This article considers two contrasting perspectives educators held towards the academic engagement of five high school students with significant disabilities and labels of mental retardation. The article describes two of these students to provide examples from qualitative data of educators’ competence- and deficit-oriented perspectives and the students’ academic engagement. The contrasting perspectives emerged as their teachers expressed their understanding of the students through their words and classroom interactions. Competence-oriented educators tended to describe and treat their special education students as "real" students. They expected, perceived and supported the student expression of academic understanding. Deficit-oriented teachers tended to rank and sort students; they perceived and treated the students as if they lacked basic understanding of class content or of their situations in the classroom. In turn, the students’ competence was revealed or obscured according to the perspective from which they were treated. Implications for fostering competence-oriented behaviors and perceptions include perceiving and supporting student success with students with disabilities, and also with other nondisabled students who are tracked and otherwise isolated or marginalized.


Academic Engagement of Students with Significant Disabilities and Educators’ Perceptions of Competence

Robin Merle Smith, Ph.D.

SUNY New Paltz


The inclusive schools movement has opened many doors for students with special education labels, including those with significant disabilities and labeled mentally retarded . Some scholars have noted that many educators who come into contact with such students have chronically considered them to be incapable of purposeful behavior or meaningful thought . In particular, Biklen and Duchan identified two opposing perspectives: normative and competence which inform evaluation, relationships, programming, and education with people labeled retarded. They called for discovering "ways of focusing on the abilities of those previously regarded as incompetent and discover ways to help them express their abilities (p.182)." Other educators, tending to treat students with intellectual disabilities as essentially incompetent, have used the alleged student incompetence to justify segregation and tracking .

This article seeks to promote a focus on student ability by exploring two contrasting educational perspectives of students that emerged during my study of the academic engagement of high school students with severe disabilities and labeled mentally retarded. A review of inclusive and special education literature revealed that the deficit-oriented perspective, a medical model, has considered students in light of what they cannot do, the students’ limitations, and possible remedies or treatments. This model lends itself to diagnosing, sorting, and ranking of students. Conversely, the strength or competence-oriented perspective has considered students in light of what they can do, their interests, their other skills, and the settings and adaptations that will enable the students to learn and maximize abilities . This model lends itself to describing, understanding, and supporting integration, participation, and growth. These perspectives significantly impacted the educational careers of the students in my study, all of whom had significant disabilities. By "significant" intellectual disabilities, I mean students who are labeled with mental retardation and have autism, Down syndrome, or multiple handicaps; these students required individual personal assistance to participate fully in class. The students in this study had speech limitations ranging from little or no speech to limited fluency.

During the study of students’ academic engagement, I became increasingly aware of the importance of the competence- or deficit-oriented environments in which they functioned. I focused on academic engagement because researchers have studied students with significant disabilities in inclusive settings through the lenses of social life goals (interpersonal behaviors, relationships, having nondisabled role models their age) and functional goals such as self care, daily activities, recreation and work . The focus of inclusion research on academic participation of high school students is less than ten years old . This research has tended to focus on the supports necessary to include the student in classes. Yet there is a need for further understanding regarding how the students participate and of the interactive and interpersonal nature of the supports students receive. Such understanding sheds light on the meaning of "competence" and the nature of competence-orientation.

In this article I describe how teachers interacted with the students in my study. I follow with a closer look at two of the students who could not speak. I chose to focus on these two students because they much had in common but experienced an extreme contrast in their educational careers, and in order to include detailed examples of their interactions and participation. One student experienced deficit-oriented educators during his school day; the other experienced mostly competence oriented educators during her school day. In addition, over the course of a school year, she experienced two competing perspectives from two teachers supporting her communication. The two case examples provide insights into how behaviors associated with educators’ perceptions of competence could enable and disable student academic participation. Although all five students experienced the full range of competence- and deficit-oriented perceptions, as well as competing representations of their abilities over the course of their educational careers, the space limitations for this article also caused me to focus on two of them.


I conducted a qualitative case study of five students with significant intellectual disabilities in the tradition of symbolic interactionism . My research and analysis perspective was that of disability as a sociology which describes disability as constructed by the meanings people make of it .

Data Collection.

