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Capacity or Deficit? An Examination of the Lens that Educators Use to View Student Disability

Capacity or Deficit? An Examination of the Lens that Educators Use to View Student Disability

By Emily A. Nusbaum, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, Julie Maier, San Francisco State University, and Jeanne M. Rodriguez, California State University, East Bay

Note: This article has been adapted from its original version. 

The design and implementation of an effective and meaningful educational program depends on which lens team members use to a view a student. If a deficit lens is used, the team will likely design a program and goals that limit a student's learning opportunities, access to general education curriculum, development of self-determined behaviors, and interactions and positive relationships with a wide variety of peers. If, on the other hand, a capacity-building lens is used, then the team will put time and effort in to identify available and meaningful resources and supports that will allow the student to continue to develop skills, gather knowledge, identify and reach personal goals, interact with a wide variety of people in multiple inclusive environments, and lead a more fulfilling life that accentuates their talents, abilities, and contributions.

Using a capacity-building lens is grounded in the principles of presuming competence (Biklen & Burke, 2006; Biklen & Duchan, 1994) and in making the least dangerous assumption about students with disabilities (Rosetti & Tashie, 2002). These underlying principles require that educators examine their own perspectives and, even more importantly, the narratives they tell about the students they work with. A commitment to these principles, and the utilization of a capacity-building lens, can shift "problems" from an individual student to the collaborative, educational teams who are supporting the student. This shift will allow the team to actively create more productive school identities for students with disabilities.

Using examples from real-life Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) and IEP team members' reports, this article will demonstrate the impact of utilizing a capacity versus deficit lens, it will articulate the assumptions that are implicit in the use of each, and it will examine the educational opportunities that are subsequently either created or constrained. Additionally, documents like the IEP and other reports often include language and labels/diagnoses that have the potential to form long-lasting identities for students with disabilities. So, the imperative for educators to critically examine their own views and the implications for the students they serve will be discussed. When educators work from and view students from a capacity lens, practices emerge that are inherently person-centered, respectful of, and empowering to the student. A capacity-building lens frames the student with disabilities as being purposeful in the word, and possessing both agency and autonomy.

Using a capacity-lens allows educators to look for and recognize the unique characteristics, skills, talents, and interests of a student with disability. More importantly, using a capacity-building lens is a way of understanding a student that assumes their competence and values and desires their contribution and participation in inclusive communities. Utilizing this lens to view a student is not limited to identifying strengths, but rather shifting the focus. The view is of the same student but the perspective is different. Educators who use a capacity lens look beyond what a student with disabilities is "doing" (by describing skills or behaviors, for example), and consider systems of support that enhance and develop the student's capabilities. These educators also understand that the "things" that challenge them the most, "things" that are often articulated as "problems," are actually evidence of student capability. In contrast, a deficit-finding lens focuses on labels, limitations, barriers, and remediation. This pervasive, normative view leads the professional to utilize practices that "fix," help a student "get ready," or meet professionally-established criteria, practices that too often end up limiting the student and creating unnecessary barriers to learning and progress.

When one approaches a student's educational experience using a capacity-building lens, the basic premise is that the student possesses an innate ability and desire to express, grow, and learn in unique ways. There is intrinsically high value placed on the contributions that the student has in creating her/his life experiences, opportunities, and learning. In addition, the educator who has shifted to a capacity building lens looks for ways to optimize the resources available within the educational environment since the use of individualized supports by a student is viewed as a strength rather than an obstacle on the road to reaching an elusive standard of "independence," a standard that few people actually hold themselves to.

To illustrate the stark difference between a capacity-building and a deficit lens and the assumptions made about students with disabilities, which can either create or constrain educational and lifelong opportunities, examples from one, of the many students that the authors of this article have had the opportunity to work with, will be shared. In this example, it is evident that educational team members rely primarily on a deficit lens. Notice how the shift to a capacity lens allows, or offers the possibility, for some team members to see the student with a disability from a new position.


Now meet Henry, first as a preschooler and then as an elementary school student who is currently served in inclusive setting. Each year Henry's IEP team members continue to recommend more segregated educational placements. Excerpts from separate reports, some that used a capacity lens and others that used a deficit lens, demonstrate the drastic differences in each professional's understanding of Henry's learning, participation, and engagement in school environments.

Henry was a preschool student in a parochial school who received special education support from his local school district. His parents also hired a consultant specializing in inclusive educational services to support the team. Henry had been served the previous three years in a segregated preschool setting.

Excerpt from school district special education teacher's report: Given Henry's cognitive impairment and short attention span his progress is generally slow and inconsistent...Henry's progress is a qualitative experience as opposed to something that can be quantitatively observed...Henry's successes are the result of the people in his school environment changing to accommodate his unique learning differences...Henry's ability to attend to an activity or the salient part of an activity is limited. He is easily distracted by environmental stimuli...he is constantly on the move and working with Henry is exhausting.

