Desire in Special Education: A Lacanian Analysis of Special Education Labels and Their Role in the Formation of the Identities of Students with Learning Disabilities

By Sohrab Ahmari

“The subject is nothing other than what slides in a chain of signifiers, whether he knows which signifier he is the effect of or not.”


I. Summary

The formation of an adolescent’s perception of himself as a middle school student with learning disabilities is analyzed by applying concepts from Lacanian psychoanalysis. The function of the Lacanian Other and desire of the Other are discussed as fundamental to the process by which the student begins to accept the specific Special Education label assigned him, a process best explained by the Lacanian approaches to language and the workings of the signifier.

II. Introduction

Since its formal inception through the passage of the Education of the Handicapped Act (E.H.A.) in 1975, special education has been one of the most controversial aspects of American education policy and practice. And Since the introduction of the Bush Administration’s premier educational restructuring program, No Child Left Behind (N.C.L.B.), it has become an even more contested issue. The E.H.A., reauthorized in 1990, 1997, and 2004 as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (I.D.E.A.), demands that students identified as having one of 13 disabilities should receive a “free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment.”[i] The language of I.D.E.A. then mandates two seemingly contradictory demands. On the one hand, it clearly expresses the need for modified and adapted education services, including curriculum, instructional strategy, behavior management, and supplementary services (such as speech and occupation therapy). On the other hand, it wants to ensure that students with disabilities are as fully integrated into the fabric of their public schools as possible and allowed the maximum amount of socialization with their non-disabled peers.

Special education may thus be the most difficult aspect of school teaching and administration. A special education teacher’s work stands not only at the crossroads of education and law, but also of medicine, psychiatry, social work, and other related discourses and praxes. Consequently, the meetings held to initiate, evaluate, or terminate a student’s special education services, known as Individual Education Plan (I.E.P.) meetings, can often be complex and highly adversarial, with parents, parent advocates, special and regular education teachers, administrators, school diagnosticians, psychiatrists, and attorneys present and grouped along the lines of their often divergent and opposing agendas.

Unfortunately, the student’s own voice regarding her/his educational life is often lost or left unheard among the clamor of all of these official discourses. And one of the unnoticed, unexplored, and perhaps unforeseen consequences of this special education process has been the construction of a specific special education identity by and in response to the educational, clinical, and legal discourses that govern such a great part of the daily lives of children with disabilities—one which not only affects their time in public schools but their development towards adulthood. This is especially the case for students who enter special education programs as learning disabled, due to the fact that such students are typically the most integrated into the least restrictive environment proscribed by federal law2: learning disabled students do not require the life skills or resource courses offered students with more severely debilitating disabilities such as mental retardation or down syndrome, who spend most of their schooldays in self-contained environments. The fact that their instructional settings are highly dependent upon the regular education environment also makes learning disabled students’ transition to special education more socially traumatic, especially at the secondary levels. Nevertheless, students with learning disabilities do form distinct social identities that refer directly to their status qua learning disabled.

My paper seeks to (1) identify the steps involved in the formation and emergence of this elusive identitarian category, (2) examine these steps within the framework of Lacanian psychoanalysis which, as will be demonstrated, is ideally suited to offer new insights into the subjective aspects of the process, and (3) outline the foundation for a reexamination of contemporary educational choices in light of contributions from Lacanian theory. To help further clarify the theoretical perspective and Lacanian orientation of this paper, I will be drawing from the ongoing narrative of one of my own students.

III. Special Services: Identification, Initiation, and Evaluation

Before elaborating the theoretical application of Lacanian analysis to special education, allow me to very briefly outline the process by which a student is assigned a special education label. It is the setting in motion of this process that eventually leads to the initiation of special services for students with various disabilities at diverse points in their academic careers. Please note that I am limiting my focus to the learning disabled label which, as I mentioned earlier, leads to the emergence of the identitarian category that constitutes the chief focus of this paper.

The process usually begins with a referral from regular education and special education teachers. The former tend to make referrals when their efforts to reach the student academically continue to fail, and when it appears that a cognitive “block,” rather than mere laziness or lack of motivation, is preventing the student from succeeding. Special education teachers—since they are trained to work as advocates for all students with disabilities—tend to make referrals on behalf of students whose performance they observe in regular education classrooms. Occasionally, parents might make referrals on behalf of their own children.

