Monday, October 01, 2012

Ryan on Poverty and the IDEA

New on SSRN: James E. Ryan, Poverty as Disability and the Future of Special Education Law, 101 Geo. L.J. ___ (forthcoming 2013).  The abstract:
Special education law relies on certain assumptions regarding brain development, function, and dysfunction. Recent neuroscience research suggests that some of those assumptions are open to serious question. This Article, which is part of a broader project that uses neuroscience research to critique special education law, focuses on one of those assumptions: that learning disabilities are innate. The definition of learning disabilities in special education law thus excludes from eligibility students whose learning problems are due to “economic disadvantage,” reflecting the belief that poverty is purely an external factor that diminishes the motivation or opportunity of poor students to learn. 
Neuroscience research, however, suggests that the conditions associated with poverty can have internal, physical effects on the brain. Growing up in poverty, in short, can alter how a child’s brain develops and functions. The sharp distinction in the law between internal disorders and external circumstances thus appears increasingly untenable. The Article goes on to explore the implications of this and other findings from neuroscience for the future of special education law.
Interesting paper and thesis.  My initial take (consistent with my general views on such questions) is that the neuroscience isn't really doing the work here.  What the neuroscience is doing is highlighting a fundamental normative question that has existed for the learning disability category from the beginning.  As Jim's paper notes, the IDEA, though an incredibly important disability rights statute, has always raised concerns by applying a much more medical approach to disability than do the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act.  Jim's focus on neuroscience might, alas, continue to trap us in a medicalized discourse here, when (as he recognizes) the real questions here are normative: What resources should we devote to education?  By what criteria should we distribute those resources among children and groups of children?  And why?  Anyway, this is likely to be an important paper (and project) for people thinking about the IDEA.

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