Disability as Praxis

an essay by Mark Willis (1995; revised 2009)

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Book cover of Paulo Freire's "Pedagogy of the Oppressed" (30th Anniversary Edition)A great book is measured by the opportunities it provides the reader to make new meanings over long stretches of time. Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed has been just such a book for me. When I first read it as a teenager in the early 1970s, I understood it with the subjectivity of an American high school student. Freire’s banking concept of education gave a name to my restless dissatisfaction with public education — its structure, routine, and predilection for law and order. I was deeply imbued then in the language of radical politics, and Freire’s analysis of oppressors and the oppressed fit my ideology. His discussion of praxis was my introduction to the word, but it did not make an impression on me then. If I used the word, it was only an ideological slogan. It was not my word. My subjectivity had to deepen in time and experience before I would begin to approach its true meaning.

My next encounter with praxis and Freire came more than a decade later, in the middle of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, in a college seminar called “The Marxist-Christian Dialogue.” The seminar was part of a worldwide, grassroots effort by Marxists and Christians to form a dialogue based on mutual themes. Alienation and liberation were themes central to both Marxism and Christianity, but achieving a dialogue required breaking through what Freire calls “the circle of certainty” that surrounds each as an ideology (p. 21). Freire’s work, and the work of Latin American liberation theologians which it inspired, were important sources for this dialogue. I came to understand that praxis meant a political process rooted, not in systems of ideology, but in concrete human situations. Freire’s praxis combined reflection and action, a way of being and acting in the world that was accessible to all people. It began at the bottom, not the top. It did not wait for sweeping political change inspired by charismatic leaders. It measured its affirmations and renewed its commitment one person, one situation, at a time.

This notion of praxis galvanized my own work in the disability rights movement. I was part of a small but dedicated group of blind and visually impaired people who were committed to expanding the equality and quality of life for all people with disabilities. We organized a statewide public information campaign to place disability issues on the political agenda in the 1988 elections. We built on that work to organize grassroots lobbying support for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the first comprehensive law guaranteeing civil rights to people with disabilities. When I went to the White House on July 26, 1990 to attend the ADA signing ceremony, after passing through the security checks and metal detectors, I savored the irony of it. Praxis, a humble political philosophy learned from Latin American radicals whom official Washington would scarcely notice or sanction, is what brought me there.

Disability & Culture

Now I am middle-aged and middle-class — a parent, a home-owner, a university administrator. The label “oppressed” fits me even less now than before. And yet, re-reading Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I find another affirmation that runs deeper than ideology or political activism. It is an affirmation of the role of disability in culture. Freire’s work provides a framework for understanding both the alienation and the humanity to be found in the existential experience of having a disability. As cultural experience, disability is ripe for Freire’s process of critical investigation, and it presents possibilities for human transformation. Reading Freire this time, I come to understand that disability is my praxis.

Freire defines praxis as a continual process of reflection-action, and thus it is a way of being and acting in the world. Reflection is the critical perception needed to unveil the oppression and alienation present in society. Action arises from critical perception and seeks to transform conditions of oppression and alienation. Praxis is an incomplete, flawed process, however, if either reflection or action dominates the other. Reflection without action is mere ideology. Action not grounded in critical perception is wasted effort, or worse, it risks perpetrating the violence and domination of oppressors. Embracing both reflection and action, praxis becomes what Freire calls a true word. “To exist, humanly, is to name the world, to change it,” he says. “Once named, the world in its turn reappears to the namers as a problem and requires of them a new naming. Human beings are not built in silence, but in word, in work, in action-reflection” (p. 69).

Freire’s notion of praxis is rooted in an anthropological, not an ideological, view of human existence. Humanization, the struggle for human completion, is the “vocation” or purpose of human beings. Oppression limits or distorts the struggle to become more fully human. Recognizing one’s incompleteness as a human being cannot be separated from struggling to become more fully human. This recognition is a necessary first step in the struggle; it is not an admission of being less than human. It enables a person with a disability to affirm his or her humanity.

