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Keywords:

  • Capability theory;
  • inclusive education

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction: why the current interest in the capability approach?
  4. What the capability approach offers
  5. Capability approach resolving dilemmas of difference
  6. How are capability sets determined in theory and education practice?
  7. Concluding comments
  8. References

This paper aims to examine what the capability approach has to offer to the field of special needs and inclusive education. Several key questions are addressed: can the capability approach replace the language of needs and rights; whether the capability approach can address key issues in the field of disabilities and difficulties in education and whether it is possible to avoid the capability approach becoming a promising trend that ends in disappointment? It is concluded that there needs to be an awareness of its incompleteness and so needs integrating with other approaches. Nevertheless, it is argued that the capability approach provides a renewed ethical approach and some conceptual resources to re-examine issues in the disability and education field.

A video abstract of this article can be viewed at: http://youtu.be/E3WwXuK-jkg.


Introduction: why the current interest in the capability approach?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction: why the current interest in the capability approach?
  4. What the capability approach offers
  5. Capability approach resolving dilemmas of difference
  6. How are capability sets determined in theory and education practice?
  7. Concluding comments
  8. References

This paper aims to examine what the capability approach has to offer to the field of special needs and inclusive education. I use this phrase ‘special needs and inclusive education’, not because this is an ideal way of referring to the education of pupils with disabilities and difficulties, but because this captures what have been recent and current ways of talking. The promise of the capability approach is to replace the language of needs with that of capabilities. How far this is viable at present and what this involves is the topic of this paper.

Hastings and Remington (1993) identified what they call a labelling cycle to describe the life history of category terms used to refer to an area of disability and difficulty (see Figure 1). New terms come to be adopted with the promise of positive consequences associated with some theory. This process takes some time as the significance of the term spreads gradually and becomes more widely adopted. But in time, the term comes to be used in less precise and increasingly negative ways reflecting negative attitudes to disability. This change from positive to negative connotations leads to calls for a new term based on a different theory. This labelling cycle, which can take about two decades, can be extended to apply not only to labels but also to ideas and assumptions. It is also relevant to the concept of ‘special educational needs’ or ‘SEN’. When SEN was introduced in the 1970s, it offered a positive focus on individually needed provision and opportunities. SEN promised the end of deficit categories and a learner-centred focus on personal difficulties. What was needed was provision, and this was interpreted as about the integration of children with SEN in ordinary schools. However, over time, whether because the assumptions were not understood fully or put into practice as ideally intended, or approached in a superficial way, the term came to have negative associations. The term SEN came to be seen by some as a poorly defined, general deficit and expansionist category; an approach that increased the incidence of identifying difficulties and disabilities. Although SEN was associated with integration, which was about where pupils were educated, it was criticised for not focussing on the restructuring of schools to make academic and social participation possible.

figure

Figure 1. Labelling cycle based on Hastings and Remington (1993)

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These critiques of SEN were the basis for the new approach concerned with inclusion in education or inclusive education. This drew its inspiration from a rights-based critique of the ‘medical model’ associated with the disability movement and its advocacy of a social model with its implications for social and therefore school transformation. The new terms inclusion and inclusive promised a positive focus through the social model, going beyond disability to cover other forms of ‘diversity’ with the implication that regular schools will accommodate and restructure for this diversity. These ideas and terms are still influential internationally and in countries like the UK, but over the last 10 years, some negatives aspects have started to emerge. Inclusion as a concept and value is now recognised as complex with multiple meanings. Critiques have developed of inclusive education in terms of its utopian orientation, and some proponents have identified a ‘backlash’ to it. Its early proponents have complained that the incorporation of inclusion into international and national policy has softened its radical and hard edge. My suggestion is that this growing disappointment with inclusive education underlies the emerging interest in a different set of ideas and terms.

The origin of the capability approach is in the fields of normative and development economics (Sen, 1985) and philosophy (Nussbaum and Glover, 1995). It has broadened and deepened concepts of human development in a global context through outlining a theory of justice that addresses various kinds of diversity. Through its focus on diversity, it has been relevant to disability in general and disability in education specifically. By providing a principled approach that can underpin a human rights framework, it has responded to some of the problems with the social model. One interpretation is that the emergent disappointment with the SEN and inclusive education frameworks has led to more receptiveness to the capability approach in the SEN/disability field. My own personal interest in the capability approach arose from Lorella Terzi's (2005) work and her claim that capability approach resolved dilemmas of difference.

