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Context Matters

I was recently asked to comment on special education and disability research in the 21st century for a presentation for KUPD, the student special education association at KU, and I’ve elaborated on those comments in this blog.  In thinking through the key issues that those of us interested in special education and disability (researchers, professionals, policy makers, families, and individuals with disabilities) must consider as we continue to move further and further into the 21st century, the idea that “context matters” keeps rattling around in my head.

Context is a complicated concept because it is so all encompassing.  In fact, our recent definition essentially says it is everything that impacts an individual’s life and functioning (Shogren, Luckasson, & Schalock, 2013).  Context includes our personal characteristics (for me, having brown hair, being short, and having a disability, amongst others) and the environments we live, learn, work, and play within (that is, the people in my life, the communities I affiliate with, the educational opportunities I’ve had and continue to have), as well as the interactions between my personal characteristics and environmental experiences and my reactions to these interactions.  For example, for a long period of during my undergraduate education I was highly anxious in any class because of an early negative and very public reaction of a professor to my need for accommodations related to note and test-taking.

Obviously, then, context is highly personal.  But, it impacts the work that any of us are doing at the individual, community, or societal level to impact outcomes for students with disabilities. The anxiety I brought into my undergraduate classes influenced the way that I accessed the information and the degree to which I was successful in my courses, despite most of my professors having no understanding of this, unless they somehow became aware of these contextual factors.  The professor, whose public comments impacted me so significantly, was also  shaped by his context and experiences that impacted his beliefs about disability-related accommodations in his classes.  Context matters on both sides of the table.

But, a valid question is, “so what?” Of course the factors that shape our life and functioning matter.  This is common sense, and something that most people would probably agree with at face value.  The real question is, “What do we do about this?” and perhaps more importantly, “If we try to do something about this, does it have a potential for making an impact?”  Obviously, I would argue “yes,” is has the potential to make an impact if we are systematic and diligent in working to understand the specific ways in which context matters and how we can better assess and use information about context in the design, development, and implementation of supports for individuals with disabilities across the life-span, something I think will, and needs, to characterize 21st century research and practice.

As researchers and as practitioners, I believe, if we are self-reflective, we will acknowledge that we have failed to fully consider contextual factors in much of our work.  We may explore a limited number of factors in a given research design (e.g., the impact of gender or disability label on outcomes), but not the additional interactive effects of teacher or administrator attitudes or peer relationships on a student’s success in the classroom. As practitioners, we struggle to find the time, resources or energy to think beyond our classrooms and to understand broader contextual factors.  Frameworks have existed for decades, however, such as Brofenbrenner’s ecological theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 2005), for organizing the diverse systems that have the potential to influence functioning.  But, we have struggled to implement these frameworks in our work, perhaps because of the added complexity, but perhaps also because there has never been a systematic process to try to figure out how to determine the individual or environmental factors that matter, particularly when what matters may be specific to each individual.  And, practices, such as person-centered planning that do attempt to develop a comprehensive, strengths-based perspective of the individual and their vision for the future work very well in some cases, but not in others, perhaps because of contextual factors that shape the success of the process, including structural factors such as a lack of resources or supports for teachers or families to implement these processes.  However, person-centered planning has also not been characterized by a clear process for identifying specific contextual factors that might influence the visioning process or the planning and implementation of needed supports.

For me, I think moving beyond simple acceptance of the fact that context matters, and seeking ways to develop a greater understanding of the how’s and why’s of contextual influences, is a key direction for 21st century research and practice.  This must start with a clear definition of context, which has not been, until recently, available in the field of disability and special education.   Next, we have to ask ourselves, what elements of context likely matter most in the specific work that we do?  Then, we need to explore how we can define, assess, and account for these factors in research, policy, and practice. Only then can we begin to use this knowledge to design truly person-centered, individualized supports and services that have the potential to lead to the valued outcomes of disability policy.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (Ed.). (2005). Making human beings human: Bioecological perspectives on human development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Shogren, K. A., Luckasson, R., & Schalock, R. L. (2013). The definition of context and its application in the field of intellectual disability. Manuscript submitted for publication.


Karrie A. Shogren, Ph.D. has been on the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and will be joining the faculty at the University of Kansas in the Fall of 2014.  She received her Ph.D. in special education from the University of Kansas in 2006, and undergraduate and master’s degrees from The Ohio State University and the University of Dayton, respectively, in psychology.  Dr. Shogren’s research focuses on self-determination and systems of support for students with disabilities and she has a specific interest in the multiple, nested contextual factors that impact student outcomes. Dr.Shogren has published over 50 articles in peer-reviewed journals, is the author or co-author of 5 books, and is one of the co-authors of Intellectual Disability: Definition, Classification, and Systems of Support, the 11th Edition of the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities’ seminal definition of intellectual disability (formerly mental retardation). Dr. Shogren has received grant funding from several sources, including the Institute of Education Sciences (IES).  Dr. Shogren was recently appointed co-Editor of Inclusion (with Michael L. Wehmeyer, Ph.D.), a new e-journal published by the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, and is an Associate Editor for Remedial and Special Education and Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.

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