Challenging Ableism in Education: Tips for Teachers on How to Be an Inclusive Educator

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Written by Jodie Wilde

Ableism is the belief that the ‘norm’ is for people to be able-bodied and able-minded.

Therefore, when someone fails to meet the ‘norm’ they are viewed as having a ‘deficit’ and the focus is on ‘fixing’ this through medical or therapeutic interventions.

If this isn’t possible, then exclusion is an unfortunate – but inevitable – outcome of the person’s ‘deficit’. By locating dis/ability within the person, the disabling impact of environmental, structural, and social barriers can be ignored, or at least significantly downplayed. When dis/ability is viewed through this lens, the ableist assumptions embedded in education policies and practices remain hidden. If we want to achieve genuine inclusion, these assumptions need to be reviewed and challenged.

As a teacher, I know how difficult it is to challenge the status quo. (As a neurodivergent teacher, I challenge it anyway.) As the mother of two Autistic/ADHD children, I am painfully aware of the damaging impact the current system can have.

It is essential that teachers take a stand, no matter how difficult it may seem. The more teachers take up the challenge, the easier it will be to push for substantial change. However, before teachers can challenge the status quo, they need to examine their own assumptions about dis/ability and inclusion. Below are some questions to help guide this process:

1. How do I view dis/ability?

Have you ever thought/said any of the following?

  • “I feel so sorry for them, it must be so hard.”
  • “If they don’t learn how to play/talk/do things normally, they’ll be left out/bullied.”

There is a very good chance the answer is ‘yes’. If so, consider asking yourself:

  • What makes having a dis/abled child hard? Is it the dis/ability itself, or the lack of support families have?
  • Why is it the dis/abled child’s responsibility to fit in if they don’t want to be bullied? Don’t we teach non-disabled children to play/communicate/do things the way that dis/abled children do them so that they can interact with them?

2. Where does my information about dis/ability come from?

Like the general public, teachers get most of their information about dis/ability from the media, where dis/ability is represented as a personal deficit and a tragedy. Information about specific dis/abilities is often delivered to teachers through professional development. However, these are rarely designed or presented by people with dis/abilities. Therefore, it is predominantly deficit-based and focuses on interventions to ‘fix’ the individual.

Autistic students, in particular, are often the target of interventions that seek to eliminate or reduce external signs of autism – for example ‘stimming’ behaviours (rocking, flapping, jumping) as it is seen as non-functional and distracting. However, Autistic adults see stimming as a way to regulate their emotions and often use it to reduce anxiety and stress caused by sensory input.

When Autistic children are constantly reprimanded for their stimming behaviours, it denies them this crucial mechanism for self-regulation.

In addition, very few teachers consult with students when choosing accommodations, often implementing generic strategies. For example, assumptions that Autistic people need routine lead to the use of strict visual schedules. However, this ignores the fact that, 1) many Autistic people also have ADHD, and therefore need flexibility and novelty, and 2) Autistic people prefer predictability and autonomy. This is not the same as following the demands of an externally imposed schedule or routine.

The key point is that teachers should get their information about dis/ability from dis/abled people.

3. What message am I sending about dis/ability?

There are endless examples of school practices that communicate ableist ideals. For example, do you insist that students demonstrate their attention by looking at the teacher, sitting straight, not moving etc? You may even have to follow a specific school policy – such as “super six” or “whole body listening”. These policies are fundamentally ableist. Even if you don’t apply them to students with dis/ability, the message you are sending – loud and clear – is that the “right” way to listen is by sitting still/straight and looking at the teacher. Every child knows that if you don’t do it this way it’s because there’s something “wrong” with you.

Another way ableist ideals are communicated is through approaches to inclusion. For example, common accommodations for Autistic students are visual schedules, extra breaks, and assistive technology. Although these strategies are important – and even essential – they are not inclusive unless they are available to all students. When implemented as individualised add-ons for specific students they merely re-create segregation within the classroom and reinforce the ableist assumption that the individual is the ’problem’.

4. Do I challenge stereotypes, prejudice and discrimination?

Do any of the comments below sound familiar?

  • “I’m not going to change my whole classroom for one kid”.
  • “It doesn’t matter what you teach them, they’ll never learn anything”.
  • “They need to learn to be normal”.
  • “They just want their own way”.
  • “They need to follow the rules like everyone else”.

I’ve heard variations on these comments (and much worse) multiple times over the past six years. For a long time, I was afraid to speak up. Especially when these comments were made by senior teachers and admin staff. Finding the best way to respond to these comments isn’t easy, but it is important to challenge these attitudes whenever possible. The following are a few examples of responses that can help bring attention to the inappropriateness of these comments without alienating people too much:

  • “What makes you think that?”
  • “I’m not sure there is a way to be ‘normal’.”
  • “Is there a reason why we can’t do it that way?”
  • “Maybe we should look at changing the rules so that they’re more appropriate for everyone”.

The above questions are a good starting point for teachers to reflect on their assumptions and their practices. However teachers should also reflect on their assumptions about race, gender, and sexuality as well as dis/ability.

This reflection process can be confronting, especially when it forces you to recognise your own biases and privilege, but it is a vital first step if we want to achieve genuine inclusion.

Jodie Wilde is the founder of Accomplish Inclusion and an experienced early childhood and primary teacher with a Masters in Inclusive Education. She is currently completing a Master of Philosophy, researching how schools can foster positive Autistic identity to improve the mental health and wellbeing of Autistic students.

Jodie has extensive lived-experience of neurodivergence. Her own journey to inclusion began when her daughter received an ADHD diagnosis. Herself and her son were subsequently diagnosed. Both her children were also formally identified as Autistic and Jodie is currently pursuing her own Autism diagnosis. Her personal experience of how barriers created by society can impact the lives of neurodivergent individuals informs her work as an inclusive education advocate, consultant and trainer.


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