I observed the five students in three separate urban high schools; their daily schedules ranged from full inclusion to almost full segregation. I took field notes as I observed in classes over the course of three school semesters. These observations totaled 52 visits ranging in length. The shortest was 15 minutes when I went to observe a student who was not in class but rather in the bathroom recovering from an upset. The longest, six hours, was also with the same student on the day I observed him in his morning classes and at work at a community library in the period after lunch . All five students would graduate with special education diplomas. I conducted formal interviews with their parents and teachers and also conducted informal interviews during conversations and phone calls.

Through reflection, analytic memos, and conversations with mentors, I sought to set aside assumptions of the students’ intellectual incompetence and to get to know their perspectives and how they did and did not participate academically.

Data Analysis

As I collected and analyzed data from preliminary observations, I used the constant comparative method of analysis . I collected data, looked for emerging themes and recurrent events, categorized them, and reevaluated my themes and categories. As I collected more data, I wrote analytic memos about my data, and reevaluated my previous theories as I compared old data with new (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992, pp.72-75)). I used Q.S.R. Nudist (QSR-NUD*IST, 1995) to code my data. This program enabled me to code text segments in various ways including participants’ names and roles. I used the program to keep track of coding categories such as "engaged," "disengaged," and "academics," and accumulated 98 data codes. As the study progressed, I revised and collapsed the codes. The themes of academic engagement continued to expand in depth and breadth and they generated more codes that guided the development of my study. Competence- and deficit-orientation emerged as important themes.


The five students in the study were labeled mentally retarded. Two students had autism, one had Down syndrome, and two were physically and multiply handicapped with no speech. All had speech limitations. Nick and Trish, the two students I chose to focus on for this article are both mobility impaired, cannot speak, and communicate by pointing to words, letters and pictures, sometimes independently and sometimes with physical support. They both have labels involving cognitive disability and mental retardation. Both sets of parents had been surprised to learn from the school that their child was literate. However, Nick was almost completely segregated in special education; Trish was fully included in general education classes.

Nick , age 16, was in the 9th grade at West High. He used a wheelchair and was "multiply handicapped" with brittle bone disease and an early head injury. He was assigned, according to his individualized educational program (IEP), to a class with a student-teacher ratio of 15:1. Nick was in a self-contained special education class with his special education peers almost all day. The lone exception was Introduction to Occupations, which Nick attended with non-disabled students during the first year of this study; he did not attend general education classes during the following year. He attended academic sessions in the self-contained special education class. He was in Speech both years; Speech was a special education class, and the Speech teacher sometimes saw him individually and sometimes with a small group.

Trish, age 16, had Rett syndrome and was in the 9th grade at North High. She was assigned, according to her IEP, to a class having a student-teacher ratio of 8:1; she was based in a Resource group with four students with learning disabilities and was supported by a teaching assistant. Trish was in subject area classes with non-disabled peers almost all day. Trish had a full academic schedule similar to that of other 9th graders. She also had a Resource period, a time for the special education students to get help with homework and prepare for tests and the rest of the day. The speech teacher came with her to one subject class per week and sometimes to the Resource period.


During the course of the study I recorded teacher interactions about and with students that reflected their perspective and matched their treatment of the students regarding their competence to engage in their classes. As I got to know the students and their teachers, I found that these interactions also reflected the availability of opportunities for students to participate in class. These interactions, for example might draw the student into the class activity or insist on participation. On the other hand, some interactions might prevent or obscure participation or interest.

Tables 1 and 2 summarize teacher interactions from my data that reflected their perspectives and conveyed expectations with regard to the students in my study. These examples indicated the presence of degrees of opportunity for the student to participate and for the teacher to perceive that the student is benefiting from being in class. Table 1 gives examples from the data that reflect competence- or deficit-orientations when educators talked to students. Competence-orientation included interacting with students academically such as, calling on students, checking on their work during class, facilitating student involvement with peers, and insisting, with the same tone as used with the nondisabled students, that the student work in class.

Table 2 gives examples of how educators’ statements about students reflected their competence or deficit orientations. Competence-orientation included articulating student goals in academically referenced terms and giving positive descriptions with academic references. Classroom practices may be implicit in the two tables and throughout this narrative as details are provided about the two students. I drew the examples from teachers involved in whole class, small group, and individual instruction, and from individual instruction by teachers and assistants. Examples drawn from observations of teaching assistants (T. A.) are indicated where relevant.