What the capability approach offers

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction: why the current interest in the capability approach?
  4. What the capability approach offers
  5. Capability approach resolving dilemmas of difference
  6. How are capability sets determined in theory and education practice?
  7. Concluding comments
  8. References

What the capability approach has to offer that breaks new ground is its focus on positive flourishing and opportunities. Hughes (2010) summarises this by saying that the capability approach is about everyone becoming more able to do and become. For Sen, a capability depends on a functioning that he defines as ‘an achievement of a person: what she or he manages to do or to be’ (Sen, 1985, p. 12). As functionings are valuable, they can be seen as related to human well-being. So, capabilities are those functionings that someone can choose and therefore are positive opportunities to flourish; they are not just freedoms from harm. The capability/functioning distinction reflects Sen's focus on interests and not just actions, which implies that people can have capabilities that they can choose not to use. The capability approach originates from a response to limitations to assessments that measure only desire satisfaction, resources or outcomes (Unterhalter, Vaughn and Walker, 2007). It focuses on real choices available to people, not just evaluating satisfaction with outcomes or resource input. One of the advantages of the capability approach is that in contrast to other theories of justice, for example, Rawls (2001), human diversity is assumed to be central to this normative framework.

Capability theorists propose that the approach can help define disability in a way that goes beyond the traditional opposition of medical and social models (Terzi, 2010). According to Mitra (2006), disability is a deprivation or limitation in capability or functioning. When there is a limitation of capability, then this is a potential disability and, when of functioning, an actual disability; ‘an individual is disabled if he or she cannot do or be the things he or she values doing or being’ (Mitra, 2006, p. 241). However, other factors, for example, poverty, can lead to capability deprivation, thus linking impairment/disability into wider social and economic factors relevant to disadvantage. Capabilities range from basic (nutrition and health) to complex (self-respect and happiness). In this way, the approach introduces a wider range of issues than the traditional health focus on disability.

Another key aspect of the capability approach is that commodities (or goods) are useful only insofar as they enable functionings. Two people may have the same resources, for example, money or food, but one may be less able to use these resources because of some personal or social factor. Converting commodities into capabilities is therefore a key issue from a capability perspective. This defines one of the main ways in which it differs from an approach that evaluates people's positions as regards resources rather than capabilities (Pogge, 2004; Rawls, 2001). Terzi (2010) uses the capability approach to show how disability is relational in the sense that it depends on the interlocking of personal and social factors. In a similar way, Mitra (2006), based on a previous model by Altman (2001), proposed a three-factor model of disability in which the following broad factors interact to affect someone's capability to function:

  1. Personal characteristics, for example, age, and including impairment, such as, constant pain or sensory impairment.
  2. Commodities and resources available, for example, higher costs to achieve a capability.
  3. Environment, for example, physical and social barriers.

This three-factor model has a basic difference from the social model in its recognition that impairment can deprive a person of a capability given a particular social context and resource availability. In this sense, the capability approach to impairment/disability has links to the bio-psycho-social model adopted in the International Classification of Functioning (ICF; WHO, 1980). The ICF model of disability also makes a distinction between capacity and performance that corresponds to the capability/function distinction. As Mitra (2006) argues, for these reasons the ICF can be seen as a specific exemplification of aspects of a capability approach. However, the ICF still has strong links to and sees functioning strongly from a health perspective. It needs further development to be applicable to education, as in Judith Hollenweger's (2011) education development of ICF (Figure 2).

figure

Figure 2. Education version of International Classification of Functioning (Hollenweger, 2011, p. 5)

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Capability approach resolving dilemmas of difference

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction: why the current interest in the capability approach?
  4. What the capability approach offers
  5. Capability approach resolving dilemmas of difference
  6. How are capability sets determined in theory and education practice?
  7. Concluding comments
  8. References

Terzi (2005) has advocated the capability approach to questions about disability in education as an approach that goes beyond and helps resolve the dilemmas of differences (Minow, 1990; Norwich, 2008). There are two parts to her argument. The first is that the tension between a social and individual (medical) approach to disability is resolved because the capability approach represents disability in relational terms, as the interaction of social and individual factors. The second part is based on the capability approach's recognition of difference in a normative framework that aims for justice and equality. This, she argues, helps to avoid negative labelling associated with disability and SEN. As I have argued before (Norwich, 2008), it is unclear how this resolves specific dilemmas of difference experienced in education, such as those concerned with identification, curriculum design and placement in separate settings. The capability approach does offer a justification for differential resource allocation in terms of a principled framework. In this sense, it addresses the dilemma of difference, but not necessarily resolving it in practice; in terms of the experience and practice of differential allocation of resources or provision and the significance attached to these arrangements.

