One of the challenges faced by classroom teachers is how to teach our students to celebrate diversity and to respond appropriately to others who are different. Integrating diversity and empathy into the curriculum is essential for all classes at every year level to reduce ableism, which is the stigmatisation, stereotyping and othering of students with disability or imputed disability. A starting point is to develop an awareness of the unequal structures within society that are reflected within schools and the normalisation of ableness. Once this is acknowledged we can start to examine the conscious or unconscious attitudes and barriers that promote the differential treatment of people with actual or presumed disabilities. But what are some practical activities that teachers can do?
Firstly, teach your students that everybody’s body is different and that is OK. This is challenging as schools are places where students are assessed, labelled and categorised, but we need to challenge the idea that ableness is superior and that disability is a tragedy or deficit. It is not. If you speak with disabled people, most are proud of who they are and of their disability. This has led to the ‘disability pride’ movement, where people with disability are able to celebrate their strengths, achievements and abilities, not in spite of their disability, but often because of their disability. We must challenge the notion that disability is aberrant. Teach your students about disability pride and how disability is a beautiful and natural part of human diversity. Expose your students to literature that deals with disability in a positive way. Encourage your students to view disability as a social problem rather than an intrinsic issue. If our schools were wheelchair accessible, Auslan was taught as a second language and students with disability were not considered ‘different’, then schools would be more welcoming for everyone, including those with disability. And use positive language when talking about disability (‘wheelchair bound’ is negative whilst stating that someone ‘uses a wheelchair’ in preferable, avoid unpleasant euphemisms (referring to ‘disability’ as ‘differently abled’ is patronising) and have high expectations of students with disability.
Secondly, many schools invite guests with disabilities to their assemblies and classrooms to inspire the students. However, when students only ever see people with disability as an object of inspiration, they are stereotyped and othered and students are unable to view them as real people. We need people with disability as part of society and we need a visible representation of students and teachers with disability within our schools. So instead of inviting someone with a disability into the school as a guest, how about ensuring that people with disability are a part of your school. If your school has a disability unit or special class, make sure the students with disability are invited to everything that students without disability participate in.
Lastly, some schools have utilised simulations such as being in a wheelchair or being blindfolded with the aim of gaining a better understanding of disability. Research indicates that simulations are problematic (see Nario-Redmond, Gospodinov & Cobb 2017) as they only provide a very surface level understanding by thrusting people into the world of disability, producing fear and distress and greatly misrepresenting the experience of disability. However, other research (see Silverman, Pitonyak, Nelso, Matsuda, Kartin & Molton 2017) indicates that providing students with proper training beforehand can be helpful in providing positive attitudes toward disability. Instead of utilsing simulations, you can gain an understanding of the experience of disability by talking to people with disability.