Ana, a typical third-grader, is the preferred playmate of her autistic classmate, Jeni. Ana does her best to include Jeni—she invites her to climb on the playground equipment with her, to play “house,” and to join in the basketball game on the blacktop. But Ana does not always understand Jeni. Sometimes Jeni flaps her arms and does not respond to Ana’s attempts at conversation, and Ana wants to know why. One day as Ana takes Jeni’s hand to walk to the swings, a curious Ana asks Jeni: “Do you have autism?” Ms. Thomas, overhearing the question, quickly takes a few steps towards Ana. Towering over her, the teacher reprimands Ana. “Mind your own business,” she tells Ana, who slinks away, confused and ashamed.

The interaction between Ana, Jeni, and Ms. Thomas is not fictional; a colleague of mine relayed the incident to me. And sadly, moments like these—in which teachers send harmful messages to both disabled and non-disabled students—are far too frequent in our schools. As more students with disabilities are included in general education, teachers struggle to embrace an inclusive mindset and to put inclusive pedagogies into practice.

Even those of us who claim to be multicultural educators find ourselves disquieted by disabilities in our classrooms and our schools. We lack the language to talk about disability, even among ourselves, and we are often uninformed about what role, if any, disability should have in our curriculum. We are learning to teach culture, ethnicity, race, gender, and sexuality, but teaching disability remains the oft-ignored identity pedagogy. While disabled students leave substantially separate classrooms ready for general education, the truth is, we in general education are not prepared for them.

But we can become ready. As educators familiar with culturally responsive teaching, we can intersect what we know about teaching power and privilege with inclusive education. In fact, the intersection of culturally responsive teaching with inclusive education provides us with three pedagogical practices that can transform our classrooms.

Framework #1: Representing Multiple Disabled Identities in our Schools and Classrooms

There are many ways to be disabled, just as there are many ways to be black, queer, or Latinix. Disabilities can be physical, emotional, sensory, mental, intellectual, developmental, communicative, health-related, or neurological. In some people, a disabled identity is an intersection of multiple disabilities, which can then, of course, intersect with other identities—race and socio-economic class, for example—to position a disabled person with overlapping experiences of both oppression and privilege. What is important here is for us teachers to recognize that disability is not a condition; it is an identity. As such, our classrooms can become safe spaces for our disabled students to grow and embrace those identities, and for our abled students to learn to name a disabled identity and celebrate it, too.

Culturally responsive teaching tells us that students learn best when their experiences are represented in the classroom. To start, we need to use the word “disability”—and be able to name disabilities—and encourage our students to do so, too. In the 1980s, “person-first” language began a movement to affirm the agency of people with disabilities. Instead of calling a person “autistic,” for example, the movement affirmed that people had autism, as in “a child with autism.” Over time, however, the person-first language movement dissolved into a fixed rule usually wielded by non-disabled people to ignore how different disabled people might want to be named. In response, disability advocates and scholars are re-claiming disability-first language, and the word “disabled” itself. For some folks, calling themselves “autistic” or a “cripple” or “disabled” is an empowering exercise of identity. In the classroom, then, we can teach our students to ask their disabled peers how they would like to be identified, and practice naming—not hushing—disability talk when our students engage in it.

For our disabled students to be represented in our classrooms, we need to move beyond naming and beyond the un-silencing of our students’ questions. Our curriculum—both explicit (what we plan to teach) and hidden (what we show via representation and omission)—must include multiple representations of disability. These must go beyond the token “kid in a wheelchair” and represent disability intersecting with other kinds of identity beyond white and middle- or upper-class. From the books we choose to include on our shelves and in our curriculum, to the images of children and teens we display on our walls, to the historical movements for civil rights we teach our students—we need to represent disabled people, too, as diverse.

Framework #2: Teaching Disabled Identities as Socially Constructed

In keeping with what we know about other kinds of identities, disabled identities, too, are socially constructed. Whether a person’s disabilities are visible to the public or not, disabilities are located not in the individual, but in the environment. A person is disabled not because of a diagnosis, but because the society in which the person lives marginalizes, catastrophizes, pities, and refuses to accommodate their differences. On the one hand, society loves “disability porn” (stories of people with disabilities as superhuman, extraordinary, or inspirational); on the other hand, debates about the “value” of disabled lives (their right to live or to gain a life-saving procedure or transplant) continue. Our society thus fluctuates from positioning people with disabilities as superhuman heroes or as suffering victims—both narratives, of course, locating disability as a medical condition deserving of either adulation or pity.

Instead, we need to position people with disabilities as socially located and socially engaged in removing the social barriers that oppress them. Alongside Civil Rights history, we can teach our students about the independent living movement, the 504 Sit-In of 1977, the Deaf President Now protest at Gallaudet University in 1988, and the more current #CriptheVote movement. Students can learn the history of our changing laws around disability access, wages, community living, and work—and understand that the disabled work tirelessly to change laws, policies, and public perception. Our students can learn that disabled people are lawmakers, military veterans, athletes, and scholars. The goal is for our students to understand that disabled folks do not need pity nor to be objects of so-called inspiration; they are autonomous, engaged, effective social activists from whom we can model our own efforts for social justice.

