Ableism in Schools

Instructor: Judi Shroyer
Ableism is prevalent in our current society, although it is not generally addressed. This lesson will define ableism, explore its common forms, provide some real-world examples, and discuss various implications within today's schools.

What is Ableism?

In nearly any classroom today, there will be a certain percentage of students with disabilities. Some disabilities are visible, such as multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, and common characteristics of autism. Others are invisible, like learning disorders, traumatic brain injury, and hearing impairment.

Although the push for inclusion classrooms (which educate students with and without disabilities in the same classroom) has helped break down walls, there are still problems. Ableism is discrimination or prejudice shown toward individuals with disabilities, whether it's subtle and unintentional or it's overt and intentional. Ableism generally involves showing favor for someone with a disability, and it also comes with the implication that individuals with disabilities are not normal and need to be 'fixed' somehow.

The main problem with ableism is that most people have never even heard of it. As a result, many forms of ableism are completely overlooked. For example, suppose you see a smiling, brown-eyed little boy in the park. A few minutes later, you see his parent pick him up and put him in a wheelchair. What is your immediate thought? You might feel pity, because he has to live his life in a wheelchair or because he will never run track or play baseball.

In many cases, a person might want their child to play with the little boy because he's in a wheel chair. But this is a form of ableism--showing favor toward the child because he has a disability.

Forms of Ableism

Ableism is found in several forms, the most common being ideas and assumptions, attitudes and practices, and stereotypes and stigma. Let's explore these forms below.

Ideas and Assumptions

Ableism in the form of ideas and assumptions focuses on myth as truth, especially in the belief that individuals with disabilities are partially or completely dependent on others for care and support. Although this is a very common assumption, most people don't realize it's false.

For example, say that a high school senior with cerebral palsy is seen coming up the sidewalk on his crutches. A new secretary runs out the door, grabs the student's backpack from his back, and opens the door for him, to which he responds, 'Thanks but I can do that.' Although well-meaning, the secretary just took some of his independence. She did not ask if he needed help. Rather, she just assumed that, because he had a physical disability, he would want and need assistance.

Let's look at another example. Say that, in a 2nd grade classroom, a student teacher is seen hovering over a student, often doing her work for her. Why? 'I just feel so sorry for her,' comments the student teacher. This particular student is missing her right arm above the elbow. She can write, cut with scissors, and handle manipulatives during math. But because the student teacher perceives the student's physical disability as a limitation, the student teacher is hindering this student's progress. Students with disabilities should be challenged just as every other student and be given as much independence as possible.

Attitudes and Practices

Ableism commonly comes in the form of attitudes and practices. Often, society's prevalent attitudes (and resulting practices) toward individuals with disabilities limit their potential. One primary place this is seen is within schools. Although inclusion is the current trend, is it really the best thing for every child who has a disability? Does inclusion always push the students to fulfill their greatest potential?

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