Insert table 1 here


In a previous study and in the course of my observations in these schools, I learned that when nondisabled students did not participate or had unexplained absences, the teachers in these high schools more likely took actions such as contacting parents or other school personnel . Although general education teachers may overlook a nonparticipating student during class discussions, the teachers I met would be unlikely to do their assignments for them, even if they did adapt them to the students’ needs. On the other hand, when some teachers felt the student in the study did not understand, or if the teachers did not know how to include the student, they failed to make demands on the student. They treated the students instead as guests or welcome visitors or as people there to learn social skills; they did not treat them as students who could or should either benefit from or be interested in the class content.

These conclusions are reinforced by how the teachers spoke about the students in my study. For the majority of the time spent in academic class activity, either in the general education or special education classes, the students who were invited to participate in content learning were more often interacting with teachers who demonstrated competence-oriented academic expectations and said so. Table 2 presents examples of how educators expressed their expectations and perceptions to me and to other teachers.


Insert Table 2 here


Those teachers who demonstrated and expressed competence-orientation also created more opportunities for participation. Certain practices fostered or limited opportunity for student interaction and engagement. However, it is interesting to remember that all the examples occurred in classes based on lecture and discussion as well as in classes with a higher proportion of small group and hands-on activities.

The students experienced variety among their teachers’ expectations and perceptions as shown through how the teachers talked about them. Each was subject to competing perceptions during the school day and over the years. For example, during this study, Gerard’s 11th grade teachers did not think he was getting much out of the class content. Gerard had Down syndrome, did not write, and spoke in short phrases. However, three of his 9th grade teachers whom I had interviewed for an earlier study (Smith, 1997), thought that he did and included him academically as well as socially. His current teaching assistant expected him to engage with the class content and said that sometimes at work in his afternoon job in a pizza shop, Gerard would ask a question or make a comment about something they had discussed in Health class.

Each student also had at least one educator who thought he or she did not understand much (and said so) and who missed opportunities to find out what the student understood. My interpretation of the missed opportunities was based either on what I saw the student do in similar circumstances or had seen other teachers try in similar situations. I did not presume the student knew the answer, for example, but I did feel that I could recognize when the student did not have a chance to try, succeed, or fail. Missed opportunities revealed perception patterns when students had substitute assistants who did not know their capacities or see their capacities as expansive. For example, I had observed Tyrone, a student with autism, calculate the answers to problems in Consumer Math. One day a substitute teaching assistant was doing the calculations for him. In some cases he told Tyrone what numbers to press on the calculator, in other cases he did it himself. His regular T.A. would have said something like, "What number is that…then put it in," and would wait to see if Tyrone would keep going with the problem before coaching the next step. The substitute assistant told me he was helping Tyrone because, "I feel sorry for him."

In the next section I show how such interactions impacted on the academic participation of Nick and Trish..

Deficit-Oriented Perceptions of Nick

Nick’s teachers told me of their high regard for him as a person but did not seem able to think about him as a student. His Occupations teacher said, "I have no clue if he’s getting much out of this [class]. He participates as much as he is capable. He comes to class and is well behaved." This statement, along with the fact that her interactions with him were rare and nonacademic, indicated to me that she did not expect much of Nick in terms of the class content. Nick’s teaching assistant also indicated in words and actions that he did not think Nick understood much of what was going on in class. The following examples show the various ways that low expectation of academic participation combined with a deficit-oriented understanding of Nick resulting in his limited options to participate, and contributed to his marginalization as a student.

Deficit-oriented Support

Nick attended Introduction to Occupations class regularly and sat in his wheelchair at a row of sewing machine tables near the classroom door. An empty row of the same kind of tables isolated him from his classmates. They sat at tables and desks arranged in a U shape opening toward the teacher’s desk and the freestanding chalkboard. One day his teaching assistant, Bob, was leafing through a file folder during Occupations class. I asked him if that was Nick’s homework. Bob responded, "It’s my homework." He did Nick’s assignments for him because he thought Nick was "not interested." In that same conversation I also asked him what Nick does in this class. Bob replied, "Not much. I do most of the work. He doesn’t like it. I really do the work." This led me to believe, and other observations and interactions confirmed my belief, that Bob did not think Nick could engage with the content and so did the work for him.

