Disability Justice In Teaching - A Historical Context


What is disability justice teaching?

Disability justice seeks to identify and disrupt the systemic influences that lead to the exclusion of people with disabilities. Teaching practices grounded in disability justice seek to create any learning environment, service, instructional strategy, or tool accessible to everyone regardless of neurodiversity, dis/ability, and health.

Barriers related to disability have always been a persistent issue in higher education. These barriers often involve intersectionality in disability, where people with disabilities may also identify as a person of color, a member of the LGBTQ+ community, or belong to other intersectional categories. Awareness regarding issues related to intersectionality are becoming more transparent along with more commonly identified barriers related to accessibility, educational opportunity, passive and active discrimination, and other ways people with disabilities have been marginalized within educational contexts. The fields of scholarship within disability studies, ableism, and anti-racism have made significant progress in exploring issues in society that create obstacles for people with disabilities. However, accessibility and progress within communities and educational environments continue to be slow.

This article provides an overview of disability justice in educational environments, highlighting the two commonly seen frameworks: the medical and social models. It also discusses efforts towards positive changes for people with disabilities in the current higher education context. 

A History of Disability Justice At UC Berkeley

One of the significant steps towards supporting and providing accommodations for people with disabilities in public spaces and employment access was the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which included Section 504. Section 504 prohibits any business receiving federal funds from discriminating against a person with a disability, and it says that “no otherwise qualified handicapped individual in the United States shall solely on the basis of his 

handicap, be excluded from the participation, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.” Despite tremendous legal efforts by the disability advocacy community between 1973-1977, no regulatory issues moved forward. As a result, the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD), a national cross-disability organization, was formed to respond. In 1977, Judith Heumann, known as "the mother" of the disability rights movement and a Berkeley alum and advocate, led a 28-day 504 Sit-In in front of San Francisco's federal building to fight for the legislation to be implemented. However, Section 504 was not strongly enforced and did not provide enough comprehensive support for people with disabilities. Building upon the progress made, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law in the 1990s, launching substantial change within communities. The ADA requires accessible communities, workplaces, and higher education, and prohibits universities from discriminating against students and staff/faculty with disabilities. Institutions are obligated to provide access, accommodations, and auxiliary aids, including communication support and aids, to students with disabilities.

UC Berkeley is considered the birthplace of the disability rights movement with notable connections to the movement, such as famous alumni, Judith Heummann. In the 1990s, Professor Ray Lifchez, together with Professors Susan Schweik (Department of English) and Fred Collignon (Department of City & Regional Planning), began developing disability-centric course offerings at Berkeley. By 2000, a formal Disability Studies Minor was established, one of the first degrees in Disability Studies to be offered in the world. Currently, faculty members in the Disability Studies Cluster work to understand the meaning and effects of disability socially, legally, politically and culturally, and seek to eliminate barriers to full social inclusion and advance the rights of people with disabilities. In 2020, Ray Lifchez gave $2.5 million to the College of Environmental Design to endow the Lifchez Professor of Practice in Social Justice. The endowed professorship incorporates accessibility and disability justice into design education and will continue to have an impact on many students' lives to come. In addition to the Disability Studies Cluster, the Division of Equity, Inclusion, Belonging, and Justice has curated a comprehensive landing page for disability justice at UC Berkeley. In addition, the historical context of our Disabled Students Program at UC Berkeley outlines the advocacy path for students, which began in 1962. 

Evolution of language and terminology in disability advocacy 

The language used in disability communities has gone through considerable transformations over the several decades and continues to be debated. For some individuals, person-first language is an important way to ensure that they are first a person and second a person with a dis/ability For other individuals, their self-identification within a specific disability culture is a meaningful counterpoint to societal stigmatization of dis/ability. Additionally, written language related to “disability” can also reflect the intention of the information being shared. Using “dis/ability” or disability is meant to deemphasize the deficit-based language used to describe disabilities with the goal of emphasizing ability/strengths. Stanford University provides a comprehensive discussion on language use, emphasizing how critical it is for us to avoid using patronizing euphemisms such as “special needs” or “differently-abled.”