The school district special education teacher clearly used a deficit lens when viewing Henry, his progress, and his educational needs. In this report, Henry's disability is positioned as the "problem" and expectations for his growth and progress are quite limited. The author of this report also suggests that Henry is not responsible for his successes or progress, but rather the adults who teach and support him are responsible through the accommodation and supports they provide to him. And, based on the assumptions about Henry that are quite explicit in the report, appropriate educational practices might include lowering expectations for Henry's learning and growth, as well as reducing his access to interesting and engaging peers and classroom materials. Finally, the district's special education teacher's report excerpt is framed in a "professionals know best" tone and approach.

Preschool teachers' report excerpt: In our preschool environment it has been easy to adapt the curriculum to include Henry and meet his individual needs, which is what we strive to do with all the was a priority to set a positive, open-hearted tone in order to develop a community who would be consistently welcoming to Henry...Henry has made the most growth of all in his awareness of and interest in both the physical and human environment...his focus has increased, demonstrated by both his increased curiosity in structured activities and participating alongside his peers...he has become much more peer focused and will initiate play...and is much more responsive to classmates...His ability to learn and build on experiences with his classmates has undergone considerable development.

Inclusion consultant report excerpt: One of Henry's biggest areas of growth is his ability to sit on the rug, tables, etc. during work times. The team is continuing to use a range of strategies to build on this success and use individualized modifications and communication supports to make his participation more meaningful...the team should continue to have expectations that Henry will continue to improve his abilities...Henry has recently begun to demonstrate resistance to following some directions and participating in routines...a range of supports are being implemented, including use of peers. The team views Henry's resistance as growth. He is demonstrating the desire to have more control over himself and his environment, while at the same time adults have increased expectations for him.

When comparing the preschool teacher and inclusion consultant's reports to the school district special education teacher's report, it is clear that a different lens was utilized to view the same student during the same time period. The preschool teacher and inclusion consultant saw Henry's capacity to learn, acknowledged multiple forms of progress in the classroom, and understood his utilization of accommodations and supports as evidence of his capacity. They demonstrated acceptance of Henry's unique characteristics and recognized that his needs in their classroom were no different than other children in their preschool community. They also articulated the importance of Henry's membership as a key feature of the classroom. Both his preschool teachers and the inclusion consultant identified growth across many contexts, in stark contrast to the special educator's report, which stated that his progress was so minimal it was immeasurable. The understanding of Henry as purposeful, autonomous, and having agency was reflected in the inclusion consultant's view of his resistance as a desire to gain control over himself and his environment. The preschool teachers and inclusion consultant all noted Henry's engagement with his environment and peers as a strength and area of growth, which again contrasts with the school district special educator who described him as being over stimulated by, and possessing a limited ability to engage with his environments.

Henry is now attending his neighborhood elementary school in a different district and receives supports and services in an age-appropriate, grade-level classroom. Many of the special education staff and his third-grade general education teacher rely on a deficit lens to view and describe Henry, something that is reflected in the educational plans and supports that they develop for him. While Henry's family remains steadfast in their commitment to inclusive education, the district has begun to offer more and more restrictive placements. At Henry's most recent IEP meeting, the school district and his family each hired separate neuropsychologists to observe and assess Henry and present recommendations to the IEP team. It will not be surprising to many readers that the reports offered by each observer included detailed descriptions of the discrepancies between Henry's behaviors, skills, and support needs in comparison to same-age peers. However, the report and recommendations provided by the neuropsychologist hired by Henry's family did the kind of "problem relocation" that is reflective of the utilization of a capacity-lens. Again, the assumptions that are offered in each report reflect the lens and perspective used by the professional in relationship to Henry. The contrast between the two reports is sharpened when they each describe the kinds of educational environments and supports that they think Henry should have access to.

School district neuropsychologist report: Henry was born with a genetic neurological disorder that is characterized by global developmental delays and severe cognitive impairment. As is typically the case, Henry is primarily nonverbal and has significant challenges with sustained attention and behavioral regulation. Although he is social by nature, he has difficulty interacting appropriately with peers...In general, what was observed can be summed up as follows: Henry has developed very few, if any, "school ready" behaviors. These include sitting still, waiting for others, following the teacher's directions and keeping yourself quiet. Henry's attention span is a significant factor in his ability to benefit from any program. He needs to develop a functioning system of communication. Henry's self-care issues significantly separate him from his same-aged peers, including his problems managing his secretions and his table manners.

By beginning this report with the name of a genetic difference and associated syndrome, followed by a list of associated deficit-based characteristics, there are significant implications for the identity that will travel with Henry throughout his life. Automatically, this establishes low and limited expectations for his intellectual and communicative development and growth. Furthermore, the author of this report removes responsibility from the educators working with him, by stating that Henry is the one who "needs to develop" a communication system and way to respond to excessive saliva production.

School district neuropsychologist report (continued): The results of this evaluation are consistent with previous attempts to measure Henry's overall cognitive capacity and developmental level of functioning. Henry was unable to reach basal on two different standardized tests that are appropriate for children 2 years old and older. Henry was also unable to demonstrate mastery of the preschool developmental milestones such as 1:1 correspondence, conservation and seriation...he is primarily adult oriented and shows very little interest in peer interactions. He has limited means to functionally communicate beyond getting his basic wants and needs met. His attention span is severely compromised, which further hinders his progress acquiring developmentally meaningful skills. As he approaches 10, it is important to weigh the benefits of Henry remaining in a full inclusion model of education versus the benefits of an ABA-based instructional model...At this point, it is unclear how his current program could possibly provide him with the educational opportunities he needs to make meaningful progress.

