Disability, invisibility, and equity in mathematics (part one)

A recent post by my friend and colleague Andrew Benjamin Gael rightly critiqued the recent NCTM conference for omitting disability in current calls for equity.  The recent Executive Summary of the Principles to Actions doesn’t mention disability or special education at all.  Andrew asked why, and then went on to describe some recent, powerful work on meeting the needs of students with disabilities using the Mathematical Practices.

As a researcher and teacher educator in both special education and mathematics education, I am constantly confronted with the invisibility of kids with disabilities in mathematics education. While I hear calls to educate “all kids,” rarely are disabilities mentioned. I want to explore two fundamental reasons why kids with disabilities are invisible.  In this post, I will discuss the inclusion/exclusion of kids with disabilities in mathematics educational research.  In a second post, I want to explore why recent calls to equity so consistently exclude disability, while including race, class, gender, and other markers of social difference.

Disability is almost invisible in mathematics educational research. Curious to know the extent of this exclusion, I recently analyzed all the articles I could find on the mathematical learning of kids published in peer-reviewed journals English, limiting my search to one year  (2013). I recently presented preliminary findings at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Research Conference (you can find the presentation here). I looked through the title, abstract and keywords of all 269 relevant articles published that year, looking for mention of disability or special education. Only 39 articles of the total sample(269) investigated the mathematical learning of kids with disabilities; only 2 of those articles were published in mathematics education.

Journal placement of research articles on mathematics learning PreK-12th grade in 2013 for those with and without disabilities 

Research analysis general overview

A couple of points emerge from this one set of data.  First, mathematics education publishes very little research on people with disabilities.  Second, almost all of the research on learning mathematics for kids with disabilities is published in special education or related psychology journals. These two different academic fields publish very different kinds of research.  Mathematics education tends to explore mathematical learning in the context of classrooms and schools, investigating how teachers and children develop understandings of complex mathematical ideas.  The majority of research in special education and psychology, in contrast, is mostly interested in defining the precise set of deficits that characterize mathematical learning disabilities, or developing scripted interventions.  I found these to be true in my analysis of articles of 2013.  Special education research in the teaching of mathematics is heavily influenced by behaviorism, and continues to be deeply distrustful of constructivism even as certain aspects of it are taken up, perhaps to appear more aligned to Common Core standards. So it should not be a surprise that kids with disabilities are invisible in calls for equity in mathematics— they are invisible in mathematics education research. Kids with disabilities remain the academic property of special education.

In my years as a classroom special educator, I heard general education teachers disavow ownership of kids with disabilities, telling special educators like myself to take care of “your kids.” Plenty of general education teachers feel as if they are not trained with the specialized knowledge needed to educate children with disabilities. The mythology is that there are two kinds of kids: normal kids and special education kids and these two distinct kinds of kids need completely different pedagogies to learn. This myth pervades American classrooms, as well as research institutions.  This myth both constructs and constantly reifies the deeply destructive separation between normal kids, who can learn and think as active agents, and non-normal kids, who are not allowed to think for themselves. This myth persists as long as we accept separate research, separate pedagogies and separate classrooms for kids.

In reality, kids are all different, unique, complicated.  Universal Design for Learning is premised on the radical idea that learner variability is the norm for all kids.  Instruction should be designed not for two different kinds of kids, normal and not, but to create classrooms that are flexible enough to meet the needs of the wide range of learners that make up every classroom.  In mathematics education, we need to push for classrooms in which blind learners have equal access to content through technology, where students with intellectual disabilities are given the chance to construct mathematical meaning through their experiences, and where kids with learning disabilities are given access to the Mathematical Practices, rather than worksheets of basic facts. People with disabilities have already made significant contributions to STEM, and will make more if they are granted equal access to mathematics. Mathematics education needs to wake up and challenge the destructive mythology that segregates kids with disabilities.


  1. Achieving Fluency: Special Education and Mathematics is a text published by NCTM. Here is a brief description: “Is it a learning disability or a teaching disability?”

    Achieving Fluency presents the understandings that all teachers need to play a role in the education of students who struggle: those with disabilities and those who simply lack essential foundational knowledge. This book serves teachers and supervisors by sharing increasingly intensive instructional interventions for struggling students on essential topics aligned with NCTM’s Curriculum Focal Points, the new Common Core State Standards for Mathematics, and the practices and processes that overlap the content. These approaches are useful for both overcoming ineffective approaches and implementing preventive approaches.

    I found this text to be particularly effective in professional development that included all staff members of a K-8 school. I highly recommend it.

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