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Rehabilitation Studies

Teaching People with Disabilities, Special Education, Integrated Teaching of People with Disabilities

Course: Rehabilitation Studies
Group of courses: Law, Economics and Social Sciences



Course objectives:

 To foster a contemporary, reflective type of ‘engagement with diversity’ in education and rehabilitation science, the goal is to familiarize students with the interrelations between disability and gender in their various, sometimes seemingly contradictory facets. They begin by exploring the statistical-empirical level, where considerable gender inequities are to be found (e.g. with regard to the ‘special education needs of boys/girls’ and the ‘social situation of women and men with disabilities’). Against the backdrop of the statistical-empirical data available, disability and gender (along with age, class, and cultural affiliation) are introduced as categories of social structure and studied with regard to their reciprocal influence on each other, as proposed by research on intersectionality. It is only based on this foundation that students will be able to acquire theory-based, practically relevant educational competencies in the sense of a reflective ‘engagement with diversity’.   


Teaching content/subject-specific gender studies content:

It wasn’t before the late 1970s that critical academic studies of the relations between disability and gender began to emerge. Since the mid-1990s, the main research and work activities at the University of Dortmund have been combined in the special department of ‘Women’s Studies in Rehabilitation and Teaching People with Disabilities’; since the early 2000s, they have been additionally subsumed under a ‘disability studies’ perspective and under the term ‘gendering disability’. For university-level teaching, it is important to pick up all of the essential questions posed by rehabilitation science, special needs education, and inclusive education, and to analyse them with respect to their gender dimensions. The emphasis here is on the gender relations within individual groups of persons and between these groups – that is, persons with disabilities themselves, but also their parents and siblings, as well as the professionals involved in the education of persons with disabilities (i.e. preschool teachers, school teachers, university-trained (Diplom) pedagogues, etc.) are studied with regard to the gender-based hierarchies in which they move about. This is done in terms of both theory and practice, leading up to the question, ‘How can the education, rehabilitation, integration/inclusion, and the self-directed learning of those affected be influenced in positive ways and liberated from hierarchical structures, and how can we design a gender-aware kind of education?’

The gender-based analyses in rehabilitation science are directed towards the traditional forms of therapeutic, special needs, and rehabilitation education, as well as towards integrated or inclusive education – that is, towards teaching and supporting persons with disabilities along with non-disabled persons. Here, the focus is on the relationship between the non-disabled social majority and persons with disabilities – including the relationship between normality and deviance (disability) – which is studied with respect to its gender-specific characteristics. The analysis of gender relations is carried out with a commitment to overcoming hierarchical social structures, which in many areas is tantamount to eradicating the discrimination faced by disabled women and girls (cf. UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2006/2009). Yet the analysis also focuses on the social structures (e.g. in education) that lead to the disadvantaging of boys in particular (most importantly in the attribution of ‘special education needs’).

In teaching, there are a variety of focus areas. Even though these are concerned with the basic relationship between disability and gender, they are also designed to include current issues in a timely fashion (e.g. the argument, brought up in discussions about the PISA study, of the ‘disadvantaging of boys at school’; the interrelations between disability, gender, and poverty; or the internationalization of rehabilitation science and its subdisciplines). 

By way of example, the following focus areas may be pointed out:

Normality – Disability – Gender

This focus area builds on the following basic research questions: What are the interrelations between normality, disability, and gender? Which concepts of normality are used in the education of persons with disabilities and in inclusive education? In answering these questions, the aim is to define the structural categories of gender and disability in a scientific way, and to provide a theory-based rationale for normality as a discursive strategy in society. Based on these foundations, the evolution of the disciplinary discourses in the education of persons with disabilities and in inclusive education can be analysed. Similarly, the individual concepts of normality by women/girls and men/boys with and without disabilities can be studied in comparative perspective.

Construction of disability and gender across the entire life course

This focus area is based on the assumption that social constructions of disability are, on the one hand, closely connected to the various periods of life (birth/early childhood, preschool and school age, transition to work, early and mid-adulthood in combination with employment and family work, later and late adulthood ‘beyond the working life’) but that each of these periods of life, on the other hand, is characterized by typical gender roles and constellations. As proposed by the research on intersectionality, the focus of the analysis is on the reciprocal influence between gender, age, and disability. First and foremost, the analysis is carried out at the macro-sociological level covering all of society, complemented by regional studies (in comparative perspective, if possible) related to individual local levels and their specific structures and institutions. Another option in this area is studying the aforementioned interrelations at the individual-biographical levels.