The dominant view of disability in our society tends to deny that humanity. It views the disabled person’s incompleteness as a deficit that must be corrected by the intervention of others. It adopts the subject-object relationship that characterizes Freire’s banking concept in education: “the teacher is the Subject of the learning process, while the pupils are mere objects” (p. 54). In the rehabilitation process, the subject is a doctor, a counselor, or a teacher who corrects the disability by adapting it to the world. The object is the person with a disability. Object status is reinforced when “person” is dropped and he or she is identified as “the disabled” or “the blind.” It is the incompleteness of the disabled person, certainly not the incompleteness or inflexibility of the world, which is acted upon. The disabled person adapts but does not presume to transform the world to make it more accommodating.

This paternalistic view emphasizes protecting disabled people as weak or disadvantaged members of society. Such a view seldom recognizes that it really protects society’s interests in efficiency, orderliness, and the fiscal bottom line. It prescribes corrections for overcoming a disability. It devalues, if it recognizes at all, the adaptations and accommodations made by disabled people themselves.

Freire insists that liberation cannot be achieved through prescription; the oppressed must be their own examples in the struggle for human completion. Those who would join the oppressed in their struggle must trust them, must have faith in the ability of oppressed people to change their world. “A real humanist can be identified more by his trust in the people, which engages him in their struggle, than by a thousand actions in their favor without that trust” (p. 42).

Freire’s anthropological view of human existence challenges elite notions of culture. To Freire, culture is not limited to what privileged people think, say, and do, to what they buy and sell. Culture exists in the ability of every human being to change his or her world. In Empowering Education, Ira Shor summarizes Freire’s view thus: “all people had culture, made culture, and had the power to remake the culture they already possessed and were continually reproducing” (pp. 59-60).

“The human power to make and remake culture” (Shor, p. 59) has profound meaning for disability as cultural production. This culture is not enshrined in canonical texts, although certain heroes of the literary canon embodied it (I think of Homer, Milton, Jorge Luis Borges, and James Joyce). It is not limited to the use of one or another discrete language, although it has produced rich languages such as American Sign Language. It is not limited by race, gender, class, or ethnic origin, and thus it represents one of the most democratic of human possibilities. Disability embraces the human power to adapt and accommodate, to make and remake ways of living to meet diverse needs and capabilities. Adaptations and accommodations are significant cultural products; making them and negotiating them are the praxis of everyday life for people who have disabilities.

The peasants and urban workers in Freire’s literacy classes did not perceive, initially, that they could make and remake culture. Most people with disabilities do not perceive their everyday lives as culture, either. This results from their alienation from themselves, a consequence of the power of dominant cultures to subordinate those who are different, who are marginal, who do not conform. “One of the greatest obstacles to the achievement of liberation is that oppressive reality absorbs those within it and thereby acts to submerge human beings’ consciousness,” Freire says (p. 33). In a gloss on this statement, Freire quotes Jose Luiz Fiori, who explains that “the structure of domination is maintained by its own mechanical and unconscious functionality” (p. 33). In a culture whose unconscious functionality strives for speed, efficiency, and profit margins, those who function with different abilities tend to get in the way.

Disabled people are told in many different ways that they do not fit in the mainstream of society. Their existential experiences are statistically insignificant because they are not the human norm. Their needs are a burden to society. In this telling lies their oppression. In their believing lies their alienation. If they internalize their incompleteness as stigma, they cut themselves off from their humanity. They become so submerged in the values and norms of the dominant culture that they cannot see their ability, their human agency, to transform it.

Limit Situations & Limit Acts

An individual’s disability, and the values and norms of the dominant culture, constitute what Freire calls a limit situation. Because humans are conscious beings, they “exist in a dialectical relationship between the determination of limits and their own freedom,” Freire explains

Once perceived by individuals as fetters, as obstacles to their liberation, these situations stand out in relief from the background, revealing their true nature as concrete historical dimensions of a true reality. Men and women respond to the challenge with actions… ‘limit-acts’: those directed at negating and overcoming, rather than passively accepting the “given.” (p. 80)

It is the perception of the limit situation, and not the situation itself, that leads people to respond either with hopelessness or transformative action. Such action, grounded in critical perception, is praxis.

