5 ways to include disability in equity work

2020 raised our awareness of the yawning gap between the haves and the have-nots. Last year brought not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also an intensification of the public consciousness and the need to recognize, unpack, and take action to remedy the deep racial injustices in our society, particularly those experienced by people of color. Issues of health and oppression are undeniably linked, and COVID-19 further emphasized and perpetuated disparities and attitudes that can be matters of life and death.

Our nation is undergoing a public reckoning, and schools are far from exempt from the need to change from within. Racism and anti-Blackness have deep roots in all our societal structures, very much including education. But as we consider how they’ve shaped students, we must also think about students with disabilities in particular. Data shows our disabled students of color face systemic barriers at far higher rates than their white disabled peers. That proves to me that advocating for disability rights must include addressing the racial divide in our work to support students with disabilities.

Here are the questions I’m asking you to consider, whether you’re a district administrator, school leader, or teacher: When you think about diversity in your school or district and the initiatives to support its increase, do they consider disability? Do you acknowledge racial disparities within the disabled community?

The case for including disability in conversations about race—and vice versa

If we want to truly improve equity in education, we must expand our thinking about what diversity is to include disability—and we must expand our thinking about racism in our work around disabilities—particularly when talking about inclusion, equity, and access to opportunity. Why? Because intersectionality is an important part of equity work. A term first coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, intersectionality refers to the reality that we are not just one thing; that is, that several things, including race and ability, make up our entire identity. As YW Boston explains, we need to consider “people’s overlapping identities and experiences in order to understand the complexity of prejudices they face.”

[A]dvocating for disability rights must include addressing the racial divide in our work to support students with disabilities.

Expanding our thinking is also important because, as Cindy Li says, “We are all just temporarily abled.” Disability, at one point in time or another, will affect all of us.

Just saying the word “disability” can make people uncomfortable. By including disability in our systems-change efforts, by actively naming and defining it and the many barriers people with disabilities—especially those of color—face, we can truly leverage the strength and momentum for equity for all Americans. Here are five things that can help you better understand disability and its place in equity work.

1. Begin by defining “disability”

What does “having a disability” or “being disabled” mean, anyway? I teach a course at The University of Texas at Austin called “Culture of Disability in Education” that begins by asking that simple question. I notice that students often benefit from a chance to work through a range of possible responses to core questions like this one. Here’s a sample exercise you can try, either on your own or with a group.

  • Get out a piece of paper (or a fresh computer screen).
  • Write or type the following prompt: “Disability is…”
  • Set a timer for two minutes.
  • By yourself or with a partner (or a few!), brainstorm 26 ways to complete that prompt, one for each letter of the English alphabet. Remember that there are no right or wrong answers.
  • When the time is up, reflect. What do you notice about your responses?

Typically participants start with answers that are more concrete in nature, such as “hearing aids,” “glasses,” “crutches,” or “wheelchair.” These are physical representations of what disability might look like. Some responses may try to name causes or conditions, such as “diabetes,” “blindness,” “war injuries,” “mental disorder,” or “Down syndrome.” Other responses may be more abstract and refer to emotions, such as “scary,” or a related experience, such as “special education” or “accommodations.” I’ve also seen complex phrases and concepts, such as “expensive,” “advocacy,” “to be avoided,” or “eligible for benefits.”

Whatever that 26-item list looks like, it is a useful starting point for assessing your understanding of disability, either as an individual or a team. Once you know what you’re talking about, it can be easier to decide what, exactly, to do about it.

2. Acknowledge that disability is complex

While on the surface it may seem as if disability is categorical, something that can easily be captured with labels, the reality is that disability rests on a continuum. The exercise I shared is intentionally set up to encourage participants to look beyond the face value of what disability means or familiar ways of grouping and describing disabilities. Especially for those of us in education, it can be easy to default to the diagnostic approach to understanding disability. But disability as a lived experience is so much more nuanced than a categorical approach can capture. More specifically:

  • Disability is variable: Each person experiences disability in a unique way. It’s important to ask and not make assumptions about what someone needs or wants.
  • Disability is contextual: Accessible schools, homes, and workplaces can create or minimize what a disability experience is like.
  • Disability is embedded in culture: Each culture has attitudes and practices surrounding disability that are reflected by policy, decisions around funding, and access.
  • Disability is not neutral: Disability is deeply personal and often tied to strong emotions.