Bob said Nick enjoyed hands-on activity. I observed an activity in which the students chose and sewed pieces of fabric to make a small pillow or a potholder. In the following description, Bob directed Nick’s attention to what he (Bob) was doing as the following field notes reveal:

The teacher was telling the students how to measure their length of thread. Bob trimmed the squares, saying to Nick, "Nick, watch this." The teacher said to the class, "I want you to come and stand around me. You're going to put your needle in that stitch.... If you do it your way it will fall apart." The teacher and students gathered near the front of the room, near her desk. Nick remained at his usual spot in an otherwise unoccupied row near the classroom door. Bob was still trimming the fabric squares. [All the action is far away. There is an empty row between Nick, Bob, and me and the rest of the class.] Bob stood up to see what the students at the next table were doing. He asked a student, "How many lengths is it supposed to be?" A girl said, "From your chin."

Bob paid attention to what was going on in the class. He directed Nick’s attention to the assigned work as he completed assignments for Nick. He similarly completed academic assignments and directed Nick’s attention during class. He did not help Nick get closer to the demonstration or become otherwise involved with the class. Another day, I observed Bob working on questions at the end of a textbook chapter on money management, as did Nick’s classmates. In my field notes I observed:

Bob said, "We've got to do these questions. What do you think about money management?" Nick pointed to the book. "Reasons why you should plan a budget while you're still in school. Get you prepared for the real world, right?" Nick nodded yes, pointing to the book. "O.K. And another reason." Bob wrote and said, "It’s never too early to start saving for the future." He continued in a similar manner with five more questions with Nick nodding consent when asked. Nick otherwise looked around the room or turned pages in a magazine while Bob was working.

In this passage, although Bob was doing the work, Nick attended when spoken to. With another teacher, Nick did respond to choices presented to him during class discussions. Early in the semester I began to question the teachers’ limited expectations of Nick’s understanding. I was observing in Occupations class during a period when the students were having a break from the academics and chatting as they finished up an assignment. I had asked Nick his age. Each time I asked him a question he nodded yes. "Are you fourteen? Are you fifteen? Are you sixteen?" After nodding yes to all three, his assistant Bob, said to me, "He probably doesn’t understand." Alone with him for a few minutes, I wrote 14, 15, and 16 on a piece of paper. He pointed to 16. I checked it out later and learned he would be 17 in a few months.

At the time, I had thought he answered my question because I expected him to and persisted. As I came to know him through observation and interaction, I collected a series of vignettes that confirmed this belief and that led me to believe he understands what people say to him and around him. I observed that he was not academically participating in high school. His special education teacher was sometimes able to engage him in the classes but gave up easily when Nick showed disinterest. Nick’s mother said that he was more challenged in middle school and mentioned that he had done homework for Science class. She also said that he communicated in middle school with a speech therapist who supported him in typing using facilitated communication (FC), a method of supporting students to point to pictures, words, or letters . She said that he was literate and also communicated to her, and that his brother used FC with him to spell out messages on a keyboard. He did not spell during high school. His high school special education teacher had never seen Nick use FC. The teacher said that he tried, but that Nick would not do it with him.

Environment and Behavior

Nick responded to behavioral expectations that were supported by the environment. Nick showed a sophisticated understanding of how to behave in different settings and a variety of purposeful behavioral expressions that most of his educators interpreted as not understanding, disinterest or manipulation. The general education teacher’s comment on his "good behavior" was confirmed in my observations. His behavior was similar to that of the general education students. Although his participation ranged from active (reacting to discussion, looking at who spoke) to napping and looking around (similar to the nondisabled students), he was never disruptive of class activity or to his classmates during the times they sat near him. His non-participation behaviors in general education class was similar to that of his peers, napping, looking around, leafing through book or magazine pages. During a discussion of former students who had stolen from their employers, Nick, along with his classmates, was still, leaning forward, looking at the teacher or student who was speaking. He appeared engaged even though no one called on him or spoke to him.

He acted differently in the special education room where he had a wider range of behaviors. These included a) physically touching, tapping, or waving paper strips in the faces of adults and peers; b) wheeling away from the group to pursue his quest for paper to tear into strips; and c) when reprimanded, would continue the behavior for a short time with no consequences or stop the behavior and continue it later when the teacher’s attention was elsewhere. Nick responded to comments, questions, requests, and commands immediately, intermittently, or not at all during an academic activity in progress, depending on his interest.

Although it seemed that some lack in teaching and support skills reinforced the extent to which Nick did not participate academically, the low expectations and deficit-oriented perceptions seemed to be a barrier to those who might notice when he was interested and engaged and build on that. Those who supported Nick’s schoolwork did not persist if Nick did not complete work or participate in class. They were sensitive to his physical feelings (hunger, pain), but not persistent if Nick backed away from academic activity. His teacher said, "His only interest in books is to tear them up." In Menu Math he was expected to choose items, but not deal with their prices.

