"Cast into a cold pool": Inclusion and access in middle school for students with labels of mental retardation and autism

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching and Leadership


Inclusive education, Middle school, Competence, Disabilities, Access, Ableism

Subject Categories

Disability and Equity in Education | Education | Special Education and Teaching


Historically, students with labels of mental retardation and autism have faced segregation and marginalization within their school communities and opportunities for meaningful inclusion have been limited. In this critical, interpretivist, qualitative study, I explore the middle school experience of five adolescents with labels of mental retardation and autism, included in typical classroom settings. Through participant observation in middle school classrooms and in-depth interviewing of the students, their parents, and teachers, I examine the day-to-day experience of students with such disability labels as well as the structural and cultural contexts of these middle school sites. In addition to the structural implications of middle school education, including the content specific model, heightened pace of instruction, and the increased number of adults, three distinct cultural contexts emerged. These were a Culture of Independence, a Culture of Control, and a Culture of Expectations.

I consider issues of ableism and enforced normalcy within these middle school sites, and the resulting impact on access to the social and academic opportunities of school for students who challenge constructs of normative performance. Further, I consider the socially constructed nature of competence and incompetence in middle school, and the role that teachers and school personnel play in creating opportunities for students to be seen as capable, participating members of middle school communities or as outsiders existing on the periphery of the classroom. In the conclusion, I present a framework for a more competence-based approach to middle school inclusive education and describe the implications of this study for administrators, teachers, and inclusive teacher preparation programs.


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