prompt: “What would I want others to know about me?”


  • Follow-up activity: Students will be given the task to tell someone (family member or friend) what they are learned. That person will be charged at writing something they learned from the student.

Shannon’s Biography/Narrative: Ideograph Project


Ideograph Project


One aspect of our California History project focused on how the term “retard” is used by non-disabled people to describe a person with a disability. (This can be found in Artifact 1.)

Using the term retard creates an immediate boundary; isolating people with disabilities into an “other” category. People-first language, on the other hand, puts the person before their disability. For example, people-first language describes a student by saying “she has a developmental disability” rather than “she is developmentally delayed”. This is an important concept that should be taught to students in order to establish respect and unity within the classroom.

Below is a link to an example of a possible project that teachers could assign in order to help their students break down the barriers that arise between students with and without disabilities. Because the below ideograph focuses on the United States as a whole, teachers may want to tailor the project specifically to California in order to better align with the theme.


The above link will take you to an ideograph that analyzes the term retard and how it has been resignified multiple times since the 1400’s. The ideograph uses a variety of rhetoric, from traditional to contemporary times, in the form of advertisements, newspaper articles, federal provisions, music videos and lyrics, memes, tweets, and even facebook posts.

The main point of this ideograph is to show viewers how the term “retard” creates symbolic action in the world by creating a social reality for people with disabilities. This website depicts how the word has changed connotation; from a traditional “medical” model of disability to an extremely hateful and derogatory meaning. Currently, there is a nationwide movement to remove the word from language completely; eliminating the use of the word in political documents, speeches, within the film and advertisement industry and, of course, in the classroom.

This assignment will be interdisciplinary, as it calls on students to focus on history, statistics, and english components. Creating an ideograph like the one above requires students to analyze multiple different artifacts and sources, both primary and secondary. Students must have a strong fundamental understanding of rhetoric: what it is, how it works, and the importance and power it has. Therefore, students will be learning a variety of different literary concepts and techniques throughout the process of this assignment. This assignment would best be assigned to high schoolers.

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