The question of whether a capability approach resolves dilemmas of difference in theory is raised by Pogge (2004), but not in terms of this dilemma as such. Pogge has questioned the way that the capability approach evaluates individual differences to justify additional resources for people with disabilities. He refers to the way in which the capability approach treats differences as a moral concern of ‘vertical inequality’. By contrast, differences, for example, hair colour, are irrelevant to moral concerns and so irrelevant to additional resourcing; they are called ‘horizontal inequalities’. Pogge's argument is that the capability approach by evaluating differences as resource worthy can lead to stigmatising people who are less well endowed than others. So, Pogge's position is to favour a ‘resourcist’ approach that does not consider personal characteristics as relevant to moral concerns.

In Pogge's resourcist approach, the focus is on equal resourcing as a way of avoiding the risk of stigmatising disabled people. His position is therefore to avoid vertical inequalities to prevent stigma, but as Terzi (2010) argues, this means that there is no sensitivity to individual requirements. She suggests that Pogge's position avoids vertical inequalities by seeing disadvantage as socially determined or irrelevant. Her argument is that the resourcist position cannot work out whether social arrangements are disadvantageous to a disabled person without reference to her or his functioning. And, such functioning cannot be considered to be fully socially determined. In support of her argument, Terzi draws attention to those differences in functioning that cannot be addressed by environment changes, for example, when a visually impaired person cannot read social and non-verbal cues in social interaction (note that some differences in functioning can be addressed by environmental changes). She also suggests that Pogge's analysis resembles a social model that refuses to recognise any connection between impairment, disability and disadvantage.

However, in opting for evaluating disabilities in terms of capability limitations, Terzi's position depends on denying that the recognition of a limitation is necessarily stigmatising, anymore than it stigmatises other kinds of diversity, for example, pregnant women. But, although there may not be a good reason for stigmatising in terms of capability thinking, this does not imply that there will be no stigmatising. This brings the argument back to the point made earlier that the practical experiences of recognising impairment differences may be done in a stigmatising way, so bringing out a distinction between resolving dilemmas of difference in theory and practice.

How are capability sets determined in theory and education practice?

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction: why the current interest in the capability approach?
  4. What the capability approach offers
  5. Capability approach resolving dilemmas of difference
  6. How are capability sets determined in theory and education practice?
  7. Concluding comments
  8. References

Nussbaum (2009) has applied the capability approach to people with cognitive or intellectual disabilities, and presents the approach as one that goes further than any other theory of justice in addressing questions of respect and equality. In this, she is comparing the capability approach with Rawls' (2001) theory of justice as fairness based on social contract principles. However, she also recognises that the capability approach only presents a partial theory of social justice and one that sets only a social minimum. In this respect, Nussbaum is clear that the capability approach is not about full equality of capabilities but about reducing inequalities of capabilities. She interprets Sen's position as about the currency of justice; that it addresses questions about ‘equality of what’. Sen advocates that the currency of justice is the equality of capabilities and functioning, rather than resources or welfare (desire satisfaction). However, Nussbaum's approach to defining equality and adequacy is different from Sen's approach in important ways. She defines a list of 10 ‘central human capabilities’ as a basic minimum that is an entitlement relevant to a life with human dignity. Sen (1999), who avoids setting universal capabilities with a view to designing a just constitution, refuses to endorse specific lists. He opts instead for taking local considerations into account using democratic social choice to decide on capabilities. For Sen, inequalities in capabilities do not have to make claims on governments so that identifying such inequalities might say little about how they are rectified. Relevant to this difference, Robeyns (2003) has noted that Nussbaum with her focus on basic capabilities does not make the distinction between well-being and agency that Sen does. For Sen, agency is the key aspect of a capability, as the functionings that someone chooses. For Nussbaum, the central capabilities are more an entitlement than something actively chosen.

Adopting basic capabilities does also raise questions about the adequacy versus the equality of capabilities. Nussbaum argues that some capabilities require equality, for example, capabilities associated with human dignity, but for other capabilities associated with instrumental goods, for example, transport or housing, adequacy may be enough. Related to this discussion is whether the capability approach is about equality or about equalising or reducing the capability/functioning differences. If it is about equalising rather than equality, then for some, there is the continuing question of how egalitarian is the capability approach.