After a referral has been made, a school diagnostician3 administers standardized educational assessments4 to determine whether the student qualifies for special services, and, if so, under which label. Next an initial I.E.P. meeting is held for the determination of services, accommodations, and instructional modifications.

In addition to the instructional modifications provided by the regular education teachers5, students with learning disabilities are, upon entrance to special education programs, allowed access to Content Mastery (C.M.) labs on their campuses, where they receive more differentiated and intensive instruction suited to their specific needs. They can excuse themselves from regular education classrooms whenever they feel they would benefit from C.M. services. Unfortunately, in practice, such services are often misused by regular education teachers, who enjoy being able to rid their classrooms of challenging students. Another setback associated with such services the element of social shame involved in utilizing such services.

More recently, there has been a nationwide movement to deemphasize special services (like C.M. labs) that separate students with disabilities from their non-disabled peers; instead, they receive help from a designated special education teacher, who works inside the regular education classroom. These inclusion teachers are supposed to provide academic support while maintaining the least restrictive environment. Ideally, the inclusion teacher seamlessly integrates her/himself into the regular education classroom so as to make sure the student who is receiving services is not singled out as such. In practice, of course, this is not always the case.

Regardless of the nature of services provided, the student’s progress is evaluated on an annual basis. The student her/himself is reevaluated every three years to ensure that s/he still qualifies for special services. It is precisely this review process that allows for many students to eventually exit special education programs.

IV. Michael

Having provided a brief overview of the special education process as generally pertaining to students with learning disabilities, allow me now to introduce Michael6, one of the students in my current caseload. A seventh-grader at the time he was referred, Michael had for years been taking Reading courses designed specifically for students suffering from dyslexia.7 However, he had not been considered for special education until he finished the sixth-grade, by which point he had repeatedly failed to pass the standardized end-of-the-year examinations mandated by N.C.L.B. A special education teacher, who had served one of his siblings at a different school, requested the evaluation, which made him eligible for entrance into the special education program as a student with learning disabilities.

Before the referral and the initiation of special services, Michael had a reputation as a popular “jock” among his peers. He was perceived to be athletic, outgoing, and energetic. When I initially interviewed him (that is, before his official entrance into the program), he seemed to simultaneously exude a very youthful cheerfulness and project a dignified maturity fit for a much older high school student. When I asked about his plans for the future, he responded with confidence and ambition: unlike most of the (disabled and non-disabled) middle schoolers I had worked with, Michael was quite certain and specific about the career path he was going to follow after graduating from high school. I found his approach inspiring. Little did I know that within two weeks, the Michael I had interviewed would all but disappear. Soon after our interview, Michael was told that he has qualified for special education services, and would be allowed to utilize my C.M. lab. He accepted the news with a blank expression. As I expected, he began appearing at the lab seeking assistance with various assignments.

One day, an administrator informed me that Michael displayed highly anti-social behavior during lunchtime. Moreover, he continually refused to eat his food. During numerous parent-teacher conferences in person and over the telephone, his mother spoke of similar behavior patterns at home: a persistent refusal to eat and a strongly expressed desire to be left alone in his room. On a daily basis, Michael reacted negatively to instructional and behavioral directives. Moreover, he completely abdicated his former outgoing and popular self, choosing to keep his head down and cling closely to the walls when walking between classes. He did not by any means permit teachers or administrators to facilitate socialization for him.

Thankfully, I finally managed to get him to speak about his strange behavioral choices. When I asked him why he’d been barely eating or participating in social activities, he aptly responded, “cause I’m special ed.”

V. The Student’s Desire Is the Desire of the Other

Having discussed the case of my student (I will return to him later), I can move on to the task of elaborating the aspects of Lacanian psychoanalytic theory which pertain to the analysis of the learning disabled special education label and its role in the creation of the learning disabled identity. I turn first to Bruce Fink who begins his book-length study of the notion of subjectivity in Lacanian theory by presenting one of Lacan’s many striking formulas: “The self is an other.”8 This formula encapsulates a wide array of psychoanalytic contributions to the contemporary understanding of subjectivity. The Lacanian conception of subjectivity is based on the premise that all humans are born into language, a rule-governed and dynamic system that precedes the birth of each and every one of us and will remain in place long after we are dead and gone.

