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Investigating the dual nature of disability

Alfredo J. Artiles has long studied what he calls “the dual nature of disability."

Alfredo J. Artiles has long studied what he calls “the dual nature of disability,” contending that while the category can be a safeguard for some, it can also be used as a tool of stratification.

“Policies and programs are created to protect certain groups in society, including people with disabilities. But depending on how these entitlements are deployed, other groups may be further marginalized,” says Artiles, whose research focuses on understanding how different responses to the way disability intersects with race, language, gender and social class can either advance or hinder educational opportunities.

alfredo artiles
Alfredo Artiles

Artiles worked as a special education teacher and administrator in war-torn Central America in the 1980s, serving multiethnic and multilingual learners with disabilities—a population neglected by the state—in the midst of sociopolitical turmoil and rampant poverty. He joined the GSE faculty in 2020 as part of an initiative on learning differences and the future of disability.

Different cultures around the world engage with disability in various ways, he says, with disparate consequences. For instance, his research with colleagues around the world documents how efforts at inclusive education have been used in European countries to segregate groups such as Gypsies and African, Asian and Turkish immigrants from the general education system. In other nations, inclusive education has afforded the first opportunity for children with significant disabilities to enroll in school – but in rural areas of the same regions, it involves an economic sacrifice for the family and ultimately represents a futile effort to advance their social mobility.

“These findings offer a powerful message about the cultural nature of disability,” he says. “We need to understand it through a situated lens.”

This story originally appeared in the Stanford Graduate School of Education's Our Community series.