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.”