Disability Justice In Teaching


What is disability justice teaching?

Disability justice seeks to identify and disrupt the systemic influences that lead to the exclusion and discrimination of people with disabilities. Teaching practices grounded in disability justice bring intentional focus and awareness to creating accessible learning environments, services, instructional strategies, and tools such that everyone, regardless of neurodiversity, dis/ability, and health, can benefit from them.

Barriers due to disability are a longstanding issue in higher education. Efforts towards positive changes for people with disabilities primarily began in the 1970’s with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which included Section 504, providing support and accommodations for people with disabilities in public spaces. For several decades, the disability community continued to advocate due to the lack of implementation of the accessibility requirements in Section 504. Substantial change within communities was not launched until the 1990’s when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law, requiring accessible communities, workplaces, and higher education. These two laws, the ADA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibit universities from discriminating against students and staff/faculty with disabilities and require institutions to provide access, accommodations, and auxiliary aids, i.e. communication supports and aids to students with disabilities. UC Berkeley has a rich history supporting the disability advocacy movement. The disability justice movement in education includes evolving frameworks of how disability has been perceived in society, current trends in higher education, and continued advocacy activities.  

What language empowers your students with disabilities? 

When first incorporating disability justice into your teaching, you may be curious about the appropriate language when interacting with your students and members of the dis/ability community. Discussions regarding language related to individuals with disabilities are ongoing and evolving.  However, using person-first language, such as “a person with a visual impairment,” versus disability-first language, like “a blind person,” can be the most neutral approach that identifies the person before their disability. Encouraging a student or colleague with a disability to advise you on the best language to use is the next step when/if in doubt. Stanford University provides a comprehensive discussion on language use, emphasizing how critical it is to avoid using patronizing euphemisms such as “special needs” or “differently-abled.”

A recommended framework for approaching disability justice in higher education, considering the historical and emerging trends, is to use a Social Justice Approach. A social justice approach examines how disability is conceptualized and understands ways that students, faculty, and staff with disabilities are viewed and supported on college campuses. The social justice framework includes both the social and cultural models, acknowledging that much work has been done towards disability justice, but much work is still needed. Social justice draws from multiple theoretical frameworks, research, and experiences to recommend ways of creating inclusive campuses that are anti-ableist. A social justice framework acknowledges bias, inequities due to exclusion, ableism, and ongoing discriminatory practices continually needing to be addressed. Universities can utilize principles of UDL, social justice frameworks, and other inclusive practices specific to protected groups of students that can transform campus environments into more inclusive and equitable settings for students, faculty, and staff.

Starting Point for Growth: Self-Reflection & Awareness 

Within the university system, dis/ability-based oppression often manifests in physical structuresacademic policies, and social environments on campus. These barriers have persisted, and students have experienced those inequities in educational systems both at the university-level and prior to entering university-level programs. 

To counteract the psychosocial and material harms caused by disability-based oppression in the university, it is crucial to reflect on how, as instructors, we can create safer classroom environments that not only consider but uplift and celebrate the knowledge and experiences that students oppressed under systems of disability inequity bring with them. 

One great way to start is to reflect on how our biases may manifest in our teaching. To better understand your implicit gender-based biases in a safe, private, and nonjudgmental way, consider taking advantage of Harvard University’s Implicit Association Tests (IAT). Please note, within disability, it is critical to consider the intersectionality of disability, i.e., people with disabilities have many identities and, depending on the context, experience varying levels of privilege, oppression, and additional unique lived experiences that are impactful. Consider completing one or more IAT related to disability to learn more about how intersectionality contributes to instances of bias within your teaching practice. 

Before Teaching

  • Accessible documents: an important component of disability justice teaching is ensuring all course materials are accessible. Using systems such as Ally within B Courses and RTL consultations to address accessibility issues is a great next step to ensure documents are accessible for all students. 

  • Consider using bCourses to provide one additional access point for any instructional material. If your students are provided with a paper/pencil copy, include a digital version of the material on bCourses. 

  • Decolonizing syllabus & course materials: Another suggestion is to consider course reading materials and be sure they comprehensively represent all contributors to the discipline. Frequently, the curriculum can be a barrier in its’ design and lack of inclusiveness. 

  • Addressing DSP Accommodations in your syllabus is a responsive measure to ensure student accessibility supports are being met. 

  • Accessible syllabus design and accessible content design allow room for risk-taking and mistake-making as an expected part of the learning process.

During Teaching

  • Check-in with students who have accommodations to be sure that barriers are not still impacting their access and learning.  
  • Teaching in multiple-level classrooms can provide you with ideas for teaching classes with multiple levels of understanding and background knowledge. A multi-level classroom can be described as one where students have various levels of learning needs and instructors differentiate their instruction to support a wide range of learners. These types of learning environments are aligned with teaching students with disabilities who may need some refresher content or more opportunities to engage with ideas before moving on to the next topic, which allows for more processing time. 
  • Consider UDL approaches to learning objectives that increase student access and eliminate barriers using online teaching tools and strategies. 
  • Implement active learning strategies to support more student engagement. Active learning is grounded in constructivist theory where students are actively building their own knowledge through experimentation, play, and iterative concept design.  

After Teaching

Teaching Resources, Exemplars, & Strategies