Disability, Language and Mothering

This month we published (M)othering Labeled Children by María Cioè-Peña. In this post the author explains the inspiration behind the book.

I never sought to study mothers. To be honest, mothers were never really a part of my professional circle. Yes, I worked with women who were mothers and I also engaged with my students’ mothers, but I rarely saw mothers as an asset; truth be told, I probably didn’t really see them at all. I remember many of my former students but very few of their mothers – the ones I do remember often tended to be the “squeaky wheel” mothers – the ones who came across as “irrational” and “demanding”.  As an educator, I didn’t really think about mothers, not the way I do now.

To be clear, I thought about parents. As a special education teacher, I had been trained to communicate with parents, to consider their emotional capacities, particularly around disability diagnosis or program placements, as well as their education level when communicating information and interacting with them. I was taught to be a co-conspirator, always working with parents towards more inclusive placements. As a bilingual educator I was trained to be culturally responsive and to consider parents’ cultural identity and language practices when communicating. All of this was under the guise of compliance and rarely under the umbrella of collaborative partnerships. After all, I had been trained to believe that culturally and linguistically diverse families needed teachers like me to advocate for them.

My relationship with parents in many ways took on similar characteristics to my relationships with children in special education – I was a helper to the helpless, a voice for the voiceless, an advocate for the powerless. Thus, my relationship to parents took on the same deficit framing that plagues emergent bilinguals and students labeled as dis/abled. So it makes perfect sense that parents, especially mothers, were outside of the scope of my inquiries. This is not to say that I did not have beautiful and meaningful relationships with mothers. On the contrary, I credit those relationships with my growth both as an educator and as a researcher, but at the time I did not recognize them as a part of my practice, rather I saw them as another feather on my cap; another thing that I did that made me great.

I was really interested in studying the ways in which my teacher training had failed me. I recognized that my teacher training had been an amalgamation of parts (special education training with a bilingual extension or a bilingual education training with a special education extension) and as such had failed to prepare me, and others like me, for the unique challenges that a bilingual special education teacher might encounter. It wasn’t until I did a pilot study centered on teachers that a participant made a claim that shifted my whole perspective. When speaking about changes that had arisen as a result of special education reforms in NYC, changes that encouraged Emergent Bilinguals Labeled As Disableds’ (EBLAD) placement in monolingual English Inclusive Co-Teaching (ICT) classrooms over bilingual self-contained special education settings, she commented that she felt badly for the mothers because they had no say in this transition. The bilingual special education classrooms were closed and students were placed in monolingual ICT classes, and while the children could adjust, the mothers had lost a huge connection to their children’s learning. While in the bilingual special education setting they could encounter a teacher who spoke their home language – that was not true in the monolingual ICT classes.

That comment sat and rattled around my head for weeks and months, until finally I realized that the problem didn’t lie in my training. It originated from the fact that these children were being treated as the sum of their classifications: English language learners, students with disabilities, culturally and linguistically diverse, Latinx, etc. My training was a hodgepodge of programs because the students were being viewed as the sum of their parts rather than as whole. Thus, in order to foreground children as whole, I needed to step out of the classroom and into the home. I needed to center their foremost teacher: their mothers. They are the ones who saw their children as whole first. They are the ones who rooted their children’s differences in a disabilities studies perspective. They are the ones who saw their children’s bilingualism as a linguistic human right central to survival not just capitalism. In order to help EBLADs, I first needed to center mothers’ expertise and experiences.

This book, (M)othering Labeled Children, does just that. It centers mothers, their successes, their struggles (inside and outside of their children’s schooling), their ideologies on disability, language and mothering. In order to see children as whole, we need to see their parents, especially their mothers, as whole first. In doing this work, I have come to better understand myself as a teacher and as a mother. In these women’s testimonios I see my mother, my aunt, and myself. I hope that in reading this book others will see the complexity that is motherhood and the ways in which schools can make this work both easier and significantly more difficult. I hope that this book becomes a step towards a more inclusive school model.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Bilingualism for All? edited by Nelson Flores, Amelia Tseng and Nicholas Subtirelu.