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The Learned and the Learnt Socialization: Hope for Equity Education in Postsecondary Education for Scholars with Dis/abilities and Intersecting Identities

Mercedes Cannon
Monday, November 25, 2019

As an associate director of a disability office in higher education, I have had the pleasure of meeting various students with disabilities or labeled with dis/abilities[1] who are distinct assets to the university. I, too, as a scholar, Black woman, and with a dis/ability (BWD), speech and language impediment (SLI), am an asset to higher education. Concomitantly, in the context of my professional work, undergraduate and graduate education, I experienced mocking because of my enunciation of certain words. On several occasions, colleagues and peers asked me to repeat a word and then dismissed me when I blundered in the enunciation, as if I needed or invited the endorsement or validation of literacy. According to the World Health Organization, people with disabilities, the disabled, or people with dis/abilities are among the most marginalized groups in the world. Unfortunately, in higher education, members of this group and those at the intersections of identities (race, gender, and disabled or dis/ability), are not recognized as vital contributors and knowledge bearers. Neither are individuals acknowledged as viable representatives of university equity socialization and education type/processes of enacting or embodying literacy.Equity education and research focus on disparities concerning the knowledge, identities, languages, and representations of oppressed groups (Artiles, 2019). Disabled scholars and those of us with dis/ability labels often are not invited to participate in university agendas of equity education on our college campuses. This erasure and neglect reify missed opportunities not only for disabled scholars to inform university equity agendas but ways to reframe literacy practices that extend or expand beyond its current usage. We need to do better at discussing and providing assessments of learning that are equitable (unbiased towards individuals at intersections of differences). If we employed the double entendre learned and learnt (two interpretations of “to learn”– one proper and the other, improper) to promote a diverse epistemology foundational to different ways of knowing, we would change how we measure literacy by standardized assessments of spoken and written Standard English (SE).

Historically, the language nuances and vernaculars of numerous cultural groups who are different from SE are therefore pathologized as “improper.” Various Black and Brown scholars have subverted this pathologization of their language (Baugh, 1983Reyes & Torres, 2007Smitherman, 1977) by presenting their research and education through “talkin” and “testfyin,” and asserting their perspectives as accurate and robust (re)presentations of literacy around language socialization (Duff, 2008). The argument against non-standard English is based on the use of their first language at the intersection of their learnt English (enunciations and vernacular), which is part of their dual socialization process (Egbo, 2001). As educators, scholars, and administrators in higher education, we currently do not always ensure welcome learning environments at these intersections of difference. Instead of adequately learned, we define many members of marginalized groups from the deficit lens: learnt. Both words mean the same thing but are used and perceived differently. For example, as a Black woman with an SLI, a part of my socialization and educational experiences are with the disparaging use of the term learnt to describe, study, represent, and critique my African American Vernacular English (AAVE) as non-standard and improper use of SE. Generally, the measurement of literacy by standardized assessments do not consider or value the cultural heritage, ways of knowing, and experiences with language socialization of AAVE (González, Moll, & Amanti, 2006; Williams & Magras, 2018; Yosso, 2005).

Critiques of Dual Socialization and Communal Learning Space of Disabled Scholars

As a speaker of both SE and AAVE, and scholar labeled with an SLI, others pathologized me, and at the intersections of my identities, the double entendre of the verb “to learn was essential – and oppressive—to my higher education socialization process. On the one hand, my speech-language socialization (enunciation, and phonetic and auditory perceptions) were outcomes of both my learned and learnt knowledge base starting at home, then in school, and finally in broader society. On the other, the result of this language socialization manifested in grammatical SE errors within my written and spoken communication (e.g., via my tense, syntax, and sentence structure) but by no means then or even now represents an intellectual deficit in my knowledge and or literacy.

In my scholarship, I use the term “Subverted Truths” to show the need for oppressed groups to reinterpret socially constructed identities that pathologize, disable, and exclude our contribution to higher education. As a scholar with an SLI label, I strive to reinterpret the continual mediation of cascading effects of internalizing an imposter syndrome while also validating and valuing my ability and identity as both the learned and the learnt critical scholar and professional. To be transparent about my socialization experiences in higher education as I seek to find my footing in the broader context of shared knowledge and understanding. In doing so, I recognize the importance and respect for the transitioning of all disabled scholars and scholars with dis/abilities within higher education. The current data from the National Center for Education Statistics (2019) available suggests that approximately 19% of males and 20% of female US undergraduates report having a disability in 2015-16. However, there is scant data available on graduate and professional groups in higher education. The lack of data about disability in these groups is a testament to the need to redress the erasure of scholars and professionals in postsecondary education with disabilities.

Formal Learning Sites

Formal learning sites need critiquing, so that educators, peers, and staff do not continue to undermine disabled scholars through deficit labels, which I indicated happened in my educational experiences. Instead, we should work to foster their intellectual inquiry and growth and show respect for both learned and learnt socializations. We should acknowledge and appreciate diversity in literacy, language socialization, and culture by reciprocating a praxis of loving critiques (Paris & Alim, 2014). We should support this group by encouraging our academic pursuits and by being receptive to others’ ways of knowing, doing, and being. We should strive to make space in higher education for the agency and assets of disabled scholars and those like myself with dis/abilities labels. Finally, as modes to equity, we should validate and value the ability and culture of others and in the name of equity, truly care about all people’s ways of knowing (Kozleski & Thorius, 2013).


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Williams, C. A., & Magras, L. B. (2019). What I learned and what I learnt: Teaching English while honoring language and culture at a predominantly Black Institution. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

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[1] I use the term dis/ability or dis/abilities to characterize the social constructions (subjectivity) of dis/ability and ability differences (Kozleski & Thorius, 2013). Also, the word disabled is used as a term whereby the individual who is disabled uses as an identity marker. And the word disability without the slash between dis and ability show the existence of disability as an impairment or a real predicament (Shakespeare, 2006).


Author Biography: 

Mercedes Cannon is an Adjunct Associate Faculty in the School of Education and the School of Liberal Arts Africana Studies Program at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). She is also the Associate Director of the Office of Adaptive Educational Services at IUPUI. She recently completed her Ph.D. in Urban Education at IUPUI with an emphasis on interdisciplinary and critical praxis. Her research centers on processes of socialization and intersecting identities such as race, gender, and dis/abilities. Her dissertation, Because I am Human: Centering Black Women with Dis/abilities in Transition Education from High School to College, positioned Black women as experts on deconstructing interlocking systems of oppression in their education. She draws from critical race theory (CRT), Womanism/Black Feminism (WBF), and Disability Studies in Education (DSE) to inform her qualitative work. Dr. Cannon uses the transformative term, “Subverted Truths,” to describe the need to reinterpret socially constructed identities of Black women with dis/abilities (BWD), to challenge the pathologization, disablement, and exclusion of BWD, and to communicate a critically informed emancipatory praxis. Cannon’s published work includes peer-review articles and book chapters. She is a recipient of the 2019 AERA Disability Studies in Education Special Interest Group Outstanding Dissertation Award.