Eventos Académicos, 39 ISCHE. Educación y emancipación

Tamaño de fuente: 
Ability, Disability and Teacher Professionalism
Kate Rousmaniere

Última modificación: 2017-07-17


This paper contributes to the critique of a popular narrative that teachers had a “golden past” of professionalism and autonomy—one that has been undermined only in recent decades of neoliberal reforms (Smaller, 2015).  For teachers, the term professionalism has more often been used as a weapon of control than as a lever for autonomy, in large part because the campaign for teacher professionalism has always included a normative requirement that the truly “professional” teachers was a social role model, with a special emphasis on physical and moral norms.  Historians of education have highlighted the ways in which professionalizing norms forced teachers to conform to normative gendered, sexualized, and ethnic and racial identities (Cavanaugh, 2005; Blount, 1999; Graves, 2012, Perrillo, 2004, Collins, 2011).  If professionalization involved controllingtheentry,training,practiceandbehaviorofitsmembers, the early 20th century movement to professionalize teaching in the United States sharply limited and oppressed the identity of those teachers.

My paper expands this analysis of the restrictive aspects of what was commonly called “teacher professionalism” by introducing the case of teachers with disabilities, for whom any form of professionalization further restricted their employment as and workplace rights in education.  The construction of teacher qualifications and professionalized employment policies has historically rested on the notion of a “fit” teacher, one that relied often on normative health, behavior, and physical conditions (Rousmaniere, 2013). In the case study presented in this paper, the city school board, teachers union, and civil rights organizations agreed on this restrictive definition of the “fit” teacher.

This paper focuses on the case of New York City teacher Judith Heumann, who filed suit against the New York City Board of Education in 1970 for being denied the right to teach elementary school because of her disability (Heumann, 2004).   The challenge that Heumann faced was not unique to her time period.   Kristen Chmielewski has tracked an earlier period of persecution of New York teachers as “unfit” by the City Medical Examiner in the 1940s (Chmielewski, 2016).  Heumann’s case both unveils the absence of autonomy and rights faced by teachers under the Board of Education’s guise of educational professionalism, and offers an analysis of one of the first cases of teacher disability rights activism (Heumann, 2004).

For the purposes of this panel, the study contributes to the argument that “teacher professionalism” has worked historically to limit the autonomy and rights of teachers who were not considered professionally “fit.”