In contrast to Nick, Trish’s experience spoke well for competence-oriented patterns of education and inclusion.

Competence-Oriented Perceptions of Trish

Trish’s teachers expressed positive regard for her as a person and as a student; they spoke of her academically and their expectations rose as they got to know her. Her teachers expected and demanded more and more as the year progressed. Even before her general education teachers knew her, they were open to her participation and allowed their understanding and expectations to grow. One teacher said at the beginning of the year, "I wonder if she’s in there?" She wondered if Trish understood what was going on in class or in conversation. Unlike Nick’s teachers, she expressed this in the form of a question rather than as a conclusion. At the end of the year she said that Trish did well though she still wondered sometimes, but less often, "if she’s still in there." That teacher indicated that she welcomed opportunities to include Trish, to be guided by the special education teacher, and to make personal contact with Trish. A Social Studies teacher responded when I asked her how Trish was doing, "Good. She comes to class and turns in her work." Near the end of that year I asked her again how Trish was doing. In my notes I recorded:

I think she's getting a lot out of it. For example yesterday somebody's father had married a woman from Japan, and she brought in some things to show. The student brought in a kimono and Trish got excited about it. She is getting a lot out of it and putting a lot into it. To put her in a separate classroom with just special education would be a sin! …. It’s good she is in there not just for the socializing, but for the academics.

Trish’s Social Studies teacher seemed to be open to her presence at first without knowing what to expect. Her comments were descriptive. Even at the beginning of the year, she was expecting Trish to turn in work and describing her perceptions of Trish in terms of her role as a student. By the end of the year she had definite opinions on how Trish was doing and that she was learning academic content. In addition, Trish’s special education teacher supported the general education teachers to think about Trish academically. She talked to me about Trish’s academics in terms of doing the same work as the others, about accommodating to her disability, and creating alternative routes to class participation. I recorded that:

She does the same content as the other children. Earth Science is difficult because it's so abstract. So we have actually hooked up to the Internet in Science and she has done some of the research while the class might be doing multiple choice questions on the weather. You know, she’s on the Internet pulling things up to share with the class, which has been really great.

Trish did, in fact, take tests and write essays for all her classes. She took multiple choice tests for Science and Social Studies, and wrote essays for English, Health, and Social Studies. When worksheets and exams had matching questions or fill-in-the-blank items, the special education teacher or aide would create choices and Trish would point to her choice for the answer. She passed tests and maintained a "90 or above average" for which she received a certificate of achievement, along with many of her classmates, half way through the 9th grade. Although Trish spent most of her school time with competence-oriented teachers, the next section shows how the contrasting perspectives can effect her participation.

Competing Perceptions and Expectations for Trish

During the study I observed two teachers working individually with Trish on communication and typing. Both teachers supported communication about academics. Trish responded to each differently.

Deficit-oriented Support. The first, Ann, had been trying out different approaches to augmentative communication, the use of various devices such as letter boards, speech devices, and picture boards. These attempts included various devices with pre-recorded speech output that required pushing buttons for various recorded selections. A speaking person could program three answers for Trish to select. During an interview with Trish and her parents, Trish’s parents shared that Trish needed time to process questions and answers. They noted that by the time they have recorded the choices in the machine, Trish has had some time to process the question and her answers. During the study, I learned from teachers’ comments and conversations about other factors that negatively influenced Trish’s responsiveness. These included her physical health (on days she was not feeling well), her feelings, and fatigue related to activity the previous evening (getting to sleep late because of a basketball game). Time of day was another factor. For example, lunch was sixth period, about 1:00, and she arrived at the school at 7:30 a.m.

As a result, Ann expressed difficulty in being able to tell what Trish did and did not understand and this difficulty led to some conclusions about Trish’s responses. She said that Trish did not "initiate" with any of the communication methods tried so far. My conversation with Ann included the following:

Trish doesn't use it [the speech device] consistently, does not seek it out. I don't know how much they [the other teachers] are using it. I only see her for 45 minutes [per week]. For something to work everyone has to be using it with her and I don't know if they are. I said that I saw her use it at home. Ann asked, "With her peers or sisters playing around and putting choices in it?" "No. I was interviewing her and her parents, and they put in choices." Ann said, "She doesn't appear interested in it and is not consistent in her answers. She favors the choices to the left. I made pictures of her eating, going places, etcetera for her to point to choices of what she wants to do. She chose going to the bathroom instead of eating. I forgot the question, but it was considered the obvious choice. Her mother said she is just fooling around or being manipulative, but I can't tell between thinking at that level or not understanding.

