As a person with cerebral palsy, I know that representation matters. More specifically, the right kind of representation, or lack of it, matters. Nuanced and accurate representation benefits everyone, because it provides intricate knowledge and understanding of different perspectives, needs, and desires to minorities and dominant groups. Such representation empowers minorities, including people with disabilities (PWD). It creates opportunities for minorities to be visible, to fully participate in society. Having input and control over representation is power because it allows groups to define themselves and counter inaccurate and harmful depictions.

The education system has an indelible influence in society because the formative years are shaped by schooling. Generations of students internalise representations, behaviour, and ideologies which are carried into adulthood. Over time, what is taught to today’s students becomes part of tomorrow’s ideologies, traditions, and practices. It becomes part of the social fabric.

The richness and diversity of disabled lives and perspectives should be more visible within the general school curriculum. To this end arious conceptions of disability could be explored so that teachers and students come to a better understanding and appreciation of different disabilities, and difference in general.

Disability Studies offers useful tools to help teachers and students build on their understanding of disability and be allies to the disabled community.

Read on to find out why this is important, and how educators can contribute to respectful, realistic, and nuanced understanding and representation of disability and related issues.

 Why Teach About Ableism and the Social Model of Disability?

Spending time teaching about disability is worthwhile for the following reasons:

  • According to recent statistics, around 1 billion people or 15% of the world’s population have some form of disability. Around one fifth of that number (between 110 million and 190 million people), experience significant disability. A 2020 report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare indicates that around 4.4 million or one in six Australians has a disability. PWD are the largest minority group in the world, and it is the only one you can become part of at a moment’s notice through illness or injury.
  • The likelihood of disability increases with age, and the more knowledge you have about it, the more successfully you are prepared to navigate it when you encounter it in yourself, friends, family, or students.
  • When I was at school, there were no classes which encouraged me to take pride in my identity as a disabled person. I was not introduced to the concept of ableism or discrimination against the disabled, but I felt its corrosive impact in my day-to-day life. I was frustrated by people who patted me on the head, congratulated me for non-achievements (like going out to dinner with friends), or who were condescending and doubtful of my capabilities before taking the time to know me. I just didn’t have the language or understanding to articulate it.

It would be helpful for disabled students to discuss these incidents with their disabled peers who experience similar interactions and come up with tactics to counter these perceptions and turn them on their head. It’s crucial to facilitate sharing experiences if students with disability are comfortable, so everyone can understand why they are problematic. Having your concerns and experiences acknowledged is empowering, while sweeping them under the carpet means we can’t learn from them.

It’s important for non-disabled students to understand the barriers disabled people face. Accommodating the needs of disabled people shouldn’t be seen as an afterthought, rather necessary. Presuming competence when meeting disabled people is an attitude that should be taught and reinforced in schools.

  • A 2019 study conducted by the Council on Quality and Leadership indicated that most people have some prejudice against disabled people. Out of a sample of 35,000 people, only 29% were pronounced low-prejudiced, while the rest exhibited higher degrees of ableism or prejudice.

However, this doesn’t mean many were overtly hostile, consciously biased, or intentionally sought to harm disabled people. The majority of prejudiced people were revealed to be aversive ableists. They had low explicit but high implicit prejudice. On the other hand truly low prejudiced people scored low on both implicit and explicit bias scales.

Ableism is the pervasive, harmful and normalised exclusion of disability. It can be played out in overt, subtle, intentional, or unintentional ways on a personal or systemic level. Failure to provide wheelchair access, Braille, or other requirements for PWD in buildings or at events is an example of systemic ableism.

Assuming PWDs are unable to answer for themselves, and asking other people what they would like to eat or drink, is an example of personal ableism. There is also internalised ableism, which may cause disabled individuals to compare themselves to those without disabilities. This leads them to conclude that their body is flawed and abnormal. Thus it needs to be fixed.

The assumption that nondisabled bodies are the standard, and that disabled ones are inferior is the core of ableism and the medical model of disability. A Disability Studies lens rejects this perspective, arguing that it is the inherent ableism in society that creates barriers for PWD, putting obstacles in their path to full participation and fulfilment of potential. This perspective is useful because it shifts the onus from the individual to measure up and fit in. The responsibility is on society to accommodate PWD instead of vice versa.

Discussing Disability: Advice and Suggestions for Teachers

So how can teachers and schools make disability more visible in the curriculum in ways that reduce prejudice and focus on what PWD bring to the table? It would be great if schools could devote some time to studying the experiences of PWD, the disability rights movement and disability theory. An alternative is to focus on disability perspectives in other subjects.

Here are a few ways to make disability visible in your classroom:

  • Teach basic, accurate information about common physical, intellectual, and cognitive conditions. It’s important to recognise that every person’s experience of disability is unique and doesn’t entitle them to speak for every person with that condition.
  • Privilege stories that centre authentic experiences and accounts from PWD. The opinions of carers and non-disabled family members must come second.
  • Reject the ableist narrative of “inspiration porn,” a term coined by late Australian disability activist Stella Young. Ever seen those cringeworthy posters with a cute kid playing or painting with their foot? These are problematic because there is the underlying assumption that having a disability is a tragic sob story – that disabled people are to be pitied, particularly when it is accompanied by a caption which reads “When you don’t succeed, try again” or “The only disability in life is a bad attitude.”

The underlying message is that no matter how bad your life is, it still beats having a disability. There is also the implicit assumption that disabled people can overcome their conditions. Everyone has limitations. It’s great to be disabled and proud! Although being able-bodied has some undeniable advantages, it isn’t everything.

  • Shine a light on influential historical figures with disability.
  • Deconstruct texts with problematic messages or ableist language. This will sharpen students’ ability to think critically and question narratives, particularly as they enter high school.
  • Focus on the unsung heroes of the disabled civil rights movement. For example, most high schoolers learn about Woodstock and its cultural impact but few learn about Camp Jened, an alternative camp organised by PWD for PWD, which rejected institutionalisation of people with disabilities. Campers organised protests in a bid for social change, freedom, and equality for disabled Americans.
  • Other activists include Stella Young and Graeme Innis, as well as Americans Evan Kemp and Mike Ervin who formed the Jerry’s Orphans group to protest the excruciatingly ableist MDA telethon in the US.
  • Finally, ask students to be respectful but not intrusive when asking questions if they are curious. As a general rule, it’s good to get to know the person first, as many people don’t feel comfortable discussing medical history with strangers.

In Conclusion

People fear what they don’t understand. Familiarising children with the lives of PWD and the issues the disabled community faces destigmatises disability in a society dominated by non-disabled people. Teach young people how to interact with PWD. Enabling them to see disability as a part of life goes a long way to removing fear and reluctance in getting to know disabled people as people, rather than just somebody marked by difference. Asking students to recognise and question inaccurate, damaging ableist assumptions is part of developing tolerance and understanding how prejudice works.

This is the first step towards creating a society which is more accessible to and accommodating of atypical, neurodivergent bodies.


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About the Author

PhD in European Languages and Cultures