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By Leah Kelley, education consultant and retired teacher, Chilliwack; and Debra Swain, teacher, Victoria

As teachers, we work hard to support our students and create equitable learning environments. To do so, it’s important we continually engage in learning and reflection to help us address our own biases and work toward creating a just society. We are excited to share information about Addressing Ableism, a new workshop that is available online through the BCTF. This workshop explores ableism and its impact, and guides participants in examining their potential biases that may contribute to ableism.

What is ableism?
Ableism can be defined as the practices, attitudes, systems, and structures in a society that stigmatize or limit the participation, inclusion, and potential of disabled people/people with disabilities. Such practices discriminate against and devalue people with physical, developmental, neurological, or psychiatric disabilities, often resting on the assumption that disabled people need to be “fixed” in order to be included and/or to be considered successful. 

Ableism is prevalent in our society and systems; it can be subtle or obvious, unintended or intentional. As educators, we have a responsibility to interrogate this within our practice.

A new workshop to explore ableism and its impact in schools and classrooms
In this workshop, participants consider the way disability is viewed and explore how to identify and push back against the stigma faced every day by people with disabilities/disabled people. Teachers will discuss and reflect on how understanding ableism can guide their practice, and cultivate disability pride in ourselves, in students, and beyond. Strategies to address and counter ableism and build understanding (for ourselves, for colleagues, and for students) are discussed and explored.

Topics introduced in the workshop include the following:

  • The use of person-first language and identity-first language.
  • The #SayTheWord Disability campaign, which highlights the importance of language and advocates for using the word “disability” rather than euphemisms such as “special needs.”
  • Things that might not seem ableist but are, based on an article by Wendy Lu (scan QR code to the right).
  • Reflecting on the timeline of inclusion in BC schools.
  • Models of disability: learning about alternative models of disability, beyond the medical model, supports us as educators in examining our views and biases about disability. These models provide a lens through which we can evaluate our practice (see below).
  • The inherent intersectionality of disability justice. Disability is not a singular identity. People live at the intersection of other identities, so addressing ableism must address the complexity and layers of discrimination and oppression experienced by people (for example, those who are LGBTQ2S+, BIPOC, people living in poverty, etc.).
  • The importance of centring the lived experience of disabled people/people with disabilities to inform our practice.

As educators, we have an opportunity to apply our understanding of ableism to our pedagogical strategies. Understanding ableism can guide our work with families and students, as well as increase our capacity as professionals to influence and change systems and to align ourselves with disability justice.

Models of disability

Based on linking a disability diagnosis to an individual’s physical body. This model assumes a disability may reduce an individual’s quality of life. The aim is to diminish or correct the disability with medical or other interventions. The medical model focuses on curing or managing illness or disability to allow the person with a disability/disabled person a more “normal” life.

Identity or pride
Based on a conceptual framework that disabled people/people with disabilities should be proud of their disabled identity. Disability is part of identity and can be a source of strength and pride.

Based on the understanding that systemic barriers, negative attitudes, and exclusion by society (purposely or inadvertently) are social constructs. While physical, sensory, intellectual, or psychological variations may cause individual functional limitation or impairments, these do not necessarily have to lead to disability unless society fails to consider and include people regardless of their individual differences.       

Human rights
Disabled people/people with disabilities have inalienable rights under legislation. Recognizing disability is a component of upholding these rights in education, employment, and community involvement. Addressing ableism is ensuring voices aren’t silenced, marginalized, or made invisible. Disabled people must be included in policy-making: “Nothing about us, without us.”

More information
This workshop can be booked for your school staff or local. To book a workshop, click on the Workshop Requests page on bctf.ca.

Visit linktr.ee/AdressingAbleismResources for more information and additional reading about ableism and disability justice.

About the authors
Debra Swain is an experienced inclusive educator and past-president of the Teachers of Inclusive Education (TIE-BC) provincial specialist association. Debra was excited to work with the team writing this workshop for the BCTF. Debra has been a BCTF facilitator for a number of years and continues to learn and grow as a professional each time she facilitates a workshop, and she values the dedication that teachers show to their own professional learning.

Dr. Leah Kelley is a neurodivergent and otherwise disabled educator, writer, activist, and poet. She has 30+ years of experience as a public school teacher, including as a primary teacher, an inclusion resource teacher (K–12), and an SEL (social-emotional learning) helping teacher. She has presented nationally and internationally on topics such as autism and neurodiversity, advocacy, and inclusion, and is the co-producer of the award-winning documentary Vectors of Autism.


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