I observed that Trish was less responsive to this teacher who was trying a variety of communication approaches, but did not think Trish understood basic interactions. Although my field notes represent Ann trying a variety of approaches, they also represent her doubts about Trish. Ann also said that a reason she does not know what Trish understands is because people cue by nodding yes when they are presenting the yes choice. I did not observe people cueing her during assignments and tests although I made it a point to watch for that after Ann mentioned it. In addition, I thought that if people were cueing and if Trish were responsive to cueing, she would have had more correct answers on some of the tests I observed where the answers seemed obvious to me. For example, she chose 1993 over 1947 as the date of Gandhi’s death. I do not know why she chose that answer; however, most of her other answers were correct on that test.

In Medical Keyboard, Ann was working with Trish. I wrote in my notes that "Trish seemed to be on strike." In the following excerpt from my notes, Ann was trying to get Trish to type her name.

Trish hit the wrong letters with her fist. Ann asked her if she wanted to try her other hand, "Try it with knuckle," and Trish made an indefinite movement. Ann asked if she wanted to do something else [besides her name] and Trish nodded yes. When she asked, "Can you hit the letter Y?" Trish put her hands by her face and her right hand behind her neck, then both near her mouth. "You’re getting upset, why?" No response. After several questions regarding what Trish might want to do, Trish still was not responding. Ann thought she might want to type standing up, and encouraged Trish to stand up unassisted. After considerable effort, Trish stood and smiled at me. She still did not type anything and Ann put away the keyboard. During the typing session, she told me, "I’m not sure Trish even knows the letters." I shared that I thought she did. She had initiated pressing letters with her special education teacher during Medical Keyboard class, during my previous observation visit.

I was surprised that she expressed her thoughts about Trish’s knowledge in front of her as if she were not there. At the time, I took that as a possible indicator of low expectation not only of her academic abilities but also of her ability to understand what was being said in front of her.

Competence-Oriented Support. In contrast, I observed a different teacher, Beth, and a completely different response from Trish. Beth had replaced Ann for the following semester in supporting the development of communication skills. Beth acted as if Trish knew exactly what was going on and was literate. Beth also supported Trish in her completion of lab assignments and in typing, and accepted nodding responses during typing conversations. During one period she completed a multiple choice Biology test. Following is an interchange showing Trish taking the Biology test. Beth said she didn’t know most of the answers, not having been in a Biology class since her own youth. The choices "yes" and "no" were written on post-its, sticky memo papers that could be moved around on her desk or bookstand as needed.

Beth asked, "Are you prepared?" Trish pointed to yes. "Do you want to read the questions silently to yourself?" Trish pointed to no. Beth read a question about protozoa and said, "If you want me to read it again point to this." No. Beth read, "Amoebae move by using finger like projections called …pseudopods, cytoplasm." Trish pointed to cytoplasm. "Paramecium move by using hair like structures called flagella or..." Trish chose flagella. "Ready for this one?" Trish looked at her. Beth read about the whip like structure of something. Trish looked at her. "I don't know. You have to make the decision." Beth supported Trish’s hand poised saying, "Make a decision." Trish was staring above the board, "Are you with us? Make a decision. Even if you don’t know take a guess... I’ll read it again...Cilia or flagella?" Trish chose flagella.

They went over the test again: she did not change her answers. Then Beth asked her if she wanted to continue a conversation about an upcoming project, the conversation they had started about the death of a fellow student, or hang out with a student in the room. She broke into a smile at the last suggestion, but chose to talk about her confusion regarding the student who died. During this conversation, both Beth and Trish typed. The following interaction contrasts with the typing interaction with Ann cited above. In this passage the capital letters are Trish’s computer keyboard input.

