Special needs and intersectionality

Special needs and intersectionality

For quite some time now, the concept of intersectionality has been on the rise. Intersectionality means that different identity belongings such as gender, class, entities, sexual orientation, functionality, etc. interact. It is possible to see society as being made up of different power structures that are built up by opposites, dichotomies, where one category is considered superior to the other.

The Swedish researcher Yvonne Hirdman's theory of the gender system is an example of an analysis of such a power system, where the man is superior to the woman and thus constitutes the norm. The point in an intersectionality perspective is that the power structures interact.

It is easy to see the theory of intersectionality as a project for the academic left. The expression power structure seem to indicate this. But I think it is quite possible to also see it as a liberal project, it is about releasing individuals from limiting structures. Anyway, when I lecture on these issues, I usually point out the great progress that has been made during my lifetime concerning these things (although, of course, it is a long way to go and that some signs of the time are really worrying).

Individuals and groups that have been marginalized now have better opportunities to realize their life projects. Special education is closely associated with a power structure that is based on functionality and the dichotomy "able-bodied / disabled". Let's take a closer look at this dichotomy.


There is no given boarder between what is considered body-functional and a disability. There are a number of disability groups with a long history such as developmental disability, visual impairment / blindness, deafness / hearing loss and various types of motor functional impairments. In recent years, a number of new disabilities have become increasingly frequent, such as ADHD and autism spectrum disorders.

Common to the disabilities is that they are associated with bodily dysfunctions according to the usual explanatory models. It is difficult to determine how many people have any form of disability today, but there are many. There is, of course, a risk of posing different intersectional categories to each other, but I would, however, like to say that disabled people may have been the most marginalized group throughout history.

The marginalization does not only concern placement in clinics and institutions, but also in our world of ideas and in our language. For example, our language is almost packed with expressions derived from designations of disabled people that have come to be used in degrading descriptions ("idiot", “cripple”). Prejudices are so great and many that we cannot seem to avoid them totally.

Disability also differs from most other intersectional categories in that disability not only leads to discrimination, but also to a positive redistribution of resources in order for people with disabilities to have the same life conditions as everyone else. For example in the school, a lot of resources are allocated to special educators, specialist teachers, resource schools, special schools, and more to meet the needs of students with disabilities.

What if we see functionality intersectionally? I imagine that this question can be approached in two different ways based on the idea of ​​figure and background of Gestalt psychology. How does functionality appear when other dichotomizations are foreground and what role does other dichotomizations have when functionality is the focus?

Functionality within the framework of other power structures

My guess is that functionality is not often problematized in analyzes of, for example, class, gender and ethnicity in the school. Interestingly, the Swedish National Agency for Education, in its often excellent reviews of results on international tests, often discusses the outcome in relation to gender and, to a certain extent, ethnicity and social class, but not in relation to functionality. One reason for this is of course that there is no public data on functionality in Sweden. Often, outcomes are analyzed in relation to performance levels, but it is something other than functionality.

I usually argue that functionality has had such a significance for the development of school systems that the category should be relevant for almost all analyzes of schooling, i.e. also those analyzes that do not specifically concern power structures. By identifying disability, a normality is created and maintained. How this distinction is made will thus have consequences on almost all issues with regard to schooling.

If we for example are interested in issues of democracy in relation to education or school hitory, the distinction between able-bodied and disabled pupils is obviously very important since different school systems have been built around the distinction. A first conclusion that can be drawn is that functionality should be considered more in educational science generally and in those analyzes dealing with power and intersectionality specifically.

Other power structures within the framework of functionality

There is some research that shows the importance of other categories of identity within the framework of disability / special education. Thus, there are a large number of studies in the United States on the representation of boys / girls and different ethnic groups in special education. A recurring result is that boys and certain ethnic groups are generally over-represented, but that the pattern varies with different diagnoses.

For example, in the case of AD HD, the diagnosis is much more frequent on boys than girls. However, although it is important to examine the representativeness of different groups within the framework of special education, an increased understanding of the importance of intersectionality requires more detailed studies of how different identity markers interact in different educational environments.

In what ways does gender / entities / functionality interact in the special school? Is it a difference to have hearing loss for the person who is born in Sweden and has Swedish as the first language than for the immigrant who speaks another language in the home? Is there a difference between having ADHD for boys and girls respectively? In some research these type of question are asked but a lot remains to be done.

A second conclusion is therefore that when functionality is in focus, this should be analyzed more often than before in relation to other power structures.

To conclude: Intersectionality means that power structures must be analyzed in their concurrence. However, this is rarely the case. Also it should also be pointed out that while power structures are extremely important to analyze, it can also mean that we miss the common, what is generally human, in addition to additional types of identifications that do not fit into the intersectional scheme.

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