The “A” Word: Let’s Talk About Ableism
When people think about diversity, equity and inclusion, it’s typical to think about race, gender, and ethnicity, rather than disability. There is often a focus placed on topics like racism and sexism, rather than ableism, the discrimination against those with disabilities.
I have attended many higher education classes and professional development programs, taught at several middle schools and high schools and have worked in the curriculum department. The word ableism was never mentioned or discussed.
What is ableism?
Ableism is discrimination and social prejudice directed at people or groups of people with disabilities or those perceived to have disabilities. It is rooted in the belief that non-disabled people, or those without disabilities, are superior.
Ableism is the idea that people with disabilities are inferior to those without disabilities and need “fixing,” isolation or different treatment from their able-bodied counterparts.
Why should we talk about it?
As educators, administrators and parents, it is our duty to know how ableism affects our children. It’s also our responsibility to take action to ensure our children are treated fairly and given the proper resources to receive the best education possible.
Educating about ableism in the classroom
Understanding what ableism is and what it looks like provides our children with a safe and fair classroom environment where they all can feel respected and supported.
What does ableism look like in the classroom?
Ableism can take the form of assumptions, stigmas or beliefs about people with disabilities. It also involves stereotypes, attitudes, practices, environmental barriers (physical and mental), or larger-scale discrimination like refusing disabled people work or schooling opportunities. In the classroom, it is not much different.
Lack of recourse
Ableism can occur through mockery of a student’s disability or even the denial of their request for accommodations, like a ramp into a classroom, additional time on a test or classroom materials.
Lack of consideration
Questioning a student’s disability or need for accommodation is another form of ableism and can make them feel they must prove they need it. Plus, it can cause embarrassment, feelings of inadequacy or isolation.
Lack of courtesy
Not speaking to individuals with disabilities directly, or using others to talk on their behalf, creates a de-individuation of a student and the idea they can’t directly advocate for themselves. Ultimately, this reinforces the idea that the student is different from other (non-disabled) students and is, therefore, inferior.
How does ableism make students with disabilities feel?
In response to their treatment in the classroom or at school by teachers, administrators or other students, children with disabilities may feel:
- Different. When students are treated like they differ from their peers, they will probably internalize that treatment and see themselves as different, making them feel bad about themselves.
- Inferior. Students with disabilities are subject to treatment from a society that wasn’t “built for” them like it was built for non-disabled people. Because of this, students with disabilities may see themselves as “less than” because they require accommodations.
- Disenfranchised. It’s challenging and may even be downright humiliating having to ask for the accommodations in the first place. It’s even more challenging to have those accommodations questioned or, worse, not believed, not taken seriously or not provided.
- Unimportant. As long as we prioritize the learning styles and needs of non-disabled children over children with disabilities, students who are not non-disabled will feel, and may even believe, that they don’t matter, and their needs are not important enough to care about.
Ways to combat ableism in schools
There are many things we can do to foster a safe, equitable schooling environment for our children with disabilities.
- Talk to your child and seek understanding. Aside from knowing the facts of your child’s disability, take the time to talk with them about how their disability affects them specifically and how their schooling environment may make it easier or more difficult to learn and socialize in the classroom. Practice compassion, attentive listening and understanding.
- Be an advocate for your child. Speak with your child’s teacher(s) and any relevant administrators about your child’s needs, especially if they voice concerns or problems in their schooling environment. Work with educators on your child’s behalf to fix these.
- Teach your child to advocate for themselves. Use your acceptance of their disability to teach them to feel the same way about themselves. Teach them it is okay to speak up about their needs, ask for help when needed, and what to do if they feel unheard or as though they are being challenged. This can include inviting you, the parent, into the issue or calling upon a trusted friend or educator to help. Advocating for yourself doesn’t always mean that you do it alone.
- Add disability content to the curriculum and school activities. The more information and awareness about disabilities and ableism, the better chance we have to help everyone understand it. More so, including this information in school activities and lessons will help give voice to students with disabilities.
- Diversify your class library to include books with disability themes. Students will feel better represented when given the voice and space from shared information about their conditions.
- Use role models in your classroom. This will help students with disabilities to feel not only represented but like their disability is no impediment to their future successes in the world.
- Provide resources for all. This is important. There are plenty of resources that can be made available for students with disabilities and in classroom environments to ensure everyone has fair treatment. These resources include, but aren’t limited to:
- test accommodations
- braille transcriptions for students with vision disabilities
- interpreter services for students with hearing disabilities
- desk and accessibility arrangements (such as wheelchair ramps, extra time to move between classes, and note-taking assistance) for students with physical disabilities
- assistive technologies and software to make learning easier for students with disabilities
It’s so important to provide a learning environment that is conducive to the needs of all students, regardless of their physical and mental abilities, so every child can learn and succeed without feeling inferior or unrepresented.