3. Address ableism and language

We are all affected by the values of our society. Ableism is one example of this. Ableism refers to attitudes and behaviors that devalue people with disabilities. The term “ableism” is a more recent addition to our vocabulary about what contributes to our systemic oppression of disabled people.

Ableist phrases, however unintentional they might be, can be found throughout the English language. They often use disability status as a way of putting someone or something down. Consider this example of ableist assumptions from a student’s math test:

Some other common ableist language includes the following words and phrases:

  • Lame
  • Stupid
  • Crazy
  • Psycho
  • Crippled
  • Blind leading the blind
  • Are you deaf?
  • Nuts

As a deaf person, I am sensitive to the misuse of terms related to physical disability, but I still had to work on my own use of these terms. For me, some of the harder ones to avoid are those that use a mental health condition to describe situations that are personally challenging, especially phrases like, “This is driving me crazy” or “That decision is just madness.” It’s an easy out to use those phrases, but my desire to be lazy does not outweigh the need to be mindful of the harm done to others by that language. Not by a long shot.

I encourage you to think about the words and phrases you use, what they really mean, and how they can harm others. Avoiding ableist language—just like avoiding racist language—can be an important step in thinking about disability, equity, and inclusion in your school or district.

4. Keep intersectionality front and center

Across the board, from research to practice, we overlook the differential impact of systemic barriers for disabled students of color. The understanding that one size doesn’t fit all is foundational to work in special education, but we, as a field, are rarely explicit about how this concept applies to intersectional experiences related to race and gender. I encourage you to seek out ways to learn about the differential impact of systemic barriers, through both quantitative data and personal narratives, as suggested by the National Center for Systemic Improvement. Differential impacts of learning and opportunity gaps are lifelong. Consider that deaf people of color, particularly women, earn far less than their white deaf peers.

When looking at research in the field, notice whether or not authors show a breakdown by or acknowledgement of race and ethnicity as important factors that combine with experiences as a disabled person. Work at the National Deaf Center has started to analyze and publish education and employment data with an intersectional lens, for example. This information on race and ethnicity is critical to the development of programs and policies that are designed to address systemic inequities.

Bring the voices of people of color who have a disability into the conversation as well. The National Deaf Center is active in sharing videos of deaf people of color discussing intersectionality, unpacking privilege, and talking about their personal experiences with microaggressions and marginalization. When working with and in school systems, ask disabled students of color for their perspectives, amplify their stories, and be on the lookout for possible injustices within your communities. Use the power of this information and your own platforms to raise our collective awareness and drive action.

5. Be wary of “helper” mentality

Ableism can often masquerade as “helping” (quotes very intentional) instead of truly advocating or practicing allyship. A helper mentality means that an abled person does something “for” a disabled person, instead of providing a place for disabled people to have their own agency and develop skills. For example, if someone asks you a question about the experience of a disabled person or group that you are not a part of, redirect that question to someone who has that identity and experience instead of “helping” them by trying to answer it yourself. If you’re not able to do that, acknowledge your limitations and reference specific perspectives of the community members themselves. Not deferring expertise to where it truly belongs is why research on disabled people solely by abled researchers can be problematic; research questions are often situated within a deficit model, one that begins with a presumption that disabled people are less than abled people.

Nothing About Us Without Us by James Charlton is a powerful reminder that disabled people need to be a part of the systems change. This goes beyond participation: Respect disabled people by not just inviting their input, but supporting and advocating for their leadership in decisions that affect them. If you are abled, shift from seeing your role as a “helper” to someone who supports and empowers others to succeed. Normalize disabled people in decision-making roles. And wherever you have power and influence, find ways to use it to empower disabled students, families, and colleagues so they can be integral to change in your community.

This post is a broad overview of some key points I addressed in my presentation for the Harper College 2020 Diversity Symposium. My virtual presentation was prerecorded in American Sign Language in conjunction with a spoken presentation by Dr. Rich Reddick, my colleague in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin. The recorded presentations were followed by a live panel where we jointly answered questions from the webinar audience.


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