Otherwise qualified: An action-oriented study of the experiences of learning disabled labeled undergraduates at an Ivy League university

Catherine Elizabeth Luna, University of Pennsylvania


This study seeks to understand and address the limited and limiting ways that diversity is typically constructed and dealt with in schools, and the implications of these constructions for learning disabled labeled (LDL) college students. Using the lens of discourse-as-ideology, I examine the norms of academic literacies and the social construction of learning disabilities at an Ivy League university. By conducting practitioner research with five LDL undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania--themselves practitioners by virtue of their membership in a student action group committed to raising awareness about issues related to learning differences/disabilities--I investigate the discourses within and against which this group of non-mainstream learners construct their educational identities and lives. My analysis reveals that LDL students are often silenced by a lack of self-determination, access, and participation in their educational lives. This silencing can be explained by fundamental assumptions and power relationships which cut across the dominant discourse of schooling, the discourse of the LD field, and the University discourse about what it means to be LDL. These assumptions include the notion that social and educational problems are located in individuals and the definition of learning diversity as a deficit. Embodied in and perpetuated by many of the institutional practices and policies that LDL students face throughout their educational careers, both these assumptions and the social practices they inform legitimize hierarchical power relationships which continue to exclude LDL students from meaningful participation in their educational lives. Existing discourses frame the 'problem' of learning disabilities as one of individual disabilities located in students and suggest limited 'solutions' to this problem including remediating students, teaching self-advocacy, and educating professors about the nature of learning disabilities. By reframing the 'problem' of learning diversity from one of disabilities located in individual students to one of standardization and silencing located within academic contexts and dominant discourses, this study offers new possibilities for promoting students' academic success and for fostering educational and social change. These possibilities include 'remediating' academic contexts, teaching literacy as critical reflection and action, and learning to listen to the voices of diverse learners.

Subject Area

Higher education|Special education|Literacy|Reading instruction

Recommended Citation

Luna, Catherine Elizabeth, "Otherwise qualified: An action-oriented study of the experiences of learning disabled labeled undergraduates at an Ivy League university" (1997). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9800895.