Poverty as Disability and the Future of Special Education Law

72 Pages Posted: 26 Sep 2012 Last revised: 2 Oct 2012

See all articles by James E. Ryan

James E. Ryan

Harvard University - Harvard Graduate School of Education

Date Written: October 1, 2012


Special education law relies on certain assumptions regarding brain development, function, and dysfunction. Recent neuroscience research suggests that some of those assumptions are open to serious question. This Article, which is part of a broader project that uses neuroscience research to critique special education law, focuses on one of those assumptions: that learning disabilities are innate. The definition of learning disabilities in special education law thus excludes from eligibility students whose learning problems are due to “economic disadvantage,” reflecting the belief that poverty is purely an external factor that diminishes the motivation or opportunity of poor students to learn.

Neuroscience research, however, suggests that the conditions associated with poverty can have internal, physical effects on the brain. Growing up in poverty, in short, can alter how a child’s brain develops and functions. The sharp distinction in the law between internal disorders and external circumstances thus appears increasingly untenable. The Article goes on to explore the implications of this and other findings from neuroscience for the future of special education law.

Suggested Citation

Ryan, James E., Poverty as Disability and the Future of Special Education Law (October 1, 2012). Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 101, 2013, Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2012-63, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2152557

James E. Ryan (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Harvard Graduate School of Education ( email )

6 Appian Way
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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