Beth said to Trish, "Put your right hand in your lap so that you can see what you are doing." Trish rubbed her eyes with both hands. "The topic must be making you nervous." Beth was next to Trish, on her left supporting Trish’s hand and forearm leaning on her own forearm. "Did you know him?" Trish had her right hand in her eyes. "Trish, try to put the hand down." She put it down. "There. Did you know ________[student’s name]?" Trish looked at the keyboard, pulled her left hand to her mouth, put it down and pointed with support to the letter Y. Beth spoke and typed her part of the exchange, "Is there anything you'd like to say about it?" Trish made a short humming sound and some squeaky sounds "If nothing else you can just say no or n." Trish pointed over the keyboard and typed with support. Beth read each letter as Trish typed it, thus narrating both sides of the conversation along with the process. I was looking on, copying both the conversation as I heard it and the letters off the computer screen in all capitals. "You went for the d or the l, I wasn’t clear. DAM N do you swear? Are you saying damn it?" Y. "Make a space O.K.? I think you never thought about this. I can see it in your face." Trish typed I TIAR. "I'm not sure what that means. HAI didn’t make a lot of sense to me. R hair OUT [I TIAR HAIR OUT]. Does that mean [student name] died makes you really upset and mad?" Trish typed, Y…

In the case of Trish, even though all her teachers placed academic demands on her, the person supporting her made a difference. The people with whom she communicated best assumed she knew what was going on or were sensitive to the variety of reasons she might not respond. They were often successful in figuring out what to do. They supported a number of communication options. When presenting choices, which were sometimes their best guesses, "other" was always included as a choice. I saw many opportunities for academic and social interactions taken and become more complex over the period of time I observed her. Her special education teachers pushed her by insisting on completing an assignment or negotiating another time to do it. They tried to figure out what was going on when Trish did not respond. They would ask her if she was bored, thirsty, hungry, tired, feeling sick, if she hated the topic, needed a break or to go to the bathroom, or was just joking around. Sometimes they would ask, "Are you saying yes [or no] to everything," or "Are you being a jokester?" and Trish would often break into a smile, laugh, or nod yes.

In the two case studies, we have seen two students who have much in common in terms of their needs for special education supports. However, they were very different in how educators delivered those services and supports and how their teachers regarded them. We can see from reading the examples that expectation and perception are more than attitudes. They are the artifacts of a longstanding tradition that treat students like those in this study as outcasts and aliens (Kliewer, 1998). They are embedded in patterns of verbal and nonverbal behaviors that are often unintentional communications to students.


In this article I illustrate competence- and deficit-oriented perceptions and behaviors from the educators toward the students in the study. Each student experienced a variety of competing expectations and a variety of situations. This paper focused on the adults’ perceptions of the students and how these perceptions and expectations were manifested in classroom observations and teacher interviews. In many cases the teachers’ interactions with and about students were verbal and nonverbal perceptions and assessments of the students’ understanding: they reflected expectations and the quality of perceptible student engagement.

None of these interactions, taken individually, would necessarily have a major impact on student engagement. However, taken together, they are potent as patterns that reproduce a given situation for the student and his or her peers. In fact, the deficit-oriented patterns of expectancy and perception represent years of accumulated cultural influence regarding disability and special education students. The competence-oriented expectancy patterns are relatively new and are still fragile in our culture (Biklen & Cardinal, 1997; Biklen & Duchan, 1994). Nick’s occasional interaction with a competence-oriented educator was insufficient to overcome the ongoing deficit-oriented expectancy patterns that contributed to his academic and social isolation. Trish’s interaction with a single deficit-oriented educator was, fortunately, insufficient to derail her overall academic progress and achievement as a fully included student. The data validate other studies that show that inaccurate preconceptions of the included student’s needs changed when general education teachers got to know the students with disabilities on an individual basis .

This study has implication for teacher development. Educators’ perceptions of students have enabled or disabled opportunities for students to participate. If teachers accept the inclusion of students with severe disabilities merely as an aid to their social skills development, they will continue to ignore these students as thoughtful human beings with purposeful behaviors, meaningful responses, and interests consistent with the academic and social content of their classes. Our teacher educators, even as they strive to understand the implications of the multicultural agenda for teacher development, must include students with disabilities in their teachings about supporting students free of stereotyping behaviors and perspectives.

Specifically, the findings indicate the need to assist teachers to acquire and execute competence-oriented classroom interactions and practices. When the student is engaged but educators do not notice, or are unable to support the student effectively, the resulting difficulties for students include invisibility. For students with significant disabilities, that invisibility contributes to extreme isolation to the margins of our classrooms and communities. Kliewer (1998), in writing about the schooling of children with Down syndrome has pointed out that the stigma of mental retardation is so strong that the student becomes a symbol of mental incompetence by virtue of physical non-conformity to the educational norms. Students with Down syndrome along with others labeled mentally retarded are too frequently excluded, undereducated, and overlooked even when they are intellectually normal or superior.

