376 Derby / Commentary: Nothing About Us Without Us
C O M M E N TA R Y
Nothing About Us Without Us: Art Education’s
Disservice to Disabled People
J O H N D E R B Y
The University of Kansas
he disability rights movement slogan,“nothing about us without us,”
has been trumpeted with such fervor that it is nearly a cliché.1
have never seen this phrase in Studies in Art Education. Almost “nothing about
us”has appeared in the pages of Studies or other major journals in the field despite
significant advances in disability research. Of the scarce disability research in art
education journals, most has been “without us,” as nondisabled authors advocate
nondisabled perspectives. Such research typically follows the predominant medical
model that conceptualizes disability as a degenerative crisis to be managed by non-
disabled caretakers, including teachers. This problem is most noticeable in research
that promotes orthodox Special Education discourses as well as indulgent uses
of disparaging disability metaphors and terminology, which I have criticized else-
where (Derby, 2011). This is an unfortunate trend as disabled learners, educators,
and others remain grossly underserved despite the truism that disabled people
receive better treatment and resources than nondisabled people.
Nothing About Us
Following the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and a
brief flurry of accompanying interest in collaborating with Special Education (e.g., Guay,
1993) and challenging the medical model (e.g., Blandy, 1991), the past 18 years of Studies
has included only seven articles on disability. During this time, disability research has
advanced in diverse fields across medicine, psychology, and allied professions; education
Copyright 2013 by the National Art Education Association
Studies in Art Education: A Journal of Issues and Research
2013, 54(4), 376-380
Correspondence regarding this commentary may be sent to the author
Studies in Art Education / Volume 54, No. 4 377
and the arts and humanities (e.g., Siebers, 2010;
Snyder, Brueggemann, & Garland-Thomson,
2002). Importantly, the transdisciplinary project
of Disability Studies has emerged out of these
efforts to promote advocacy and critical research
on disability with acute attention to the perspec-
While three recent articles in Studies (Derby,
2011; Eisenhauer, 2007; Wexler, 2011) address
Disability Studies, the practices and suggestions
of this research have not been integrated into
mainstream art education research, nor have the
influences of Disability Studies on Education and
Special Education, including vastly improved
teaching methods, been discussed. Studies has
never explored the kinds of experiences disabled
art educators have, like when I was told before
an on-campus job talk not to discuss autobio-
graphical research on my clinical depression
because “it’s kind of uncomfortable” and “we
want to know our colleagues will keep being
alive.” Neither has Studies featured articles on
the Disability Arts Movement, disability aesthet-
ics (Siebers, 2010), universal learning design,
the self-advocacy autism movement of neurodi-
versity, or the implications of AERA’s “Disability
Studies in Education”special interest group.2
The inattention to disability research extends
beyond Studies with few publications in any
national art education journal after the mid-
1990s. An exception is Art Education, which
routinely addresses disability, and a handful of
important books (Gerber & Guay, 2006; Gerber
& Kellman, 2010; Nyman & Jenkins, 1999; Wexler,
2009). This discouraging trend defies the logic
of inclusive education and is counterintuitive
to the steady increase of disabled students
being placed in regular art classrooms (Causton-
Theoharis & Burdick, 2008). Art education is
failing to serve disabled people by its omission
of sustained research on issues“about us.”
Brueggemann, Hetrick, Yergeau, and Brewer
(2012) clarified that “nothing about us without
us” is foremost “a corrective to a long history of
disabled people being spoken about in public
discourse by educators, doctors, legislators, and
family members but, rarely, being authorized to
speak for themselves except in private settings
and to highly limited audiences” (p. 64). “Us”
is not a concept about exclusivity or jurispru-
dence, but of egalitarianism. From a Disability
Studies perspective, anyone may create intellec-
tual work about disability but doing so obligates
artists and scholars to bear in mind“the perspec-
tives and interests of the real people to whom
disability is always related,” as “disability is not a
concept that can be abstracted from people, but
a way of being a person”(p. 64).
Orthodox Special Education3
viding important life skills and opportunities
to children once barred from learning—does
not do this. Born out of parental advocacy and
institutionalized in the public school system,
orthodox Special Education is often more con-
cerned about nondisabled service providers
than disabled learners and it is not democratic. It
views disabled people in terms of“needs”rather
than“rights”(Wexler, 2009), positioning them as
helpless subordinates. Even now, the Individuals
with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of
2004 (IDEA), which mandates Special Education,
refers to adult learners up to 26 years old as
Art education research has uncovered certain
shortcomings of orthodox Special Education.
