Put Abilities on the Multicultural Spectrum

Three tips for making sure your classroom is inclusive of students with a variety of abilities. 

The framework for multicultural education is relatively new and still evolving. What started, in the 1980s, as a movement to ensure inclusion of the experiences and culture of African-American students has expanded to include women’s voices, LGBT perspectives and people with differing abilities.

The growing diversity of student populations makes recognizing and celebrating the unique cultures of all students more crucial than ever.  Multicultural education, as defined by Nieto and Bode in Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education (Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2008), is “[a] process of comprehensive school reform and basic education for all students. It challenges and rejects racism and other forms of discrimination in schools and society and accepts and affirms the pluralism (ethnic, racial, linguistic, religious, economic, and gender, among others) that students, their communities, and their teachers reflect.”

As a teacher who has cerebral palsy, I enjoy talking with colleagues about ways to broaden discussion and curriculum to include perspectives of people with differing abilities.

How can you create a classroom that embraces disability as part of the multicultural education equation?  Here are some tips: 

  1.  Recognize and reject ableism at all levels. Ableism (the set of attitudes and practices that regard disabled people as inferior and acknowledge the physically and mentally able body as the “normal” or “right” body) is insidious, as are all forms of discrimination. It’s a distinction that many of my colleagues haven’t considered. But in order to make classrooms physically, emotionally and mentally welcoming to all students, we have to be aware of ableist attitudes among other students. And we must emphasize that disability is simply another difference, like race or gender.
  2. Authentically and meaningfully include people with disabilities. “Nothing About Us Without Us,” the unofficial motto of the disability rights movement, emphasizes that people with disabilities belong at the forefront of all disability discussion. Assess your students for those who might want to talk about their experiences, but be careful not to single out any student who may not be ready to share. Read literature written by disability activists. Invite members of the community to share their own stories.
  3. Use course materials that include people with a variety of abilities. When looking to expand your library, consider including books that include people with disabilities. Be mindful of the messages your materials send about disability, and be aware of intersectionality. People with disabilities, like the rest of humanity, come in all shapes and sizes, and should be represented as such.

This is just the start of what I hope will become a long list of strategies. I’d like to hear from you. Include your tips in this blog’s comment area. What will you do to make your classroom more disability-friendly? What have you already done?

Liebowitz is a Pennsylvania college student with several differing abilities, She is majoring in special and elementary education. 

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