Girls education – boys education: Educational project on gender

In this area, the focus is on the life stages of childhood and adolescence and on concrete educational questions. In the course of their development, and while constructing their specific identities, girls and boys (with and without disabilities) have different individual but also gender-related needs, which a gender-sensitive type of education (i.e. one that ‘engages with diversity’) needs to address. This focus area explores concepts and strategies of integrated girls education, or girls education for girls with disabilities. Drawing on existing pilot projects, participants in this area can develop their own ideas and review their practicability. They also explore existing boys projects, comparing approaches to (feminist) girls education with approaches to (critical) boys education.

The ‘Educational Project on Gender’ as such, however, is meant to go beyond gender-specific programming for girls and boys. To promote a gender-aware type of integrated education, the aim is to jointly support disabled and non-disabled boys and girls, and to expand this support by conscious reflection on ‘unity in diversity”. To do so, project participants engage with issues that concern all participants while being associated with a wide variety of meanings and assessments, depending on each participant’s individual perspective (of gender, disability, culture, etc.). These activities, in the sense of dismantling social hierarchies, are intended to lead to detailed and methodical planning to design a non-exclusive type of education.

Intercultural and integrating education of girls and boys

This focus area, which builds on the ‘Educational Project on Gender’ (see above), is devoted to adopting an explicitly intercultural perspective and applying it to the work done at educational institutions, day care centres, and schools. A disproportionate number of children (especially boys) with a so-called migration background are diagnosed as having a ‘need for special education’. The combination of gender-sensitive, culture-sensitive, and integrative education that has been discussed and practiced (in rudimentary form) since the early 1990s (cf. Prengel 1993) forms the foundation for an inclusive type of education taking account of all the dimensions of diversity.

Professionalism and gender

This focus area is dedicated to reflection and research on fundamental issues regarding the gender-segregated labour market. How have the educational professions evolved with respect to gender-specific aspects? To what extent are the academic educational professions, especially in special needs education, evolving from typically male to typically female professions? What are the possibilities for dismantling the hierarchical structures within and between the individual educational professions (each with their own gender hierarchies)?

Based on these questions, researchers study the reasons and pathways of women and men for getting involved in the education of persons with disabilities and in inclusive education. When reflecting on the gender-specific motivations, structural issues concerning the gender-specific division of labour as well as the link between disability and the desire to help play an important role. Suitable methodologies to address this complex can be found in qualitative social research, including biography research with its biographical-narrative interviews.

Gender and disability in international comparison

The internationalization of social problems, especially as the result of political and economic globalization, as well as the internationalization of science and research and the internationalization of existing degree programmes based on European harmonization policies also lead to new perspectives and tasks for rehabilitation science, the education of persons with disabilities, and inclusive education. 

On a global scale, new questions about the relationship between disability and gender have been emerging – questions that are mostly, though not exclusively, connected to the issue of poverty as a global challenge.

In Europe, researchers in recent years have rather been raising comparative questions regarding the integrative education of children and youth with special educational needs, and regarding the possibilities of enabling disabled women and men to participate in society and to live the life of their own choosing. Moreover, these questions have been studied with a focus on gender-relevant aspects, if only in rudimentary form.


Integration of gender studies content into the curriculum:

If possible, gender aspects and approaches from women’s and gender studies should be integrated both in more general, theory-oriented and in more specific, practice-oriented fields of the curriculum. This seems possible, as long as the abovementioned relevant disciplines recognize the relevance of women’s and gender studies and are prepared to structurally expand their own disciplinary content – which may generally be assumed to be the case.

Should this not be the case, an alternative solution would be to create specific ‘gender modules’ about disability and gender, which could address the above mentioned focus areas. This alternative solution may also be reasonable if the women’s and gender studies sections of other disciplines at a given university were to benefit from the opportunity to specify their content by exploring the interrelations between normality and deviance, in this case between gender and disability. 


Degree Stage:

 The aforementioned contents should be introduced from the very beginning of students’ studies. They may be reasonably integrated both into bachelor’s programmes and into the specified master’s programmes in rehabilitation science, the education of persons with disabilities, and inclusive education. After all, considering the interrelation between disability and gender is a crossover perspective that concerns all of the relevant issues addressed by the discipline. To turn this perspective into just one specific topic among many – at which level of study whatsoever – would contradict its consistent social relevance. 


Provided by

Prof. (em.) Dr. Ulrike Schildmann
Department of Women's Research in Rehabilitation and Integrative Education