For example, paraeducators act as gatekeepers
to learning, often hindering learning by doing
art for students, contributing to lower expec-
tations, substituting their own objectives for
the art teacher’s (Causton-Theoharis & Burdick,
2008), and through emphasizing discipline
(Floyd, 2003). The problem has grown with the
increase of paraeducators in art classrooms.
Education of learners with autism, however,
has improved significantly. By paying attention
to the self-described experiences of learners
with autism, Special Education and art educa-
tion researchers have learned much about how
378 Derby / Commentary: Nothing About Us Without Us
people with autism think, what they experi-
ence, what makes them learn, and so on (Gerber
& Kellman, 2010). This research, while not
acknowledging Disability Studies or activism, is
firmly aligned with both Special Education and
Disability Studies. It is“with us.”
But, there are many problems with ortho-
dox Special Education, which lacks attention
in art education literature. A prime example is
the rhetoric and pedagogy surrounding the “at
risk” designation, particularly the “emotional
disturbance/behavior disorder” (ED/BD) label
as defined in IDEA (2004). Like past autism edu-
cation, strategies for ED/BD typically involve
constant punishment, which rarely increases
learning, school enjoyment, or future quality of
life. The label is unmistakably code for“mentally
ill,” and the terms “disorder” and “disturbance”
pathologize learners. ED/BD discussions are
often embellished with the slanderous adjec-
tive “problem” (e.g., emotional problem, behav-
ior problem, problem student). Such language
“remains as problematic today as it was when it
was codified [in 1975],”and there remains“wide-
spread recognition that, in general, efforts to
provide effective education to students with ED
have been largely inadequate”(Merrell & Walker,
2004, p. 899). Despite the inappropriateness of
IDEA language, which retains other problematic
practices, terminology, and language of ortho-
dox Special Education—including the ghastly
label “retarded”—the common pattern in art
education has been to retain traditions until
they become universally inexcusable. Most art
education literature uncritically reifies the prob-
lematic labels and practices of orthodox Special
Education that the disability community finds
offensive, placing traditions and conventions
ahead of disabled learners.
The negative effects of orthodox Special
Education discourses are so deeply ingrained
in our cultural concept of disabled people that
we often represent disability as inferior without
realizing it. One poignant, visual example was
the September 2008 cover of Art Education. The
“risk” theme featured a grid pattern of different
road signs, many of which read “RISK.”The cover
also contained the phrase “what risks do artists
and art teachers construct, tolerate, and/or pro-
liferate in both their teaching and artmaking
policies and practices?” The answer is revealed
in Pamela Taylor’s (2008) ironic editorial, “Risk
Is Not a Word Taken Lightly in Contemporary
Education.” After outlining risk research, Taylor
identified“risks”taken by the authors:
Gillian Furniss took a chance in reporting
the critical needs and successes of
students with autism. Author Jennifer
Eisenhauer laid bare negative and
inaccurate visual representations of people
with mental illnesses while challenging art
educators to confront such stigmatization
in their teaching choices. (p. 4)
Of what are they at risk? Of being stigmatized
alongside their students? Perhaps, in the case
of Eisenhauer’s (2008) article which, in the vein
of articles about sexuality, automatically sug-
gested that she may experience mental illness—
a particularly risky venture for a pre-tenured
professor. But the true irony is that the cover
image is an unmindful reiteration of stigmatiz-
Another example is the logo of the National
Art Education Association (NAEA) Issues Group,
Special Needs in Art Education (SNAE). The
logo is a graphic reduction of a crude clay coil
human figure, created by a young disabled child
of an SNAE founder. It was selected because the
young artist “personified the fight for children
with special needs to have access to art educa-
tion” (Peter Geisser, personal communication,
September 30, 2012), including NAEA’s oppo-
sition to SNAE and its mission. Nevertheless,
it is the kind of sentimental image that comes
to mind when thinking of “special needs” art,
and it is a metaphor for our culture thinking of
disabled people as adorably inept. Despite its
earnest origins, it is a poor representation of
disability in general because it exemplifies the
Studies in Art Education / Volume 54, No. 4 379
myth that disabled people and their work are
incompetent; it is“without us.”