The tables in this study reflect the same kinds of interactions and dilemmas that also apply to the education of non-disabled students. Non-disabled students are also subjected to deficit-oriented educators who may respond to them according to perceptions regarding economic status, race or ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation. Such educators, for example, participate in or support tracking, ignore culturally relevant approaches to teaching, and otherwise participate in the marginalization of students in minority or disrespected groups. Further analysis and study should take into account the interconnections among the issues of members of marginalized groups in our schools. Other studies of the academic isolation or inclusion of these groups should avoid the relegation of inclusive education studies to special education journals; further analysis would also take into account "inclusion" issues—policies, practices, and strategies-- that consider disability, race, class, gender, and sexual orientation.



Table 1

Educators Talking to Students

a) Competence-Oriented Interactions


Asks questions, gives instructions, corrections

"Why did the Europeans call the Ottoman Empire the sick man of Europe…?" (sets up answer choices)

"I don’t have my glasses on, what does that say?" (T. A. during in class reading assignment)

Calls on all students in class

"S., what do you think …"

"S., what language did they speak in Rome?"

Checks on student during in-class assignments when circulating among the students

"Just one wrong, take a look at that one."

"Who are God’s chosen people, the Jews or the Arabs? You know this."

Facilitates student involvement with a partner or peer group

"You and Sam [classmate] work on this together."

"S. You’re in [cooperative] group four."

"Gerard, you play the customer."

"Am I in the way? Do you want to work with [student] instead of me (T. A.)?"

Insists that students do schoolwork during class; same tone as with nondisabled students

"Get to work, I'm not kidding."

"…Did you finish reading this?"

"We need to do these; [questions], you’re stalling." (T. A.)

"Can you sit up please? Cause everyone else is paying attention." (T. A.)

Questions student regarding needs or consent

"May she look at your work?"

"Are you just bored or don’t feel well?"

"Shall I leave you alone [with peer]? Want me to stay with you? Yes or no, my feelings won’t be hurt."

Assigns classroom jobs

"I want you to take attendance."

"… Put the chairs back, everybody is helping here."

"Please get the calculators…[and pass them out.]."

b) Deficit-Oriented Interactions


Ignores student during whole class lessons

"Everybody gather around closer to watch this." [Student remained far away during demonstration.]

.Calls on general education students only

Teacher gives up when student does not answer correctly or does not call on the student any more.

Takes over student’s assignment

"The collage I am making is on needs and wants." (T.A.)

"It’s my homework…" (T. A)

"Write down [answer]…." (T. A.)

Responds for student e.g., in role play:

[To student playing waiter]"Ask him what he would like to drink. [And to the student-customer]: What would you like to drink?" (T.A.)

Accepts student nonparticipation

"You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to."

Table 2

Educators Talking About Students

a) Competence-Oriented


Articulates academic goals for students

"This one [assignment] will be harder for him because it’s longer but it’s better to have some of it than nothing."

"…She’s developing her opinions about things. And much of that comes from learning about different philosophies through literature."

Describes student academic achievement or how the student benefits from the class

"He has improved over two years in increasing his attention span [when taking tests] and writing longer paragraphs."

"Sometimes he can do the work [in this class], and sometimes he can’t."

"When you ask him questions in class, he has the basic idea of what we’re talking about."

Positive description of student related to academics


"We do a lot of group work in Social Studies and ...she goes to one girl who she's close with and she'll do the work with her."

"He’s a good student…conscientious about what he does, he makes an attempt."

"I don’t care who they are. I expect them to do their best."

b) Deficit-Oriented


Describes student in deficit or non-academically referenced terms

"He is low functioning... he can't add 2+2 or say his ABCs. From the academic classes he gets structure and social skills."

"He does best on the hands-on activities." (T.A)

"He’s in here for the social [benefit]."

Describes student’s deficits in the presence of the student

"I’m not sure she even knows the letters."

"Isn't it all right that he's mentally retarded?

He can’t read or write his own name."

"His only interest in books is to tear them up."

"He doesn't like it, isn't interested in it." (regarding in-class assignments)

Positive description unrelated to academics or curriculum content

"He's brilliant, he knows where the curb comes whether I’m pushing or he is pushing himself."

(T. A.)