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Structural Ableism is a Barrier to Inclusive Classrooms

By Rasheera Dopson

This time last year, I wrote a personal piece entitled “Shh… I can’t hear” about the difficulty I was facing around the hardship of being in graduate school as a deaf and hard of hearing student. Over an 8-month period, I found myself having to advocate for access to accommodations in order to effectively engage in the virtual classroom environment. Although my academic program was compliant in approving the accommodations, the program lacked the empathy in understanding how not having access to closed captions limited my ability to excel academically. The rawness of this piece illustrated my internal struggles as a disabled student advocating for my needs, while also showing how many disabled students because of the COVID-19 pandemic were still silently struggling.

Within the context of the pandemic, a lot of grey areas in my educational journey that I thought had been resolved became problematic. It was my experience in being a graduate student that I realized how deeply structural ableism was embedded into our educational system and how students with disabilities are heirs of these classroom inequities.

In self-identifying as a student with a disability and working within the academic space, I have the unique privilege to add both lived experience and professional observation to this idea and framework of structural ableism. I’ve always liked to mirror the concept of structural ableism to the framework of structural racism—which is a form of racism that is embedded into a system through policy or regulations. Structural ableism works the same way—it serves as a form of ableism that is embedded into an organizational structure or system through policy, law, or regulations.

As a student, I have been able to boldly express what this structural ableism feels like, as well as the many barriers and implicit biases I have personally encountered. However, as a professional, I have wrestled in communicating my firsthand experiences to my colleagues who are often oblivious to the microaggressions people with disabilities face. Oftentimes, these microaggressions and biases are facilitated and manufactured by non-disabled persons who unintentionally hold on to these belief systems due to ignorance. This ignorance is not so much in the form of education but stems from a lack of acumen of the disability experience.

Within traditional settings, disability has been looked upon and constructed from a very limited lens—a service-based and deficient lens that says, “Disability is something that needs to be fixed,” instead of saying, “Disability is a part of the human experience.” Many of us within disability-led spaces are all too familiar with this language and advocate for this belief system to disassociate with the traditional framework of disability. Advocates and allies are consistently pushing back and breaking away from the association of disability from a strictly medical lens and looking to expand disability to a more socially inclusive lens. However, this can be quite difficult when the institutional structure that is set in place to address disability in an academic setting continues to function from a conventional lens.

In looking at the historical overview of how the subbranch of special education came into play, we can look at the federally mandating laws that stemmed from the Brown vs. Board of Education era. From this landmark case, many policies began to fall in place allowing all students within any educational system to have access to a free and public education. Laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Elementary and Secondary Education Act—which has since been amended and renamed Every Child Succeeds Act—have provided provision in which states can follow in ensuring equal education. However, although the government has established access for students with disabilities in the classroom, it is often left up to the community or school system to contextualize what that access looks like.

In being a proponent of the IDEA, I fully support the full inclusion of any student within the educational process—however, my advocacy efforts cannot rest at access. Because, coupled with access, many issues students with disabilities face are not strictly related to physical access. Instead, many of the barriers students with disabilities experience are often invisible. Invisible barriers that can make it difficult for a student with a disability to thrive within the educational environment. I believe these invisible barriers are more damaging and long-lasting, and can undo the efforts that the special education system strives to practice and implement.

So, even though classrooms and institutions are mandated to provide access, resources, and tools for their disabled students, it is the structural ableism that can deter students from experiencing the fair, equal, and humanizing treatment of receiving their education. As a result, this can create an environment of indifference and not inclusion. This can look like classrooms not implementing universal design, to buildings being inaccessible for students with mobile disabilities, to the curriculum lacking inclusive language and representation, to content deliverables being shared in only one way or format, to institutions lacking sensitivity training for faculty and staff in working with students with disabilities, to students with disabilities not having the freedom to disclose their disability status, to students with disabilities not having access to safe spaces for emotional and social support. All of these factors can create invisible barriers for students with disabilities that the language of the law does not implicitly address.

I have personally found that these barriers can especially be seen in the post-secondary educational space, in which students with disabilities are not protected under the IDEA and the burden of inclusion falls upon the student with the disability instead of the institution.

I find myself asking the questions of: What is the resolve? Has the law done enough? Where can we bridge the gap of access and social inclusion? I believe now is the time more than ever to reframe what special education looks like and continue to build a framework that addresses disability in the educational setting from a model that fully submerges the disability experience into the mainstream educational space.

No longer can the special education space be an “other than” problem; it must be engrafted into the full student experience. At the root of ableism is the belief system that individuals with disabilities are separate but not equal, and at the core of special education is the belief system that supports the idea that students with disabilities are separate and not the same as their non-disabled peers. It’s time for integration! It’s time to reframe what separate but equal looks like and merge these student identities into one educational experience.

We can accomplish this by first reframing how disability is perceived in educational, professional, and clinical environments. This can come by way of requiring more educational training and development in the social model of disability for educators and health practitioners, as well as including the lived experiences of disabled individuals in the creation of classroom curriculum. The application of inclusion is not just a notion tailored solely for disabled students but should be a basic principle that brings disabled and non-disabled students together under one classroom experience.


Rasheera Dopson is an author, disability justice activist, researcher, and scholar. She is a health policy intern for AAPD working for the office of U.S. Senator Jon Ossoff and a fellow for the Harvard Public Health Review. Currently, she is pursuing her master’s degree in Public Health at Morehouse School of Medicine, where her specific research areas of focus are exploring the intersectionality of race, gender, and disability. Alongside her academic endeavors, she is also a social entrepreneur. In 2016, she launched the Beauty with a Twist brandan online platform for women and girls with disabilities. Both of Rasheera’s professional and lived experiences in living with a disability and chronic illness have enabled her to speak to audiences around the world.

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