Book cover of DisCrit featuring a portrait of a young Black woman


Given the small but growing interest in ways that race and dis/ability are co-constructed, we argue the time is right to propose Dis/ability Critical Race Studies (DisCrit). DisCrit explores ways in which both race and ability are socially constructed and interdependent. As scholars working within DisCrit, we seek to examine the processes in which students are simultaneously raced and dis/abled.

DisCrit: Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Education

We combine aspects of Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Disability Studies (DS) to propose a new theoretical framework that incorporates a dual analysis of race and ability: Dis/ability Critical Race Studies, or DisCrit.

DisCrit: Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Education

We believe, for instance, that racism and ableism are normalizing processes that are interconnected and collusive. In other words, racism and ableism often work in ways that are unspoken, yet racism validates and reinforces ableism, and ableism validates and reinforces racism.

DisCrit: Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Education

DisCrit seeks to understand ways that macrolevel issues of racism and ableism, among other structural discriminatory processes, are enacted in the day-to-day lives of students of color with dis/abilities.

DisCrit: Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Education

A DisCrit theory in education is a framework that theorizes about the ways in which race, racism, dis/ability and ableism are built into the interactions, procedures, discourses, and institutions of education, which affect students of color with dis/abilities qualitatively differently than White students with dis/abilities (Crenshaw, 1993; Solorzano & Yosso, 2001).

DisCrit: Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Education

DisCrit empathizes with John Powell’s words, “I feel like I’ve been spoken for and I feel like I’ve been spoken about, but rarely do I feel like I’ve been spoken to” (cited in Dalton, 1987). A similar mantra in dis/ability rights circles, “Nothing about us, without us” (Charlton, 2000, p. 3), also speaks to this tenet. DisCrit, therefore, seeks to disrupt the tradition of ignoring the voices of traditionally marginalized groups and instead privileges insider voices (Matsuda, 1987). DisCrit invites understanding of ways students respond to injustices (i.e., being constructed as deficient, or being segregated and stigmatized) through fostering or attending to counter narratives and explicitly reading these stories against the grain of master narratives.

DisCrit: Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Education

DisCrit was created to address the connections between racism and ableism, and nowhere are these connections clearer than in eugenicist projects such as forced sterilizations. Rooted in the eugenicist belief that society can wipe out those of lesser intelligence, learning, and behavior by cutting out the possibility of reproducing, these sterilizations are not simply an egregious violation of bodies through state violence, they are also a human rights abuse, stealing babies from their mothers and cutting off futures. As Dorothy Roberts (1999) writes in Killing the Black Body,

“I turn to a discussion of eugenics because this way of thinking helped to shape our understanding of reproduction and permeates the promotion of contemporary policies that regulate Black women’s childbearing. Racist ideology, in turn, provided fertile soil for eugenic theories to take root and flourish. (p. 98)”

Roberts’ text clearly lays out how eugenicist thinking relies upon ableism and racism, grounded in the belief that race is located in genetics and that genetics prescribed future capabilities.

DisCrit Expanded: Reverberations, Ruptures, and Inquiries

The grounding assumption that undergirds Disability Critical Race Theory (DisCrit) is that racism and ableism are mutually constitutive and collusive—always circulating across time and context in interconnected ways. Consequently, DisCrit has been a theory that fundamentally exposes and examines eugenicist projects. Though fewer people currently assess the quality of one’s genes to argue for their eradication—though this line of thinking certainly has not been eliminated—in other ways, many have creatively blamed societal and school failure collectively and individually on multiply marginalized Black people, Indigenous people, and other People of Color. A central and defining argument that is central to DisCrit is that deficit thinking about Black people, Indigenous people, and other People of Color is deeply rooted in the mutually constitutive nature of racism and ableism.

DisCrit Expanded: Reverberations, Ruptures, and Inquiries

Throughout history, scientific research has been defined in ways which further the agenda of ableist, white supremacist power systems. At the same time, traditional notions of what constitutes scientific research has been reified by policymakers and scholars in education, who equate “science” with clinical methods and hard-numbers data. Using the framework of DisCrit, we provided a brief critical analysis of the use of science by dominant groups to label minorities as “others” throughout U.S. history. This scientific research is strongly linked to education policy, which inexorably functions to separate white, non-dis/abled students from students who are constructed as deficient and/or dis/abled because of the articulation of their linguistic, cultural, and racial identities. The pervasive acceptance of the dis/abling scientific studies was (and is) largely due to what counts as scientific research, and what does not. The authors identified some of the current notions of what is considered “evidence” in research and education policy; despite progressive trends in modern medical research, traditional clinical and/or quantitative studies continue to serve as the “gold star” in education research and testing. Although scholars claim quantitative research is more objective and reliable, there are many opportunities for human error and subjectivity at the design and procedural level of research, which trouble these assertions of a fixed truth. In quantifying and parsing elements of the human experience, this type of research results in a loss of multidimensionality. In reality, this kind of research only serves to uphold the values of white supremacy and ableism.

Disrupting Dis/abilization: A Critical Exploration of Research Methods to Combat White Supremacy and Ableism in Education

“Race does not exist outside of ability and ability does not exist outside of race” (Annamma et al., 2013, p. 6). This insight is powerfully confirmed by the experiences of the Black middle-class parents and their children in our research. LD categories, such as autism and dyslexia, are mostly treated in contemporary England as a property right for the benefit of White middle-class students—a property right to which our Black interviewees’ social class profile does not grant access. Even armed with the supposedly “scientific” warrant of a formal assessment (a certification meant to credentialize and medicalize the “condition”), Black middle-class parents’ claims were rejected. Within an educational competition where particular LD dis/ability labels can become a valuable asset, therefore, this asset is denied to the Black parents and their children. Their greater social class capital is rejected, their claims denied, and their motives questioned. In contrast, however, schools seem content to mobilize certain dis/ability labels, especially negative behavioral categories, in all too familiar ways against the parents and their children—a finding that relates to a further DisCrit tenet:

3. DisCrit emphasizes the social constructions of race and ability and yet recognizes the material and psychological impacts of being labeled as raced or dis/abled, which sets one outside of the western cultural norms. (p. 11)

DisCrit: Disability Studies and Critical Race Theory in Education

Further reading,