The Teacher’s Guide to Combating Classroom Ableism

Ableism, or discriminating against people with learning and living challenges, is a deep-rooted construct that has long undermined people.

Many school systems may be unknowingly promoting albelism and making it more difficult for students with physical and neurological differences to succeed. 

Learning to identify and reduce instances of ableism in the classroom is one of the most important things today’s teachers can do to promote more equal class environments. 

How to Identify Albelism and Why it Matters

Identifying ableism — and what it looks like in the classroom — is the first step in preventing it. 

As the organization Stop Ableism writes, ableist environments and societies are those in which approach able-bodied people are perceived as a normal standard. Consequently, people who deviate from that norm are excluded from having an optimal experience when accessing essential services, including education. The types of struggles faced by people who live with challenges can be physical or systemic in nature, yet barriers can also be created by the beliefs and attitudes of people around them.

Educators who understand and work to stop ableism help to also stop gatekeeper ableism in their school. Gatekeeper ableism is when a person or institution could make changes to accomodate people with physical or mental challenges, yet chooses not to, as writer Holly Smith points out. While such gatekeeping can be difficult to recognize in a school setting, it’s important to understand that teachers are making accommodations for students all day long, and that many accommodations are in fact a necessity by law for schools that receive federal funding. 

“Within the school environment, accommodations are the rule, not the exception,” Smith explains. “The teacher who moves a child from a cold, drafty window is making an accommodation. The playground aide who keeps an extra eye on a bullied child is making an accommodation.” 

This perspective is important for overcoming a gatekeeper mentality. It demonstrates that there’s no reason why students with learning challenges shouldn’t be accommodated.

Another reason it’s important to address ableism is because it hurts even able-bodied people. Living and learning alongside classmates from different backgrounds and with different abilities can be enriching in multiple ways, explains Lyndie Walker, co-founder and director of clinical services at Toneworks Music Therapy. Increasing your students’ understanding of different abilities is important for ensuring everyone has a positive learning experience. 

“Accessibility should be a priority of any organization that seeks to offer positive experiences for people, regardless of their ability level,” Walker adds. 

classroom ableism

Understand Diagnosis and Context

Teachers who seek to create positive experiences for every student in their classroom need to first understand the ways in which each student is challenged — and how to accommodate them. 

As the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) writes, teachers need to collaborate with parents and student aides to understand how a student is challenged physically or mentally. Such information is essential for offering instruction that allows the student to perform at their highest level.

The ASCD also points out that educators must work with families to ensure they’re minimizing the impact of the student’s disability in complementary ways. For example, if a family is teaching a student in home economics how to cook, special education resources shouldn’t also be teaching the same thing. This extracurricular time could be better spent teaching the student how to play an instrument or make art.

Another way teachers can better accommodate students with learning challenges is to understand how instruction can be adapted. Parent Center Hub says that modifications can be made both to the material that is being taught and to how it is administered. Examples of modifications include giving the student more time to complete the assignment, putting them in a small group with others, providing an audio version of the lecture or allowing answers to questions to be given orally.

Use Inclusive Educational Content

Able-bodied students are accustomed to learning materials and depictions of characters that represent them. This isn’t the case for students with learning challenges, however. Teachers can do their part to choose more inclusive educational content that embraces people with disabilities, says Keith Storey at Preventing School Failure. 

One simple yet meaningful way to do this is to host educational events that celebrate the contributions and creations of people with mental and physical challenges, especially those from multicultural backgrounds. For example, a school could host disabled individuals who work as activists against ableism, suggests author Kira Rakova

“For disabled students and those with mental illnesses, being able to hear about others’ experiences can be incredibly validating and empowering,” Rakova writes. “It is a reminder that they are not alone. For able-bodied and neurotypical students, understanding real experiences of disability and mental illness helps dismantle stereotypes and combat stigma.”

Another idea is to host events that cater specifically to the needs and interests of students with neurological differences. For example, The Musical Autist hosts sensory-friendly concerts for Baltimore students that meet this criteria. These concerts are designed to optimize the experience by providing a range of accommodations, including the ability to use noise-reducing headphones, play with foam blocks or sit in a quiet room next to the concert hall. Students are also encouraged to get out of their seat and come close to the stage, or to sit beneath the piano.

“Credentialed music therapists and other trained volunteers help to facilitate these musical interactions so that family members and caregivers can relax and enjoy the performances,” says The Musical Autist.

classroom ableism

Resources for Teaching Acceptance

Using dedicated resources that teach students what ableism is can also help combat the systemic nature of such discrimination. 

Teaching Tolerance has lesson plans available for introducing the concept of ableism to students. Such lessons will cover important aspects of ableism including how to talk about physical disabilities, how to identify movements for equity, and how to get students to think about their own experiences and knowledge with the subject matter. 

Definitions, terms and concepts can also be taught using resources from the National Conference for Community and Justice. This bulletin includes a history of ableism and how it has been perpetuated, in addition to videos and handouts to enhance classroom learning. 

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) also offers resources for teachers who want to help students not only understand ableism, but reflect on specific examples of it in everyday life. 

When teachers and students collectively work together to learn why ableism is wrong, they can effectively implement change and take action toward a more accepting world.

Images by: Wavebreak Media Ltd/©, Wavebreak Media Ltd/©, auremar/©

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