Updated: Jun 23
By Melissa Winchell
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.