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Distinguishing Disability

Parents, Privilege, and Special Education

Students in special education programs can have widely divergent experiences. For some, special education amounts to a dumping ground where schools unload their problem students, while for others, it provides access to services and accommodations that drastically improve chances of succeeding in school and beyond. Distinguishing Disability argues that this inequity in treatment is directly linked to the disparity in resources possessed by the students’ parents.

Since the mid-1970s, federal law has empowered parents of public school children to intervene in virtually every aspect of the decision making involved in special education. However, Colin Ong-Dean reveals that this power is generally available only to those parents with the money, educational background, and confidence needed to make effective claims about their children’s disabilities and related needs. Ong-Dean documents this class divide by examining a wealth of evidence, including historic rates of learning disability diagnosis, court decisions, and advice literature for parents of disabled children. In an era of expanding special education enrollment, Distinguishing Disability is a timely analysis of the way this expansion has created new kinds of inequality.


Distinguishing Disability offers a detailed and engaging overview of trends in disability classification, the social dynamics behind category development, and the complex legal system that evolved in response to new conceptualizations of disability as well as past problems with the delivery of special education services. Most importantly, it illustrates how special education works distinctively for children of privileged and disadvantaged social classes. Ong-Dean infuses sophisticated sociological theories about privilege creation and the effects of parents’ cultural capital with poignant quotations from his interviews with parents of each class. He draws from a breadth of studies that are outside the typical parameters of special education research; therefore this book is of particular importance to insiders who think narrowly about their field. Distinguishing Disability should be read by parents, teachers and administrators, lawmakers, and scholars of sociology and disability.”

Ellen A. Brantlinger, Indiana University

“A careful, rich, and compelling story of how parents’ class privileges determine whether kids labeled ‘disabled’—LD, ADHD, autism, Asperger’s—wind up on the ‘low road’ to a segregated special education dumping ground or on the ‘high road’ to an array of special services, benefits, and support. A must-read for parents, educators, policy makers, and scholars interested in the complex interplay of money, culture, and institutional practices that transforms a system based in democratic impulses into yet another example of the perpetuation of social inequalities.”

Sharon Hays, University of Southern California

"Distinguishing Disability is a well-argued and supported account of the class divide in the special education process of disability diagnosis and accommodation in public schools. . . . Ong-Dean uses a range of methods to amass an impressive amount and variety of evidence to support his claims."

Contemporary Sociology

Table of Contents

Distinguishing Disability
Chapter One
From Social Reform to Technical Management
The Legal Evolution of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975
Chapter Two  
Disabled Children’s Parents
Chapter Three  
High Roads and Low Roads to Disability
Chapter Four  
Looking for Answers
The Literature on Disability
Chapter Five  
Whose Voices Are Heard?
Due Process Hearings and Parents’ Challenge to Special Education Evaluations and Placements
Chapter Six  
Reflections on Disability and Social Reproduction

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