From similar premises, the structuralist literary critic Roland Barthes famously proclaims the death of the author, arguing that a literary text does not spring forth from the very depths of an author’s “soul”; on the contrary, Barthes claims, it is language itself which speaks through the author.9 However, as Fink cogently demonstrates throughout his study, Lacan himself, despite common misconceptions of his work, has no such designs for the author or the subject; rather, Lacan locates the subject somewhere between two simultaneously running lines of discourse, one conscious and the other unconscious.10 Both discourses emerge at the point of the child’s entrance into language, or really, when the human infant makes the inevitable choice11 to allow language to enter it. Traces of such a view can already be found in Freud’s case history of “Little Hans,” who must learn to accept language as manifested by his forced separation from his mother in order to become a “civilized” member of society.12 In other words, for both Freud and Lacan, the acquisition of language amounts to accepting an Other:

The Other seems then to slip in the back door while children are learning a language that is virtually indispensable to their survival in the world as we know it. Though widely considered innocuous and purely utilitarian in nature, language brings with it a fundamental form of alienation that is part and parcel of learning one’s mother tongue. The very expression we use to talk about it—“mother tongue”—is indicative of the fact that it some Other’s tongue first, the mOther’s tongue, and in speaking of childhood experience, Lacan often virtually equates the Other with the mother.13

It is the intrusion of language as Other that precipitates the division of daily human discourse along two interconnected lines, conscious and unconscious. Lacan accounts for this division by pointing to the lifelong bombardment of the subject by the messages from the Other. “Other people’s views and desires flow into us via discourse,” Fink writes. “In that sense, we can interpret Lacan’s statement that the unconscious is the Other’s discourse in a very straightforward fashion: the unconscious is full of other people’s talk, other people’s conversations, and other people’s goals, aspirations, and fantasies (insofar as they are expressed in words).”14 What always enters the subject along with language (as Other) is the desire of the Other. The repression of the Other’s desire produces the unconscious, which daily conscious discourse attempts to “mask.” Our conscious thoughts and speech, for Lacan, always originate from the ego and, as such, should be approached as illusory and alienating. The ego is “frustration in its very essence.”15

Desire then does not really emanate from within the grammatical or discursive “I,” or from the imago of one’s own body in reflected in mirrors and other representations16, but from the Other: “man’s desire is the desire of the Other.”17 This statement is of paramount importance to my analysis of the role of the learning disabled label. It can be re-written to fit the specific educational context: “the student’s desire is the desire of the Other.” The learning disabled student refuses to eat and acts anti-social because he has come to fully assume the Other’s desire as his own. This specific desire entered him via the learning disabled label, which should now be given its proper Lacanian name: the signifier. It is the intrusion of this traumatic signifier that, for Michael and many students like him, sets the operation of the Other’s desire in motion. Michael’s identity qua learning disabled encodes the Other’s desire. This is really to say that qua (learning disabled) subject, Michael is caused by the signifier, just as, qua son, he is caused by another alien and unknown desire, that of his parents’.18

This is not, by any means, to say that special educators and administrators assign special education labels with the intent of throwing students’ lives into disarray. What then accounts for the observed phenomena? Where can an educator locate the disjunction between intent and effect? To attempt to answer this question, I will turn to Lacan’s exploration of the workings of signifier in relation to his vision of the dialectic of desire.

VI. Che vuoi? in Special Education

I have so far discussed the learning disabled student’s behavioral dysfunction as fulfilling the desire of the Other. In the case of the student, the Other, “works through” a set of powerful figures: school administrators, teachers, school diagnosticians and psychologists, and parents. None of these figures tell the student that being learning disabled amounts to the assumption of anorexic and anti-social tendencies. And yet, the student assumes knowledge of the (perceived) desire of the Other and responds accordingly.

In other words, being a special education student has come to subjectively “mean” having x, y, or z behavioral characteristics. This can be partially—and only partially—accounted for by considering ubiquitous stereotypes of students with disabilities that permeate the school and the broader culture. Not to mention that on any school campus, some of the most notorious special education students, after all, are those categorized under the “emotionally disturbed” label. These students are typically escorted during the whole of the school day by behavioral therapists and specially-trained paraprofessionals. They display a wide array of highly visible behaviors (violent outbursts at adults and peers, self-destructive behavior, abnormal eating habits, etc. etc.). All of this is to say that it is not merely the official discursive practices of education professionals which are responsible for the constitution of the Other’s desire for students with learning disabilities. Social discourses and signifiers are also to blame.

