Disability Studies in ABA practice

Filed Under (ABA, Critical Disability Studies) by Estee on 07-10-2012

“The voice of disabled people should be present in both disability studies and applied approaches to disabled people, but the voice should take different form in each. The influence and direction of disabled people should permeate the applied fields. If rehabilitation professionals really believe in self-determination for disabled people, they should practice what they teach by adhering to an active affirmitive action program in their own departments; by adopting the books and essays of disabled people into their curricula; and by demanding that disabled people have an active voice in conference planning and on the platform at conferences. In the liberal-arts active voice, the creative voice, the narrative, can be articulated in the humanities, and in qualitative and intepretative research in the social sciences.” — Simi Linton, Disability Studies/Not Disability Studies, (p. 141-142).

I would like to very briefly discuss the current qualifications of becoming a Board Certified Behavioural Analysis – the practitioners of the most popular therapy for autistic children in Canada which is Applied Behavioural Analysis. It is an excellent topic for further discussions and research into clincial and educational rehabilitation in the field of autism in Canada which support a medico-pedgogical approach that has become problematic for autistic agency.

This from The Insitute for Applied Behavioural Analysis:

DEGREE VERIFICATION: ALL applicants for eligibility to sit for the examination for Board Certified Behavior Analyst MUST attach documentation that they have a graduate level degree (master’s or doctorate level) in behaviour analysis or a related field, as recommended by ONTABA.

An example reading list which is telling of the area of focus is here.

Here is a description of ABA from ABA International Org:

As in other experimental sciences, research is usually classified as basic or applied. In behavior analysis, basic research attempts to identify principles underlying behavior change. For example, basic research may attempt to improve our understanding of reinforcement or shaping.

Applied research attempts to identify effective ways of dealing with behavior problems in schools, clinics, workplaces, and other settings.

Recently, I had a private discussion with someone who is to become a Board Certified Behavioural Analysis who has a personal interest in critical theory and interpretations of disability. This person was having some major difficulty with the attitudes and procedures surrounding the approach and decided to take the interests further. There are a few people in ABA who have endeavoured to study critical interpretations of disability studies for similar reasons. While this individual remains a practitioner, it was conveyed to me that allegedly, a Master’s degree in Critical Disability Studies (or I gather any Liberal Arts studies) will no longer be accepted. (Note that CDS falls under the Faculty of Health at York University, but is a multidiscplinary area of study). Rather degrees in support of the pshyc-sciences are necessary for becoming a BCBA (as they are for other rehabilitative professions). I think it would be an important research direction for someone to examine this further, and to invite those within the field to engage in discussions why a critical study of disability is important to the field of autism education and inclusion and social equity in the same way Simi Linton discusses in the quote I began with in this post.

The criteria for acquiring a BCBA certification is a Masters degree. However, the BCBA programs now direct it’s applicants seemingly away from Critical Disability Studies towards “Applied Disability Studies” in some academic institutions like Brock University.

Linton’s article is titled Critical Disability Studies/Not Disability Studies to highlight areas of difference between the clinical practice/approaches between one where the voices of the disabled are included, not objectified. In thinking about inclusion in making clinical practice better, she says, “feminist scholarship has also turned the entire academic curriculum inside out to reveal the epistemological consequences of the androcentric biases in the knowledge base” (p. 142).

She also highlights the objectification of disabled people through the sciences and that it “can be redressed by developing scholarship from the position of the disabled subject; by developing alternative methodologies to the empiricist approaches that have dominated the study of disability; by developing an active voice in the humanities; and by breaking down stereotypes through the analysis of metaphors, images, and all representations of disability in the academic and popular cultures.” (ibid).

Do ABA practices continue to perpetuate bio-determinist views; to “explain human behaviour and achievement in terms of biology?” (ibid). While I would argue that yes it does, I would also like to suggest ways and open up the discussion with clinical practitioners to not simply objectify the literature, performances, art, and other contributions for analysis, but to consider ways of including both critical interpretations and the inclusion of autistic people as part of our learning and practice, and in shaping the practices that have been so often used on people with autism. I agree with Linton that there are many people in clinical fields working for political change for the disabled, but as she importantly notes, it’s not because of the knowledge acquired from the applied sciences, but from a “personal and moral commitment to improve the lives of disabled people.” (p.148). Futher consideration into multidisciplinary curricula in the area of clinical practice should be discussed. Including autistic people and work is a way towards creating supports that could lead to more effective and supportive methods that also acknowledge autistic challenges, strengths, and inherent civil rights.

Linton, Simi. “Disability Studies/Not Disability Studies” in Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity, pp. 132-156, 1998, New York University Press.


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About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (www.taaproject.com), and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.