Current Research Trends to Consider in Disability Justice Teaching 

Changing social and cultural perspectives on disability communities continue to shape instructional practices used in both K-12 and higher education contexts. Teacher-scholars and practitioners alike look to three common disability models in educational environments to identify and scope evolving instructional behaviors advancing disability justice.

Table 1 provides an overview of the disability models in educational environments and the current implementation of those models. These models have a sequential timeline in when they came about, starting with the medical model. The medical model takes a prescriptive approach to disability by advancing the notion that members of the disability community require remediation to correct for perceived weaknesses. Unfortunately, this model is still prevalent in many K-12 school systems, within many medical approaches to the human body, and in popular media. The social model, which seeks to foster awareness of the barriers members of the disability community face, is typically seen as emerging from the 1970’s, with its most influential period impacting societal thinking aligned with major laws governing access for persons with disabilities, namely the late 1980/1990’s through current day. Finally, the cultural model is another model closely related to the social model, and it builds upon disability studies and dis/crit studies focusing on the intersectionality of disability and anti-ableism. The cultural model positions disability as a valuable element of human diversity and takes an advocacy-based approach to advance multiple ways of knowing and interacting with members of the disability community. 

Table 1: Common disability models in educational environments 

Medical Model

Social Model 

Cultural Model 

Emerging Time Period




Focus of: 

Disability is a deficiency and something that needs to be fixed/is wrong.

Disability is a difference. 

Disability is a valuable element of human diversity. 

Instructional approaches: 

Remediating and correcting for weaknesses,

Awareness of barriers to understanding, and multiple efforts to address misunderstandings (i.e. remediation, accommodations, etc.) 

Building on strengths and growing acceptance of multiple ways to understand ideas, interact, and live within communities 

Current implementation of model: 

Prevalent in K-12 schooling, medical applications, popular media, and culture  

Growing societal awareness, can be seen in popular culture, university settings 

Research, advocacy, emerging in some university settings 

Examples of disability model in educational environment: 

When instructors use language that presents disability in a negative way, i.e. Student suffers from vision impairment or student is wheelchair-bound. These statements use a negative framing of disability with words such as suffering or wheelchair-bound, which are aligned with the medical model seeing disability as a deficit. 

When instructors proactively revise slide content to enlarge text and make images more accessible to promote more accessibility for any student. Instructors proactively making content more accessible would be aligned with the social model of disability, encouraging wider access to learning materials. 

When instructors reconceptualize course activities to include student choice, multiple ways to engage in learning, and continuously adapting content with the recognition that learning takes place in a multitude of ways. Instructors who consider multiple ways of knowing and allowing students to demonstrate their understanding in diverse and varied ways aligns with the cultural model. 

Social Justice Approach

A recommended framework for approaching disability justice in higher education is to use a Social Justice Approach, considering both historical and emerging trends. This approach examines how disability is conceptualized and aims to understand the ways in which students, faculty, and staff with disabilities are viewed and supported on college campuses. The social justice framework is inclusive of both the social and cultural models, recognizing that much work has been done towards disability justice but much more work is still needed. It 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 that need 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 all students, faculty, and staff. In university-level settings, best-practices are underway to provide access and additional support to promote success and belonging for students with disabilities on university campuses. A list of such practices is provided below.

  • Access to Higher Education: Transition between K-12 and postsecondary systems can be a significant barrier to accessing higher education for students with disabilities.The federal law that governs our K-12 public schools mandates transition planning for students related to college, career, and independent living goals (IDEA, 2004). These laws are in place to enable more students with disabilities to plan for and apply to college. Universities can continue this effort to support successful transition to university-level learning by becoming more aware of the types of barriers across student groups such as students with disabilities who are also: students of color, first-generation college students, students whose first language is not English, and/or students needing financial assistance. These compounded barriers are widely regarded as intersectionality meaning students with disabilities will likely need support related to both disability accommodations and another category of potential challenge at the university level. An extensive review of disability and intersectionality is included in Disability as Diversity in Higher Education: Policies and Practices, Eds. Eunyoung Kim & Katherine C. Aquino. 

