Adolescents' perceptions of the sociocultural construct of disability when responding to literature: “Of Mice and Men”

Heather Garrison, Fordham University


The experience of reading is a complex process that involves the transactions, or interactions, between a reader's schema, or prior knowledge, experiences, attitudes, and perceptions, and the concepts presented in the text in an ongoing attempt to negotiate meaning. This descriptive investigation utilized reader response and disability study theories to develop a study that explored the unique ways that adolescent readers developed and articulated their perceptions of the sociocultural construct of disability in literature, and in their own lives, when responding to John Steinbeck's 1937 Of Mice and Men, a novel that is frequently read in high schools and includes portrayals of characters with disabilities that resound with the eugenic sentiments of the era in which it was written. Forty-eight students in three ninth-grade classes completed questionnaires regarding their perceptions and the class discussions regarding their independent reading of the novel were observed and documented via field notes and audiotaping. Data analysis methods included frequency tallies, thematic coding of the adolescents' oral and written statements, and the establishment of inter-rater reliability. A coding protocol was developed to describe the themes that emerged from the data during analysis. Results of this study indicate that adolescent readers are sophisticated users of oral and written language when they respond to narrative text and that their responses can be analyzed in order to examine their perceptions, transactions, and methods of communication. The adolescents in this study used several specific linguistic techniques to indicate a variety of primarily negative perceptions that frequently reflected the medical, charity, and freak models of disability that are explored in disability studies scholarship. The adolescents' perceptions of people with disabilities were influenced by their schema including their gender and level of personal experience with people with disabilities including having prior knowledge of educational practices that segregate by disability. Given the students' acceptance of the novel as historically accurate, and their indications that reading the novel altered and reinforced their pre-existing and primarily negative perceptions about people with disabilities, the findings of this study also attest to the power of narrative text in constructing and perpetuating culture for adolescent readers.

Subject Area

Language arts|Reading instruction|Curriculum development

Recommended Citation

Garrison, Heather, "Adolescents' perceptions of the sociocultural construct of disability when responding to literature: “Of Mice and Men”" (2008). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3302114.