Magazine Feature

Disability Is Diversity

Embracing diversity means accepting disability as a part of the total human experience and being intentional about practices that remove barriers to learning so all children can thrive.
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Illustrations by Jessie Lin

In the article Confronting Ableism on the Way to Justice,” activist Keith Jones remembers the bias and deficit-based approach he experienced in school: “Being Black and a child with cerebral palsy, or ‘crippled’ as I was called, neither I nor my classmates were expected to put forth any effort to learn. So, little effort was spent on teaching us.” Now, Jones, a leader within the disability rights movement, advocates for disability representation in the broader social justice struggle, including in education because “we can’t have inclusive schools without disability-inclusive spaces and accommodations for learning.”

Ashana Bigard, a New Orleans advocate for educational justice, had similar experiences to Jones, especially early in her education. As a student who has dyslexia, she remembers school as initially stressful and discouraging. “If you told me to stand in front of the class and read aloud, my brain would freeze up—it’s not that I didn’t want to,” Bigard says. “But then that same teacher might see me during recess reading a book like nothing. So they would believe that I was being lazy and obstinate … because I didn’t understand what was going on with myself.” Later, Bigard transferred to the New Orleans Free School, where dyslexia and diversity in how students learned were accepted and nurtured. When a teacher pointed out Bigard’s strengths, Bigard was at first skeptical. As the teacher continued to have honest conversations about both her strengths and areas for growth, Bigard began to change her mindset about herself and about education.

Today, Bigard is the parent of three children—one who is on the autism spectrum and another who has dyslexia—and advocates in support of families and caregivers for students in New Orleans. In the city’s all-charter-school system with high teacher turnover and limited accountability, students with disabilities often struggle to have their needs met. Bigard, who is all too familiar with what’s at stake, explains, “If the children have accommodations and they have a good education, it can literally make the difference in them going to jail or them having a successful life.”

The Curb-Cut Effect: Changing the Environment

Bigard’s experiences as a student, parent and advocate illustrate the possibilities and the risks for children with disabilities in the educational system. When educators try to force a singular teaching or learning style, students with individualized learning plans are often left out and struggle. Erika Williams, a former New Orleans educator, likens it to “fitting a square peg in a round hole.” Karista Reed, an educational diagnostician in Ascension Parish, Louisiana, notes that when environments do not emphasize inclusion for students with individualized learning plans, the students feel ostracized and notice they are not being included.

Disability is the way other people don’t accommodate you or respond to you.

— Ashley Dalton

However, the potential for children to thrive shines through when educators center the needs of students with individualized learning plans by adapting curriculum and learning environment to fit the child’s unique capabilities.

Jon Mundorf, Ed.D., a classroom teacher and assistant professor at P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School at the University of Florida, invites educators to ask, “In what ways is the environment creating barriers to learning?” According to Mundorf, when educators focus on changing the learning environment instead of the learner, they open themselves up to thinking about more accessible learning practices that emphasize flexibility and choice. And that environment can benefit all learners.

A helpful way to conceptualize the shared benefits of accessibility is what’s known as the “curb-cut effect,” which has its roots in disability rights activism. Initially, curb-cuts (replacing steep sidewalk curbs with sloping wheelchair-accessible pathways) were narrowly intended to help people in wheelchairs move between the sidewalk and the street. The ramps, however, turned out to help everyone, from families with strollers to bicyclists to people moving heavy items on trolleys—illustrating how solutions targeted for people who need the most support benefit society.

By applying the curb-cut frame to classrooms, educators can create supportive learning spaces for all children. And focusing on both environment and language that include those who need the most support can help all students—including those whose struggles might not be diagnosed or recognized—to thrive.

The Intersection of Race and Disability

Historically, the education system has not served students with disabilities well; for decades, segregation or denial of accommodations was the norm. The effects of this history of exclusion are still present in practices today, including the language schools use—“special education” or “special needs”—to describe the ways in which students learn. Intentionally using terminology like “students with individualized learning plans,” for example, can alter that dynamic by recognizing differences in abilities, including neurodiversity, while being inclusive of students.

Educators need to understand how education’s historical approach to different abilities has shaped people’s responses. “‘Special education’ really has a negative connotation in my community,” says Ashley Magee, an elementary educator in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana. Magee has encountered Black parents who experienced or witnessed traumatic ways children with disabilities were pushed aside and stigmatized. Understandably, these parents then hesitated to allow their child to receive services for their diagnosis. Magee recalls one student’s grandmother explaining that her brother was in the special education program at Magee’s school yet could not earn a high school diploma and, therefore, could not get a job after high school. Magee, having built trust with the grandmother, allayed her fears by explaining that students with individualized learning plans are supported differently now and can graduate with a diploma.

Recognizing the effects of history is essential to addressing the injustices of today. Bias against Black and Indigenous people and other people of color, on both a systemic and individual level, often influences how educators treat children with individualized learning plans and engage with their parents and caregivers. Ashley Dalton, an attorney with the Children’s Rights practice group of the Southern Poverty Law Center, explains that although the goal of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was to provide all students with access to a quality education, there are still gaps in protection, especially for students of color who have disabilities. And although IDEA requires parent involvement, it does not account for the experiences of working families. “[IDEA] assumes that a parent has time and financial resources to come to a school for what can sometimes be a six-to-eight-hour-long marathon meeting about their child’s needs,” Dalton explains. “And there’s not really anything built into the law to combat the effects of implicit bias on the way the teachers perceive a parent’s participation.”

