The social representation of children with Down syndrome: An interpretivist analysis

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching and Leadership


Douglas Biklen


Special education

Subject Categories

Special Education and Teaching


This is a qualitative study analyzing the social construction of children with Down syndrome in schools. The professional disability literature has historically framed Down syndrome as a pathological condition resulting in global intellectual incompetencies often called mental retardation. Traditionally, students with Down syndrome have been forced into the margins of education, often separated from neighborhood schools and regular classrooms. Recently, a trend towards greater acceptance has occurred allowing for the teaching of children with Down syndrome in what are termed inclusive classrooms. This trend, however, maintains intellectual impairments as a central feature of students with Down syndrome.

Ascribing to both critical production and phenomenological perspectives, I set aside predominant interpretations of Down syndrome. Using qualitative research methods including participant observation and interviewing, I entered schools that brought children with and without Down syndrome together in order to understand how students were represented in the actual sites where teachers and children came together to negotiate social meanings and understanding.

Following 10 children with Down syndrome in five separate schools and 9 different classrooms lead to a qualitative analysis that argues Down syndrome is a complex series of shifting, unstable social constructions. Images of competence and incompetence intersect in the classrooms observed resulting in tension over where children with Down syndrome should best be educated, and what type of curriculum best meets the needs of the students. Interestingly, in several classrooms, children with Down syndrome were represented, at times, as competent students, an image rarely found in the disability literature. Teachers came to understand children as competent by interpreting certain performance behaviors not as evidence of cognitive deficiencies, but rather as communication and movement differences that resulted in difficulties negotiating the everyday world of the children's classrooms.


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