In schools, the social construction of disability calls our attention to how our school environments, too, exclude disabled students, teachers, staff, and parents. Even the term “special education” implies that the needs of the disabled are beyond the norm. But I have yet to meet a disabled student who needs anything different than their peers; disabled students, too, need food, water, access to the classroom, a means to communicate with their teachers and peers, healthy peer relationships, and a challenging and meaningful curriculum. That meeting those everyday needs requires extra effort and creative thinking from us, their teachers, does not make those needs “special.” If anything, the needs of disabled students help us to de-center ableness and to plan all of our lessons, from the start, with diversity in mind.

Thus, the question for us is not, How do we remediate or therapize this student so that they can be successful? Instead, the question becomes, How do we change the students’ environments so they can be successful? In inclusive education, we acknowledge that designing our classrooms and curricula to be more responsive to one student benefits all of our students. For example, we can provide flexible seating options, use audio-enhanced technology so that all of our students can better hear us, facilitate movement or stretch breaks even in our high school block periods, or provide curricular choices for students (via Learning Menus, Literature Circles, or other cooperative learning strategies) within a single lesson. The social construction of disability means that it is our classrooms, not our disabled students, who need to change.

Framework #3: Working with Students to Dismantle Ableism In and Out of school

Finally, an intersection of culturally responsive teaching and inclusive education encourages us to engage our students in dismantling ableism in and out of school. Ableism is the centering of the non-disabled in all aspects of life (including our mindsets); we can work with our students to identify examples of ableism in our schools and in our communities, and then help them to become allies to disabled students by working cooperatively for change.

Dismantling ableism begins, of all things, with curiosity. Ana, the third-grader who inquired if her playmate was autistic, demonstrates for us a responsible, activist approach to ableism; it is her curiosity that attempted, through a caring inquiry, to dismantle her own assumptions and mindset. Unlike Ms. Thomas, we need to encourage, not silence, such curiosity, and to allow students with disabilities to name their disabilities as they choose. When appropriate, we can help to facilitate these kinds of open and curious conversations.

Some of my own non-profit work in our school district has involved educating parents and students about how to talk about disabilities. One of the first things I tell them is to be openly curious. I have yet to meet a disabled person who prefers a parent or teacher to hush a child’s question; the disabled people I know (myself included) would much rather be asked, and have an opportunity to identify with and teach disability. Silence excludes the disabled; curiosity draws the disabled into the conversation and positions the abled as a learner. This dismantles ableism because such an exchange centers disability and teaches our students a valuable lesson: We talk with the disabled, not about them.

Of course, it is not the responsibility of the disabled to teach us how we are ableist, or how to dismantle our own ableism and the ableism we find in society. It is our responsibility—as educators and human beings—to learn our biases and challenge them. And so we can ask our students to identify ableism in school; they can be encouraged to recognize their own ableist behaviors (for example, how they use “baby talk” to talk to their disabled peers or their use of words like “retard” in conversation). They can launch campaigns like Spread the Word: Inclusion or advocate for their schools to partner with Special Olympics Unified Teams to begin inclusive school sports. They can look for structures within the school that are exclusionary—whether these are doorway thresholds that some students with physical disabilities cannot navigate or school assemblies that overwhelm students with sensory disabilities. Our students can be encouraged to seek out solutions within the broader disabled community, and to advocate for, or implement them, in their own schools. We can also teach students to speak up when they see a person with disabilities being mistreated or ignored; students can write and role-play what they would say in situations of bullying or abuse. And we can do the same; for example, in any meeting we attend in which a microphone is an option, we can speak up and ask the speaker to use it as a way of meeting the diverse auditory needs of everyone in the room.  

Most importantly, we can find ways for our schools to create genuinely inclusive opportunities for typical and disabled students to work cooperatively. Too often in our classrooms, our abled students are asked to “help” our disabled students; this often leads to a lack of equal friendships for our disabled students. Instead, our typical students should be discouraged from trying to help us with disabled students—non-disabled students are not special education teachers nor aides. Instead, we can create opportunities in which disabled and non-disabled students need each other to succeed. Such opportunities could include project-based learning, Maker Spaces, Genius Hours, or social justice projects or fundraisers. Outside the classroom, we can take care to ensure that disabled students and abled students have opportunities to play and to form healthy social relationships.

Culturally responsive teaching adds to inclusive education a lens of power and privilege. Too often, our inclusive efforts in schools are well-intentioned but misguided attempts to welcome disabled students into our limited abled classrooms and mindsets. Thus, our classrooms can look inclusive while we, the non-disabled teachers and students, lack any social or cultural understanding of disability or disability rights. It is no wonder then that when students like Ana become curious about a disability, our immediate reaction is to silence them. As a marginalized community, the disabled deserve our allyship; in the classroom, this means we can lead our students to speak of disability and learn about it, but also, to become disability activists themselves.

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Melissa Winchell, Ed.D., is assistant professor of secondary education at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts, a former urban high school educator, a parent to disabled children, founder of local non-profit Inclusion Matters, and a disabled community activist. Tweet @melissawinchell