Schools have traditionally framed disability as something within individuals that needs to be “fixed,” and Dalton emphasizes that educators must reframe their perceptions of disability. “Disability is the way other people don’t accommodate you or respond to you,” she says. By shifting focus to changing systems and practices rather than changing the learner, educators can create a more equitable learning environment for all students that embraces diversity in how children learn.

Illustration of different hands working on varied projects.

A Systemic Shift to Embrace Diverse Learners

Kandice Yarbrough, a teacher from Ascension Parish, Louisiana, shares that it’s important to understand students’ abilities more holistically. She points out that schools are sometimes hyper-focused on what students lack—particularly students of color or students from low-income backgrounds—rather than their wealth of experience.

Mundorf recognizes that this mindset shift is something he experienced. He was taught to “retrofit or add modifications or accommodations at the end of [his] lesson,” but now he criticizes that approach as inefficient and exclusionary. Instead, he encourages educators to see the environment as the barrier to learning, rather than the student. “If you are not actively including people, you are probably excluding them,” Mundorf says. “Inclusivity does not occur on its own; it needs to be intentional.”

If you are not actively including people, you are probably excluding them. Inclusivity does not occur on its own; it needs to be intentional.

— Jon Mundorf, Ed.D.

Educators must begin to center the experiences of students with individualized learning plans, and that requires knowing their students and, as Magee emphasizes, “building relationships with students, families and [their] community.” These relationships are a necessary foundation for having challenging conversations with students who need individualized support. “[Families and caregivers] are going to receive that better because they’re going to see that you care,” Magee explains.

Knowing students’ families and communities can also help educators accurately assess students and guard against bias. Karista Reed notes that when environments do not emphasize inclusion for students with individualized learning plans, the students feel ostracized and notice that they are not being included. This could affect behavior and children’s efforts toward learning and improving skills. Instead of focusing narrowly on a student’s difficulties, Reed considers how the child’s prior experience and past treatment in a school setting might be affecting current behavior. “Sometimes, it’s actually an adjustment period,” Reed says. “Especially in the younger grades … they’re learning to follow the rules and procedures of the classroom. The school environment and the home environment are two different places.”

Educators can also apply this holistic, asset-based mindset to curriculum development. Instead of focusing on why children lack background knowledge, they can reframe and ask, “Why does this content not connect with my students?” The problem then becomes the curriculum, rather than the student, which changes how educators move toward solutions.

Universal Design for Learning: Necessary for Some, Beneficial for All

One emerging approach to supporting students with individualized learning plans—and, therefore, supporting all students—is Universal Design for Learning (UDL). Mundorf, who in addition to being a teacher and teacher educator is on the Universal Design for Learning Rising to Equity Advisory Board, applies UDL in his practice to support learner variability. As he explains, what is “necessary for some [is] beneficial for all.”

A core concept of UDL, a research-based framework, is that all learners are variable; they learn in different ways and respond to different environments. Educators, through intentional design, can reduce barriers by providing flexibility in three main areas: engagement, or how students differ in their motivation for learning; representation, or how students vary in the ways they understand information that comes to them; and action and expression, or how students express what they know or approach a learning activity.

“If everything in a classroom is based on printed text on a piece of paper, that will exclude a certain percentage of the student population,” Mundorf explains. He uses digital texts in addition to printed materials. “The students for whom printed text was the barrier … now have access. So we’ve invited those learners to be a part of the environment.” Students have the same content, but the variability in format adds flexibility that benefits all students. “Some students might want the words bigger or smaller,” Mundorf adds. “Some might like to have the voice-to-text feature. Some might like to have the ability to look up words to understand what words mean or search something online for some additional context.” This simple change, one designed with inclusivity in mind, improves students’ ability to engage with texts.

UDL is rooted in architecture and product development, drawing on parallels between the curb-cut effect and supporting students with individualized learning plans. “Architects used to build buildings that were incredibly inaccessible,” Mundorf explains. “In the early 1980s, architect Ron Mace wondered what would happen if we thought about all the people that are going to use this building before we designed it. And so instead of wheelchair ramps being on the back of a building or retrofitted on the side of a building, we see really creative design decisions with stairs and ramps right next to one another. And the thing is, if somebody needs that wheelchair ramp to access the building, because of a mobility difference that they have, without that ramp, they can’t get in.”

The UDL framework also draws on asset-based concepts, which is especially important given the history of racism and ableism in schools. Educators must reject deficit-based approaches—which are largely based on bias—and search for models that emphasize the cultural knowledge and wealth of experiences children bring to school. For example, an educator who uses UDL will also allow multiple ways for students to express their ideas, honoring a diversity of communication modes. In addition, UDL asks that educators build on students’ prior knowledge. By drawing from children’s backgrounds, including knowledge acquired outside of school, teachers not only support students’ learning but also send a message that children’s lived experiences are valued in the classroom.

All of this work—centering the needs of students with individual learning plans, adopting an asset-based approach to teaching and learning, and contextualizing these practices within the history of disability in education—is part of a larger quest for social justice. As activist Keith Jones reminds us: “In education, a focus on inclusive spaces, high expectations for students with disabilities and training for all educators is essential. Listening to the perspectives of those with lived experience is key to understanding that disability is not a problem to solve but part of the human experience to embrace. ‘Nothing about us without us’ has real and consequential meaning.”

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