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Promoting an Anti-Ableist Classroom Culture

"Negative cultural attitudes toward disability can undermine opportunities for all students to participate fully in school and society." - Thomas Hehir, Educational Leadership


Understanding Ableism 


Ableism is the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior. At its heart, ableism is rooted in the assumption that disabled people require ‘fixing’ and defines people by their disability. Like racism and sexism, ableism classifies entire groups of people as ‘less than,’ and includes harmful stereotypes, misconceptions, and generalizations of people with disabilities. (1) 

What Does Ableism Look Like? (2)

  1. Lack of Resources - Accessible bathroom stalls, parking spots and  limited elevator space ​​

  2. Lack of Courtesy - Assumption of competence based on a person’s appearance, inaccessible events or places, failure to include people with disabilities in policy decisions that affect them, assuming people with disabilities want to be "cured", ignoring a person with a disability’s preferences for assistance, helping someone without asking 

  3. Lack of Consideration - Inaccessible Environments, underrepresentation or misrepresentation in media, lack of conversation or acknowledgement in education, labeling a person as inspirational, brave or special just for having a disability

Promoting Anti-Ableism Through Culturally Responsive Teaching 


Culture is central to learning. To truly engage students, we must reach out to them in ways that are culturally and linguistically responsive and appropriate, and we must examine the cultural assumptions and stereotypes we bring into the classroom that may hinder interconnectedness. (3)  While disabilities are not a result of culture, students with disabilities have cultural knowledge stemmed from lived experiences which presents opportunities for enhancing learning. By utilizing students' experiences, teachers have the opportunity to represent their students' knowledge in the curriculum yielding a meaningful culture where students can see themselves reflected in the learning that takes place in the classroom. (4) Disability representation must be present in classrooms and educational materials in order to establish an inclusive and anti-ableist culture.


Programs and classrooms that are noninclusive will likely meet the same fate of all segregated programs, generating an "us" versus "them" mentality and culture. In order to make "them" (i.e. people with disabilities) the "us" (i.e. people without disabilities), ableism, disability rights, and disability culture need to be specifically addressed in schools. (5) 

Questions to consider when establishing anti-ableist culture


  1. Are individuals with disabilities part of the decision making process? Consider familiarizing yourself with the #NothingAboutUsWithoutUS movement

  2. When looking at the state standards, do they include ableist language?

  3. Does your school have policies implicating that children with disabilities need to be "fixed"? For example, requiring eye contact, punishing students for hyperactivity, etc. 

  4. Does your school have segregated field trips, performances, or other events?

  5. Are your educational processes accommodating and mindful of "hidden" disabilities?

  6. Are you viewing your students as individuals with unique needs?

Ways to Combat ableism in schools (5)

  • Recognition of Disability Culture - No part of the educative process is free from cultural influence. In order to be inclusive of disability culture, you must familiarize yourself with disability culture. 

  • Disability Content in Curriculum and School Activities  - While multiculturalism in general education curriculum is common, there is little mention of people with disabilities. Disability content must be included in curriculum in order to foster inclusive cultures. Extracurricular activities should also include disability culture (i.e. American Sign Language Club). 

  • Teacher Inservice - Inservice training on disability, discrimination, and multiculturalism can serve to identify ableism in schools and other settings and discuss ways to combat it and improve school culture. 

  • Disability Literature - Using books with disability themes and disabled characters can help students gain acceptance and respect for others. Books with disabled characters can also produce a more inclusive learning environment where students with disabilities feel represented.

  • Use of Role Models - Students with disabilities need positive role models. Individuals with disabilities in the local community can serve as mentors, speakers, and activists. If or when in person opportunities are not possible, teachers can utilize films, other media, and literature to introduce disabled role models to their students.

  • Hiring Teachers with Disabilities - In schools it is common to see staff of a diverse background but much less common to see disabled staff. Hiring disabled teachers is necessary in order to have a staff that is representative of the student population.  


Additionally, It is imperative that teachers raise the issue of fairness versus equality in their classrooms to promote an understanding of inclusivity. (6) Conducting activities to help students understand the difference between fairness and equality, especially among young children, can help implement a classroom culture where students practice patience, respect, and support for their fellow classmates. These activities can also present a way for students to share how they learn best, providing educators with an opportunity to customize their teaching style based off of the student's individual and collective needs. Fairness vs. equality also plays a huge role in the assessment process in terms of anti-ableism. Assessments should be adaptable as all students have different needs regardless of the presence of a disability. 

Questions to consider when establishing anti-ableist pedagogies in your assessment processes: (7)

1.  What types of learning styles and needs am I welcoming here? Which am I excluding? How can I open up the syllabus/expectations/assignment/assessment methods/lesson plan (etc.) to welcome more ways of learning and engaging?


2.  What were my learning objectives for this assignment? Is this form of assessment hostile to students who might have or need different objectives, or need to get there in a different way than the one I’ve required through this form of assessment?


3.  Is this syllabus/lesson/assignment/assessment method etc. inviting or excluding for students with extreme anxiety? With depression? With difficulty focusing? With PTSD? With varying ranges of social needs and comforts?


4.  What do I assume when my student tells me they’re sick? How might an ethos of trusting students when they say they cannot complete something on time or simply do not come to class alter my assessment methods and the diversity of ways that I offer students to engage in coursework?


5.  What assumptions do I make when a student sleeps in class? When a student is on their phone/computer in class? When a student gets up and leaves multiple times during class?


6.  Am I casually using words like “crazy” or expressions like “off their meds” in class, or not addressing it when students do? Am I treating the R-word like a racial slur or curse word? (when students shut down from inadvertently violent things we say, they are often punished for it under traditional models of assessment.)


7.  Do my attendance and participation requirements (including lesson planning and course content) automatically exclude or alienate students for whom interacting in particular ways is extremely burdensome? Am I proactive, rather than reactive, about providing multiple modes of engagement with the course?

In summary, to create anti-ableist classrooms look at the bigger picture (i.e. systematic ableist language, everyday ableism in your school building and communities, and disability stereotypes), familiarize yourself with disability culture, and include people with disabilities in decision making processes especially when the policies and/or outcomes affect them. Lastly, not all disabilities are physical or immediately noticeable. These are considered "hidden" disabilities. People with disabilities are not a monolith, it is imperative not to group people with disabilities together or just label them as disabled. By treating students as individuals with unique needs, educators can combat systematic ableism and improve student experiences.

Resources and Book Recommendations 


For the classroom:

Resources for Educators and Parents:

Ohio Organizations: 


Other Resources:


Anti-Ableism in Classrooms

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