There are also questions about how some of the distinctions in the capability approach apply to education. For instance, what is involved in the distinction between educational capabilities and functioning? Are there also educational capabilities that require equality and others adequacy and how is this to be decided? Sen makes the distinction between someone who is starving because of poverty and having no food (as an involuntary condition) and being a hunger striker (as a voluntary action). In the involuntary condition, there is limited capability, while in the voluntary condition, the person could be said to have a capability but not use it. As regards educational capabilities, what would count as adequate functioning for all? Would functioning equivalent to a certain level of secondary school attainments [e.g., in UK (England) at five General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) examination passes at A to C level] be a basic minimum or is this too exacting a level of functioning to be adequate for all? Also, if someone was not functioning at this GCSE5AC level, can we distinguish, as in the case of starving, between involuntary and voluntary conditions that relate to capabilities? Someone with involuntary conditions, such as severe intellectual difficulties, mental health difficulties (e.g., isolated, depressed and isolated) or a social disadvantage (care responsibilities at home), might be said to have limited capability as regards this functioning. By contrast, someone with sports rather than academic interests might be said to have this educational capability but chooses to not use it. The point here is that educational functioning and capabilities are more complex and harder to decide than basic survival functioning and capabilities.

The capability approach can also be criticised for being too individualistic, especially by those adopting a communitarian philosophical perspective (Gore, 1997). However, Robeyns (2003) suggests that such criticisms fail to distinguish between ethical and methodological individualism. The capability approach involves ethical individualism in that it takes individuals as the unit of evaluation when considering different social arrangements. But, the capability approach does not depend on ontological individualism. In other words, it does not assume that only individuals and their properties exist, nor that explanations are only in terms of individuals. A related but different criticism of the capability approach is that it does not take enough account of social power and social constraints on choice (Hill, 2003). As Robeyns argues, the capability approach does not analyse the social institutions that underlie power and that have an influence on opportunities. She suggests that this opens the capability approach to different positions depending on the theory of choice adopted. If choice is seen as unconstrained as in economics compared with other fields, like sociology and gender studies, where it is seen as more constrained, this leads to different normative positions. Robeyns's conclusion is that the capability approach is mainly about the evaluative space, and so can be used with widely different positions on social reality and relationships.

This analysis while appreciative of the capability approach points to various key limitations of the approach. In my view, it is this dependence on different theories of choice that denies to the capability approach any particular contribution to the current debates about the placement of children and young people with disabilities and difficulties in separate special schools. Is placement in a special or ordinary school a matter of personal choice or a matter for public and democratic social choice? The current UK (England) government sees inclusion as school placement as a private matter, not a public policy matter; so its criticism of the ‘bias to inclusion’ (DFE, 2011, pp. 5, 7, 51). The capability approach without further elaboration has little to contribute to debates about inclusion as a private parental versus a public policy matter about social cohesion and equal rights. This specific debate reflects wider tensions between choice and equity that are central to public policy issues in the UK (Clarke, 2010).

Concluding comments

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction: why the current interest in the capability approach?
  4. What the capability approach offers
  5. Capability approach resolving dilemmas of difference
  6. How are capability sets determined in theory and education practice?
  7. Concluding comments
  8. References

In conclusion, I return to the aims of this paper, to examine what the capability approach has to offer to the field of special needs and inclusive education. I have considered the capability approach in the recent historical context of the rise and eventual disappointment with first the SEN and then the inclusive education frameworks. The promise of the capability approach is to replace the language of needs and rights with that of capabilities. How far this is viable at present and whether the capability approach addresses the issues in the field of disabilities and difficulties in education has been examined in this paper. I have also asked whether it is possible to avoid the capability approach becoming a promising trend that ends in disappointment. Although there has been growing interest in a capability approach to the field of disability in education (Florian, Dee and Devecchi, 2008; Reindal, 2009; Terzi, 2005), it is important to avoid excessive expectations of what it can offer. This requires critical awareness of its incompleteness and that it needs to be integrated with other approaches. The capability approach has to be approached in an open-minded and critical way, and it requires elaboration and specification in particular educational terms so that it can address continuing tensions in the field, for example, dilemmas of difference and choice-equity tensions. However, the capability approach does provide a renewed ethical approach by highlighting inequalities and the conceptual resources to re-examine issues in the disability and education field.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction: why the current interest in the capability approach?
  4. What the capability approach offers
  5. Capability approach resolving dilemmas of difference
  6. How are capability sets determined in theory and education practice?
  7. Concluding comments
  8. References
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