Author ORCID Identifier

Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation




Education Sciences

First Advisor

Dr. Eric Thomas Weber


This dissertation attempts a philosophical rethinking of the concept of the student in educationally relevant disability law for the sake of expanding access to general education settings for students with intellectual disabilities (ID), without committing to the approach known as full inclusion. I show that students with ID receive significantly less access to general education settings in comparison to other student populations, and that empirical studies show this to be harmful to their learning and developmental outcomes. Discussion of this problem in the inclusion literature assumes one of two positions that separately support either maintaining the status quo regarding the access to general education settings that students with ID receive, or changing educational policy and practice to enable the full inclusion of all students. I argue that adherents of the status quo fail to fully acknowledge the problem as such, and adherents of full inclusion do not adequately attend to the practical issues related to using a one-size-fits-all model of educational practice. Furthermore, I argue that both positions fail to consider the ontological and epistemological dimensions of the problem, and doing so could provide a middle theoretical and practical position that would support expanding the inclusion of students with ID, without committing to their full inclusion.

Using philosophical resources from John Dewey's work, I argue that there are two key philosophical assumptions inherent to educational policy that collectively produce an a priori and liberal conception of the student that governs the distribution of access to educational resources for students with ID. The liberal conception of the student does this by positing them as an individualized and rational being whose core features of learning and development are accessible to educational evaluations. The value and use of these evaluations forms the cornerstone of the educational rights of students with ID that require the provision of a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) to all students identified with a disability. I show that the centrality of educational evaluations for providing FAPE establishes at least three conditions that are not satisfied in educational practice. I also show that educational evaluations prioritize forms of learning and development that students with ID often struggle to demonstrate, which increases the likelihood that they get placed in separate special education settings. Together, both points reveal the necessity of reconceptualizing the student for potentially resolving the problem.

Finally, I develop an alternative conception of the student and conduct a thought experiment that shows plausible ways that aspects of educational decision-making, educational rights, and the purpose of special education services can be interpreted and function differently in response to reconceptualizing the student. This demonstration serves to provisionally trace out a theoretical and practical middle ground between the dominant positions assumed by adherents of the status quo and full inclusion, respectively. Overall, my analysis shows that the problem can be productively framed and analyzed by emphasizing the ontological dimensions of educational policy and practice. Furthermore, I show that the problem can be potentially resolved by reconceptualizing the student in order to increase opportunities for students with ID to access general education resources and their associated benefits.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)