"You have to learn who comes with the disability": University students' reflections on service learning experiences with peers labeled with disabilities

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching and Leadership


Douglas P. Biklen


University students, Service learning, Peers, Disabilities

Subject Categories

Education | Special Education and Teaching | Teacher Education and Professional Development


This two year qualitative study examines ways 16 university undergraduates thought about disability in their personal, professional, and civic lives through campus-based service learning partnerships with peers with disabilities.

University students spent two hours per week with same-aged partners with developmental disabilities. These students did not supervise, teach, or take responsibility for their partners; nor did they initially know their partners' disability labels. Nearly all research participants felt anxious at the prospect of meeting their partners. Through shared activities, participants developed "emic" (Goode, 1992) understandings which often contrasted with "etic" representations found in their partners' IEPs. This led participants to examine their previous assumptions about people with disabilities, and the meanings and uses of disability labels. Many were critical of the "mental retardation" label, believing it holds negative social meaning. Some were critical of ways they saw the ability to communicate linked to presumptions of competence, and believed people who can't speak are often mislabeled with mental retardation. Some rejected the concept of mental retardation entirely, while others rejected it in reference to their partners but not as a construct helpful for describing other individuals.

Participants described their relationships with their partners a number of ways. Most used the word "friend," but this concept, upon further exploration, came with a variety of qualifiers. Two described the relationships as friendly (but not friends), and one did not develop a positive relationship with her partner. Most described casual, but not deep, friendships. The contrived nature of the relationships (students were paired by the project coordinator; they did not choose each other or have much flexibility in meeting times once paired) must be considered in understanding these relationships. Participants noticed reactions of others to their partners, and reflected on the implications of disability in society.

Participants suggested societal reactions to disability can change through commitment to inclusive schools, formal and informal means of education, community participation by people with disabilities, and more complex media and popular culture representations of disability.

Implications of this study are discussed in inclusive education, teacher preparation, educational assessment, and paraprofessional staff support.


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