Written by Jodie Wilde
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:
Have you ever thought/said any of the following?
There is a very good chance the answer is ‘yes’. If so, consider asking yourself:
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.
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’.
Do any of the comments below sound familiar?
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:
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.
The Reframing Autism team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we have the privilege to learn, work, and grow. Whilst we gather on many different parts of this Country, the RA team walk on the land of the Birpai, Awabakal, Wattamattagal, Whadjak, Amangu, Bunurong and Kaurna Yarta peoples.
We are committed to honouring the rich culture of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of this Country, and the diversity and learning opportunities with which they provide us. We extend our gratitude and respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to all Elders past, present, and emerging, for their wisdom, their resilience, and for helping this Country to heal.