Labeling the disabled: Finding meaning as a participant of a district-level committee on special education

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Education (EdD)


Teaching and Leadership


Marilyn Tallerico


Committee on Special Education, Disabled, Special education

Subject Categories

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


Under federal and New York state law and regulation, all public school districts must provide special education services to students identified as having educational disabilities. The process by which students are labeled disabled is highly prescribed. In each public school district, a multidisciplinary team of school personnel and parents oversees the labeling of students and the provision of special education services. In New York state, this multidisciplinary team of professionals and parents is called the Committee on Special Education (CSE).

The purpose of this study is to explore the experiences that members of one district-level Committee on Special Education have as they participate in the CSE process. This study examines the meaning that members, individually and collectively, make of their roles in this authoritative body which identifies students as disabled.

This research is a case study using the qualitative methods of interviews, participant observations, and document analyses. It provides a contextualized understanding of CSE activity from the perspectives of the persons who are closest to that process.

The principal findings of this research indicate that the individual members of one school district's CSE predicate their efforts to procure special education services for students on the social construction of disability as negative deviance. These well-intentioned persons, individually and collectively as the CSE, believe that disability is a deviance from accepted social norms and can be measured, quantified, and best addressed by special education.

These beliefs undergird an entire system of professional competition. This school district's CSE's professional members use courtroom-like gaming strategies to procure special education services for students. These CSE members may suppress or overemphasize certain assessment results in order to strengthen arguments for or against labeling students disabled. The federal and state funding structures for special education services coerce CSE professionals to subscribe to the social construction of disability as negative deviance, and to label students as disabled. Because monies flow to school district based on the numbers of students identified as disabled and the level of educational supports they receive, CSE members participate in the acquisition of these funds by using their abilities to successfully argue to have students labeled disabled.


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