The school district neuropsychologist goes on to essentially place a ceiling on Henry's potential and even more importantly asserts the absolute certainty of the assessments used to "measure" Henry's intellectual ability by comparing current standard assessment results with previous ones. And, the school district neuropsychologist positions all learning problems as residing within Henry, which then places responsibility for non-learning with him. Even more striking is the complete absence of any statement of learning strength or acknowledgment of how Henry engages with materials and the world around him. The recommendations contained here suggest that because of the deficits that Henry possesses, he should be removed from and denied access to an inclusive school community.

The school district neuropsychologist goes on to further cement the deficit-based narrative about Henry: "Like other students with severe developmental disabilities, Henry must be trained using a highly systematic approach like ABA. For some children learning is automatic, but it is not for Henry." The words the author chose to use within these two sentences in the report impart a very static perspective about Henry (and other students who fall under the umbrella of "severe developmental disability") and this categorization is then used to deny Henry an identity as a learner. Henry is instead relegated to an identity of being "trainable" since he has not proved his ability to be "educable" within the standard and normative means asked of him during the administration of neuropsychological testing. Finally, this report is an excellent example of how the deficit view of student disability provides a loophole through which educators can relinquish responsibility for student learning, while continuing to assert their professional expertise and power.

The family's neuropsychologist report excerpt: Henry continues to need a behaviorally trained aide...S/he needs to have knowledge or be trained in non-verbal communication, augmentative communication as well as have prior experience facilitating peer play and social interactions. The aide will need to be well versed in Henry's specific educational goals in order for him or her to support implementation of these throughout the day...Henry should be actively working with the curriculum, and there should be sensible modifications done on an ongoing basis. Henry's teacher will need to work in very close collaboration with the aide so that sensible integration of Henry in the classroom and adaptation of the curriculum can occur on a day-to-day basis. The teacher needs to have experience (or at least an open mind) with fully including special needs children in the classroom. An inclusion specialist will play a key role in overseeing Henry's successful integration in the class and in the school as a whole and fostering peer supports throughout Henry's day...The aide will need to have training to note these types of moments and set them up to occur spontaneously.

This section of the report from the neuropsychologist hired by Henry's family demonstrates a significant shift from that of the school district's neuropsychologist. Unlike the former, this report focuses on the responsibilities of the IEP team in providing the supports that Henry needs to be successful. This has, in essence, removed the "problems" articulated in the previous report from Henry and shifted responsibility to his educational team. The recommendations from this report primarily focus on supports and educational services that appear to be working most effectively, which sits in contrast to the previous evaluator, who stated in her report: "Henry has developed few, if any, school ready behaviors." The observer hired by the family also made recommendations for the team to consider regarding collaborative planning, training opportunities, and instructional strategies that she regarded as important to consistently implement in order for Henry to continue to make educational progress. This again contrasts with the school district's neuropsychologist report, which stated that the educational team would not be able to provide supports to help Henry learn and keep him in general education.

Excerpt from Henry's parents' statement: Henry is naturally cheerful. He is very much aware of his environment and remembers locations, situations, people, and experiences. He is good listener. He explores the world with all of his senses. He has a very strong visual memory. Henry is a tactile learner and likes to have something to touch and manipulate. Henry's communication neurological disorder impacts his ability to communicate what he knows and sustain attention; however, we also know that he understands far more than it may first appear. Our long term-term goals for Henry are that his life be as normal as possible insofar as 1) getting the chance to identify what interests him and developing those interests to ultimately find work and activities in those areas and 2) having friends and loved ones with whom to share those activities. Our goals for school are for Henry to be valued and be a welcomed member of an age-appropriate general education class; to be able to participate in general education instruction by having proper supports in place; enjoy reciprocal social relationships with peers; and to learn the general education curriculum and functional skills needed to access that curriculum.

Henry's parents' statement reflects what most families of children with and without disabilities are able to see in their children: potential, possibility, and a life that is as full and rich as their own and the educators with whom they work. Often times, when families share statements like the one above, they are called things like "unrealistic" by educators and school professionals who hold deeply entrenched, deficit-based ways of viewing students with disabilities. A deeper consideration of Henry's parents' statement in turn requires a deeper consideration—not of Henry-- but of ourselves. If each of us wants to be viewed as having desire, capacity, interests, hopes, and dreams, then we are required to look at ourselves and examine our notions of professional expertise. We must ask ourselves if we are able to see students with disabilities as being as fully human as ourselves – and thus as being full of potential and possibility. 

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This modified version of the full article is included here with permission from the authors. All rights are reserved. Permission to reproduce may be obtained from PEAK Parent Center, who will then obtain permission from the authors/publisher.

Photo of Navy Officer doing a vision test included under a Creative Commons License by Official U.S. Navy's Flickr Photostream.