Date of Award

December 2018

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching and Leadership


Alan Foley


Critical Disability Studies, Disability Studies in Education, Intersectionality, North Korea, Refugee, Special education

Subject Categories



Researchers have previously found that school-age refugees and asylum-seekers are frequently characterized as experiencing physical, emotional, or psychological disabilities or disorders in schools because of the adversity that they face and a lack of adequate resources during their refugee journey. In their relocated society, many refugee students are interpreted as having disabilities or receiving special education services. While refugee experiences are often framed as causing deficits in students, the purpose of this study was to better understand the interplay of (dis)ability and refugee identity at a school that publicly proclaimed refugee experience as an asset. Grounded in a qualitative methodology, I designed a qualitative study examining experiences of North Korean students with refugee backgrounds (SRB) who relocated to South Korea. I utilized participant observations, document analysis, and interviews with students, teachers, and school leaders at an alternative school in South Korea, exclusively serving North Korean SRB.

The findings of this study build on previous research by demonstrating how disability can become embodied, not only through refugee experiences, but also through the effects of living with a stigmatized identity, social structures, policies, and structures of education in a new society. North Korean SRB began to develop identities forged at the intersection of refugee identity and (dis)ability in South Korean schools and society at large. The stigma and economic circumstances that students in this study experienced after their relocation illustrate how they began to be associated with elements of disability, only after coming to South Korea. Findings also demonstrated the culturally relevant philosophical approaches and practices that teachers used to support North Korean SRB to develop a positive understanding about their identity. I conclude this study with discussions of implications and recommendations directed to educators, school administrators and practitioners.


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