Freire developed a process for critical perception of limit situations that appear to be “dense, impenetrable, and enveloping” to those submerged in the situation (p. 86). His critical analysis involves coding and decoding the existential situation. Coding the situation means breaking it down into individual elements that can be organized in abstract categories. Decoding proceeds by analyzing how the individual coded elements interact and are interdependent within the totality of the concrete situation. This process of critical thinking moves from the whole to its parts and back to the whole, from the concrete to the abstract and back to the concrete. It can result in a new, critical perception of the existential situation. “It is thus possible to explain conceptually why individuals begin to behave differently with regard to objective reality, once that reality has ceased to look like a blind alley and has taken on its true aspect: a challenge which human beings must meet” (pp. 86-87).

Book cover of Shirley Brice Heath's "Ways With Words"To illustrate Freire’s process of critical thinking, I will examine a limit situation that is an everyday consequence of my visual disability: gaining access to a printed text. I want to read Shirley Brice Heath’s Ways with Words, an ethnographic study of literacy in communities that some would label as a residually oral culture or one with restricted literacy. Many paths lead me to this book. I have read several of Heath’s earlier essays, and I sense that her methods and findings can help to explain the oral strengths and protean shapes of my own literacy (Heath, 1982). I know that Ways with Words is a necessary book for me. A print copy stands on my shelf, waiting to be read. At 421 pages, the text remains mostly elusive, dense, and impenetrable to my eyes.

Table 1 represents coding of elements in my limit situation. The coding illustrates how reading a book is a complex process for me. My blindness limits the opportunities and efficiency of my literacy, but factors beyond my individual disability also restrict it. My literacy is multi-textured, involving shifting strategies that use visual, oral-aural, and computer modes of communication. These strategies are limit-acts, to use Freire’s term. They involve adaptations and accommodations that I have produced or negotiated over twenty years of living with my disability. As such, they are cultural products. They represent the praxis of my everyday life.

A full critical analysis of this limit situation is beyond the scope of this essay. I will discuss just two of its coded categories, the social and the political. My literacy is a social process requiring the direct and indirect involvement of many people. It runs against the grain of the dominant view of literacy and schooling, which privileges silent reading, solo writing, individual intellectual effort, and the efficient transfer of knowledge. I need other people to maintain and expand my literacy, and my struggle for a literacy without limits cannot be waged alone. Significantly, the ideal limit-act in my utopia is the simplest: finding one other person who wants to read the book.

The concept of negotiating reasonable accommodations underscores the political dimension of living with a disability. The university provides reasonable accommodations to disabled students by recording textbooks for them. However, only books required on a teacher’s syllabus are recorded, and the student is responsible for gaining access to all texts needed beyond the syllabus. This policy reflects practical, economic considerations, but it also sets limits in the politics of knowledge: teacher-centered learning is accommodated, student-centered learning is not.

Similarly, access to electronic information by blind computer users is not only a technological problem, but a political one. Almost every book published today exists as computer text sometime during its production. Computer texts would dramatically increase the accessibility of books to blind readers. However, the development of electronic texts is driven by corporate profit motives, not accessibility for people with disabilities.

In each of these political situations, disabled and nondisabled people are negotiating the terms of reasonable accommodation. I am negotiating with the university about reading Ways with Words, and the result may set a precedent for recording other books needed by students. Blind computer users nationwide are negotiating with publishers and computer companies to gain wider access to the Internet.


The possibility of transforming the limit situations faced by disabled people does not depend on the charity or good intentions of others. That possibility resides in the authority of written laws enacted through democratic processes, laws that nonetheless must be interpreted and implemented in everyday life. This is a social, a political, a cultural process. It requires critical perception and political action. It requires dialogues that can forge new social relationships between disabled and nondisabled people. Adaptation and accommodation, improvisation and social flexibility — these processes represent creative work and cultural production. These processes are ever becoming my true word  and praxis.

