Competing notions of social justice and contradictions in special education reform

Carol A. Christensen, Sherman Dorn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations


In the past three decades, special education has been subjected to extensive critique and reform of practices. These critiques have been based on notions of social justice and equity. However, the field has suffered from inadequate attention to assumptions about social justice. Social justice is essentially a contested concept. Rather than representing a unitary and universally shared concept, social justice has variable meanings. Differing views of social justice can be seen to underlie apparent contradictions in continuing practice in response to pressures for reform. Reforms predicated on individual rights have been undermined by deep commitments to meritocratic practices in U.S. schools. Reforms based on more communitarian principles, however, ignore the need for structure and the tendency for communal values to marginalize people with disabilities. Special education reform today requires a different basis in a relational definition of the self, structures to support the qualities of relationships, and a belief in the mutability of social justice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)181-198
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Special Education
Issue number2
StatePublished - 1997
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education
  • Rehabilitation


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