Lacan’s dialectic of desire provides a perfect theoretical framework with which to approach the role of the signifiers which constitute educational Other. Specifically, the Che vuoi? function is most appropriate for our purposes. To elucidate this concept, allow me to quote Lacan at some length:

For it is clear…that man’s nescience of his desire is not so much nescience of what he demands, which may after all be isolated, as nescience of what he desires. This is where my formulation that the unconscious is (the) discourse about the Other [discourse de l’Autre] fits in, in which the de should be understood in the sense of the Latin de (objective determination): de Alio in oratione (you complete it: tua res agitur). But we must also add that man’s desire is the Other’s desire [le désir de l’homme est le désir de l’Autre] in which the de provides what grammarians call a “subjective determination”—namely, that it is qua Other that man desires (this is what provides the true scope of human passion). This is why the Other’s question [la question de l’Autre]—that comes back to the subject from the place which he expects an oracular reply which takes some form such as “Che vuoi?,” “What do you want?,” is the question that best leads the subject to the path of his own desire…”19

Lacan goes on to assert that the psychoanalyst is the subject’s best aide in becoming aware of his own desire in response to Che vuoi? But how can the learning disabled student’s Che vuoi?—his “what do you really want of/from me?”—help us understand his behavior? It seems clear that such students assume the Other’s desire, supplanting it with their own limited and biased knowledge about the nature of their diagnosed disability. The official signifiers constituting this diagnosis (learning disabled—“special ed.” student—“differently-abled”) forcefully enter the student’s conscious discourse qua messages forming the Other’s desire. As a result, the student manages to speak to Che vuoi? in a far more definitive way than s/he had been able to speak before. The response, of course, should be seen as a chain of signifiers revolving around an absent center. “What does being a special education student mean?” It means: not eating—excluding myself—rejecting friends—renouncing hobbies and interests—etc. etc. These signifying behaviors, of course, do not refer to the “truth” of what it means to be learning disabled, just as the myriad stereotypes assigned to persons with disabilities completely miss the mark when it comes representing the daily experience of life with disabilities.

In the next and last section of this paper, I return to Michael’s drama and render its dénouement in order to draw out the educational implications involved in reviewing the formation of learning disabled identities through a Lacanian lense.

VII. Educational Implications

For Lacan, the ethics of psychoanalysis necessarily arise out of his view of causality. Importantly, Lacan reverses the long-standing temporal relationship between cause and effect. The Lacanian subject is the effect of the Other’s traumatic intrusion. The desire of the Other, above all manifested by the mysterious desire of the subject’s parents, literally causes the subject, who is forced to accept language and her/his place within it. Throughout adolescence and adulthood, the subject is perpetually affected by alien desires, which change and cause her/him. In what is perhaps his most metaphysical injunction, Lacan asks that subject take ownership of trauma and to make the choice to accept the Other as language. In other words, the psychoanalytic ethical imperative is for the subject to cause her/himself, even though the subject seems, according to temporal logic, to come after trauma qua cause. The traumatized individual is liberated when s/he subjectivizes desire.20

In the case of my student Michael, the popular/jock identity was clearly out of step with his desire. To “perform” the jock on a daily basis was probably a taxing exercise for him. The signifiers of the desire of the Other, brought together by the learning disabled label assigned him by a group of seemingly omnipotent adults, allowed him to undermine his previous identity, and to construct a new one based on a new, albeit misguided and dangerous, set of signifiers.

Eventually, after a serious of discussions and conferences, Michael’s mother and I convinced Michael that being a special education student with learning disabilities need not entail avoidance of food, anti-social tendencies, or aggressive behaviors. Currently, Michael has reached an uneasy behavioral equilibrium, whereby he continues to remain a loner in the school, but has managed build a few friendships. He eats regularly.

As the case of Michael demonstrates, the role of the Lacanian Other (and the signification of the desire of the Other) in the formation of the learning disabled identity has crucial implication for the daily praxis of special educators and other education professionals who work with students with disabilities. Lacanian psychoanalytic theory highlights the power of the signifier to radically shift identities and behaviors. This is especially the case when the signifier is linked, in the psychic life of the subject, with the desire of the Other and allows the subject to speak to Che vuoi? When the signifier encodes for the subject the perceived desire of the Other, it can be a powerful mechanism for bringing about change in the subject. Lacan himself recognizes this process as the one that should direct treatment in the analytic situation, since, in response to the analyst’s desire, the analysand is compelled to continue speaking and making associations.21 On the other hand, this same process can work to devastating effect in an institutional context. The learning disabled label, seemingly thrown at the adolescent student by a mysterious cabal of adults working behind closed doors (the I.E.P. committee) can beckon the arrival of a new subject in the most authoritarian and alienating fashion.