Table 1

Coding a Limit Situation (ca. 1995): How does a visually impaired reader gain access to Shirley Brice Heath’s book, Ways with Words?

Category Coded Element
Physical – I own a print copy of the book.
– An audio recording of the book is not yet available.
– Using a closed-circuit television system (CCTV), I can enlarge the print 90x to see it. Reading a book this way necessitates cutting off its binding, so the device can be focused on uniformly flat pages of text.
– An electronic (computer text) version of the book is not yet available. I have a computer that enables me to read such texts.
– Unlike a book or an audio recording, the CCTV and computer are not portable. Reading with them happens in only one place.
Social – A “live” reader could read the book aloud to me. We would have to be in the same place at the same time. We could re-read passages that are not clear. Reading together would likely prompt a dialogue about the book’s meaning.
– An audio recording of the book may involve one or more readers reading it aloud to a tape recorder. I can re-wind tape to listen again to unclear passages, but I cannot ask the reader for clarification. My interpretation of the reader’s interpretation will not be compared in a dialogue.
Institutional – The university’s disability services office tapes books for students.
– Recordings for the Blind will tape the book if I provide them with two copies, which will not be returned.
– I can request that the Library of Congress Talking Book program record the book, but there is no guarantee they will.
Time – I can read print with a CCTV about half an hour a day. Reading this way is so slow that I question my comprehension of the text as a whole.
– Reading the book with a “live” reader means that two people spend as much time, or more, as a person reading alone.
– Recordings for the Blind may take a year to record the book.
– Library of Congress recordings of popular best-sellers are available about two years after print publication.
Economic – A paperbound copy of the book costs $24.95; hardbound, $79.95.
– The university pays college students $4.25 an hour to record books for disabled students. The recordings are available free on a library-loan basis.
– I pay another college student $4.25 an hour for personal reader services in the library.
– Recordings for the Blind uses volunteers to tape books for disabled students. The recordings are available free on a library-loan basis.
– The Library of Congress, which has the highest standards for recorded books, hires professional actors and readers. The recordings are available free on a library-loan basis.
– A budget-balancing Congress could cut the Library of Congress program as a wasteful frill for a special-interest group.
– Commercial publishers have been reluctant to make books available to blind readers in electronic formats because of copyright concerns. Cost/minute on-line services are the most profitable way to publish electronic texts.
Political – The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 require reasonable accommodations in certain circumstances for people with disabilities.
– The university provides taped books as a reasonable accommodation. According to the current policy, only books that are required on the teacher’s syllabus are recorded. “Outside” readings selected by the student are not recorded.
– Blind computer users are using moral suasion and the threat of litigation to lobby the computer industry to ensure that graphical user interfaces (GUI’s) are accessible to those who cannot see a computer screen.
Utopia – I will find a colleague with a similar interest in literacy and we will read the book together.
– An electronic version of the book will be published at an affordable price. It will have key-word indexing and other search capabilities. It will include hypertext files of some of the recorded ethnographic data to illustrate the protean shapes of oral and literate modes. The electronic text will be fully accessible to blind computer users.

Works Cited

Freire, Paulo. (1993). Pedagogy of the Oppressed (new revised 20th anniversary edition). New York: Continuum.

Heath, S. B. (1982). Protean shapes in literacy events: Ever-shifting oral and literate traditions. In D. Tannen (Ed.), Spoken and written language: Exploring orality and literacy (pp. 91-117). Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Shor, Ira. (1992). Empowering education: Critical teaching for social change. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[See other versions: 1995 | 2009 revision]

– The university’s disability services office tapes books for students.
– Recordings for the Blind will tape the book if I provide them with two copies, which will not be returned.
– I can request that the Library of Congress Talking Book program record the book, but there is no guarantee they will.

3 Responses to Disability as Praxis

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