As a progressive field, art education must pay
closer attention to Disability Studies and other
disability self-activism measures regarding
Special Education. Art educators should strive
toward innovative research that intersects the
perspectives of disabled students, artists, and
educators with Special Education as well as with
intersecting identity issues. It is time for our field
to acknowledge the dignity of disabled people
and the validity of our way of being.
Figure 1. Cover of Art Education, 61(5).
Figure 2. Special Needs
in Art Education logo.
R E F E R E N C E S
Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, 42 U.S.C. § 12101 et seq.
Barnes, C., & Mercer, G. (2010). Exploring disability (2nd ed.). Cambridge, England: Polity Press.
Blandy, D. (1991). Conceptions of disability: Toward a sociopolitical orientation to disability for art education.
Studies in Art Education, 32(3), 131-144.
Brueggemann, B. J., Hetrick, N., Yergeau, M., & Brewer, E. (2012). Current issues, controversies, and solutions. In B.
J. Brueggemann (Ed.), Arts and Humanities (pp. 63-98). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Causton-Theoharis, J., & Burdick, C. (2008). Paraprofessionals: Gatekeepers of authentic art production. Studies in
Art Education, 49(3), 167-182.
Charlton, J. I. (1998). Nothing about us without us: Disability oppression and empowerment. Berkeley: University of
Derby, J. (2011). Disability studies and art education. Studies in Art Education, 52(2), 94-111.
380 Derby / Commentary: Nothing About Us Without Us
Eisenhauer, J. (2007). Just looking and staring back: Challenging ableism through disability performance art.
Studies in Art Education, 49(1), 7-22.
Eisenhauer, J. (2008). A visual culture of stigma: Critically examining representations of mental illness. Art
Education, 61(5), 13-18.
Floyd, M. (2003). The punishment is missing art? In S. Klein (Ed.), Teaching art in context: Case studies for preservice
art education (pp. 56-59). Reston, VA: National Art Education Association.
Gallagher, D. J., Heshusius, L., Iano, R. P., & Skrtic, T. M. (2004). Challenging orthodoxy in special education:
Dissenting voices. Denver, CO: Love.
Gerber, B. L., & Guay, D. M. (Eds.). (2006). Reaching and teaching students with special needs through art. Reston, VA:
National Art Education Association.
Gerber, B. L., & Kellman, J. (Eds.). (2010). Understanding students with autism though art. Reston, VA: National Art
Guay, D. M. P. (1993). Cross-site analysis of teaching practices: Visual art education with students experiencing
disabilities. Studies in Art Education, 34(4), 222-232.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, 20 U.S.C. §1400 et seq.
Merrell, K. W., & Walker, H. M. (2004). Deconstructing a definition: Social maladjustment versus emotional
disturbance and moving the EBD field forward. Psychology in the Schools, 41(8), 899-910.
Nyman, A. L., & Jenkins, A. M. (Eds.). (1999). Issues and approaches to art for students with special needs. Reston, VA:
National Art Education Association.
Siebers, T. (2010). Disability aesthetics. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.
Snyder, S. L., Brueggemann, B. J., & Garland-Thomson, R. (Eds.). (2002). Disability studies: Enabling the humanities.
New York, NY: Modern Language Association of America.
Taylor, P. G. (2008). Risk is not a word taken lightly in contemporary education [Editorial]. Art Education, 61(5), 4-5.
Wexler, A. J. (2009). Art and disability: The social and political struggles facing education. New York, NY: Palgrave
Wexler, A. (2011).“The siege of the cultural city is underway”: Adolescents with developmental disabilities make
“art.”Studies in Art Education, 53(1), 53-70.
E N D N O T E S
1 Following James Charlton’s (1998) book, Nothing About Us Without Us, the international disability community
widely adopted the motto. It has been reinforced through countless activist events, print publications, aca-
demic conferences, and organizations.
2 Disability Studies in Education (DSE) has been an American Educational Research Association (AERA) special
interest group (SIG) since 2000. Hunter College provides a good overview of its history at www.hunter.cuny.
3 Orthodox Special Education refers to traditional Special Education (SPED) scholarship and practices that retain
a caretaker/dependent lens and refuse to acknowledge the importance or legitimacy of Disability Studies
perspectives. See Gallagher, Heshusius, Iano and Skrtic (2004) as a thorough critique of SPED research which is
“closed to ideas”from a philosophy of science perspective.
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