  • Support Services in Higher Education: Disability service offices provide a way for universities to comply with legal obligations and enhance access to higher education for students with disabilities. Universities typically include offices that support students with disabilities. Note, to be supported through a student disability office, clients must provide documentation of a disability and apply for services through the procedures outlined. UC Berkeley’s Disabled Students' Program promotes an inclusive environment for all students with disabilities. [They] equip disabled students with appropriate accommodations and services to achieve their individual academic goals. [They] are dedicated to supporting disabled students and collaborating with the campus community to remove barriers to educational access and embrace the University’s values of equity and inclusion. [They] believe that an accessible environment universally benefits everyone. DSP includes helpful guidance on teaching students with disabilities.

  • Accessible Teaching Design: Universal design for learning (UDL) and providing accommodations outlined in student disability accommodation plans are two promising approaches to increasing the overall accessibility of higher education See resources to support the implementation of UDL in Higher Education at Cast.org. Sarah Silverman, Ph.D., discusses the progress in this area continues related to Neurodiversity &  Access Friction

  • Using Instructional Technology: Technology and understanding the diversity within the disability student population are two emerging considerations for access in postsecondary institutions. See Technology Tools resources on RTL and Quick Support technology tool consultation sign-up resources. 

  • Anti-Ableism: Focus on ableism discrimination, which is a set of beliefs, policies, and practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities. Ableism continues to be the belief that people with disabilities are broken and need to be “fixed.” Resource from Simmons University. Additional advocacy and first-person resources, Disability Visibility Project.

  • Intersectionality: this theoretical frameworkhelps unpack and identify the tensions between the lived experiences of people with disabilities and multiple intersecting identities and shared needs of those communities. In addition, within this framework, the racialization of disability is more clearly apparent when considering the disproportionately higher rate of students of color diagnosed with disabilities versus white students. Scholarship in this area explains that the medical model, which uses a fragmented approach to seeing people in parts as opposed to holistically, is a primary catalyst for perpetuating the disproportionate rate of students of color being identified as having a disability in K-12 and perpetuated into university level settings (Artiles, 2013).                                                             
  • Harm-reduction pedagogy: is centered on caring for and acknowledging the racially marginalized students with intersectional identities of race, disability, gender, sexuality, and further, and how these identities within an educational context are still impacted in all aspects of teaching and learning. These impacts are due to continued societal contexts of discrimination and ableism linked to white supremacy (Shelton, 2020).
Reference List

Artiles, A. J. (2013). Untangling the racialization of disabilities: An intersectionality critique across disability models. Du Bois Review, 10(2), 329-347.doi:https://doi.org/10.1017/S1742058X13000271

Campbell, FionaKumari. 2008. “Exploring Internalized Ableism Using Critical Race Theory.” Disability & Society 23 (2): 151–162. doi:10.1080/09687590701841190.

Evans, N. J., Broido, E. M., Brown, K. R., & Wilke, A. K. (2017). Disability in higher education: A social justice approach. John Wiley & Sons.

Moriña, A., Sandoval, M., & Carnerero, F. (2020). Higher education inclusivity: When the disability enriches the university. Higher Education Research & Development, 39(6), 1202-1216.

Rao, K. (2021). Inclusive Instructional Design: Applying UDL to Online Learning. The Journal of Applied Instructional Design, 10(1). https://dx.doi.org/10.59668/223.3753

Shakespeare, Tom. 2014. Disability Rights and Wrongs Revisited. 2nd ed. Oxon: Routledge. 

Shelton, S. Z. (2020). Disability Justice, White Supremacy, and Harm Reduction Pedagogy: Enacting Anti-Racist Crip Teaching. Journal Committed to Social Change on Race and Ethnicity (JCSCORE), 6(1), 191–208. https://www.jstor.org/stable/48644516

Smith, S. A., Woodhead, E., & Chin-Newman, C. (2021). Disclosing accommodation needs: exploring experiences of higher education students with disabilities. International Journal of Inclusive Education, 25(12), 1358-1374.

Thurber, A., &  Bandy, J. (2018). Creating Accessible Learning Environments. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/creating-accessible-learning-environments/.

Wong, A. (Ed.) (2020). Disability Visibility: First-person stories from the twenty-first century. Vintage, Chicago, IL. 

Zidani, S. (2021). Whose pedagogy is it anyway? Decolonizing the syllabus through a critical embrace of difference. Media, Culture & Society, 43(5), 970-978. https://doi.org/10.1177/0163443720980922