So how can the transition of learning disabled students to special education be guided so as to ensure it is less traumatic? Obviously the aim should not be to prevent the emergence of learning disabled identities, but to make sure that the signifiers sent from the Big Other (the collective of adults who direct the student’s special services) are not transformed into pathologically repressed ones. In other words, the discourse of service providers should be transmitted to the student in a way that does not adversely affect the student’s psychic life. A special education label, in and of itself, can only seem like an alien force that suddenly subverts the student’s identity, leaving a void in its place. Consequently, the student should not be placed in a position where s/he is forced to fill this void by summoning imaginary signifiers.

All of this is to say that once a student has qualified for special services as learning disabled, the transition must be preceded by an extensive discussion between the student and service providers. The tone of this discussion should be “democratic” and informational. The student should be allowed to express personal opinions and feelings regarding her/his status as a service-recipient. The service providers, on the other hand, should tell the student about the ramifications of the special education label in as direct and unambiguous way as possible.

Above all, every special education student, regardless of her/his disability, should be allowed to access special education counseling on a consultative (versus regular) basis. Currently, only students labeled emotionally disturbed receive special education counseling. Such counseling could help most students verbalize the experiences they undergo as students with disabilities and service-recipients.

VIII. Notes

1. See the 2004 reauthorization of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which closely aligns the law with No Child Left Behind regulations at the Library of Congress online legislative archive .

2. Ibid: “To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are not disabled, and special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”

3. Or, at the request of parents, independent, third-party education/psychological evaluators.

4. Such as the I.Q. test, the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test (W.I.A.T.), etc. etc.

5. These include but are not limited to: changed pace of instruction, oral testing, modified tests, note-taking assistance, extended time assignments, shortened assignments, study aids and manipulatives, repeated review, preferential seating, frequent breaks, concrete and positive reinforcements, and behavior management plans.

6. I am using this pseudonym to safeguard the student’s confidentiality.

7. In the state of Texas, where I teach, dyslexia is not among the disabilities that qualify for special services; rather, dyslexic students receive separate services under the auspices of Section 504 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

8. Bruce Fink, The Lacanian Subject: Between Language and Jouissance, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 1.

9. See Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author” in Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle, eds., Critical Theory Since Plato, 3rd Edition, (Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005), 1256-1258.

10. Fink, The Lacanian Subject, 14.

11. A great deal of Fink’s The Lacanian Subject is devoted to elucidating why, according to Lacanian ethics, this traumatic intrusion of language into the infant’s being should come to be treated as a “choice” by the adult, since, by taking ownership of the trauma, s/he comes to be the cause of her/his subjectivity. I will introduce this fascinating discussion in section VII (below) of this paper.

12. See Sigmund Freud, “Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-year-old Boy [‘Little Hans’]” in The “Wolfman” and Other Cases; trans. Louis Adey Huish, (New York: Penguin, 2003).

13. Fink, The Lacanian Subject, 7.

14. Ibid, 10 [italics in original].

15. Jacques Lacan, Écrits: A Selection; trans. Bruce Fink, (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002), 42.

16. Ibid, 5.

17. This famous statement appears throughout the Lacanian oeuvre. See, for example, Jacques Lacan, Seminar XI: The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis; trans. Alan Sheridan, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1998), 39 [italics in original].

18. Fink, The Lacanian Subject, 50.

19. Lacan, Écrits, 300 [my emphasis].

20. See Fink, The Lacanian Subject, 63-65.

21. Bruce Fink, A Clinical Introduction to Lacanian Psychoanalysis: Theory and Technique, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 4.

X. Biographical Information

Born in Tehran, Iran, I received my B.A. (Philosophy) from the University of Washington, Seattle in 2005. Since then, I have been working as a Special Education teacher in the Rio Grande Valley, Texas. I was recruited and trained for this position by Teach for America, the national corps of recent college graduates who commit two years to teaching in low-income and racially-marginalized communities across the nation. After completing my Teach for America commitment, I hope to set myself on the path towards psychoanalytic training and, ultimately, practice.