Re-thinking Disability

Over the last 50 years, attitudes toward disability have changed. Whether viewing disability as a medical condition, through the prism of human rights or forms of exclusion, the understanding of disability has dramatically evolved. One could argue that we now know more than ever about disability.

Internationally, there are legislative frameworks such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) that outline, in depth, the role governments can play in eradicating ableism, where ableism is discrimination against disabled people or privileging able-bodiedness, and enshrining disabled people’s rights.  Disabled activists have been successful in pushing a rights-based agenda that demands the right of disabled people to live life with freedom and dignity and they are articulating a new way forward in education, health, employment and economics.

Yet the reality for many disabled people globally is that much remains the same.  More than half of the world’s disabled children never receive any formal education. On average, the unemployment rate for disabled people is five times higher than the national average (TDSB in http://www.itispossible.ca/the-project/statistics/ retrieved May 14th).

The CRPD, signed and ratified in 2006, charted a new way forward.  Yet in 2016, the Committee on the CRPD reported that implementation of its key recommendations has been painfully slow. The Committee recognized the enormity of the challenge ahead, stating that ‘profound challenges persist. Many millions of persons with disabilities continue to be denied a right to education, and for many more, education is available only in settings where they are isolated from their peers and receive an inferior quality of provision.

The CRPD Committee report is a clarion call for societies across the globe to include disabled people in all aspects of modern life, including education.  But it bears emphasizing what an enormous social change this would represent. Here, while academic and rights based discourse on disability have shifted significantly, education has been much slower to follow this evolution.  It is time to re-think disability in education. 

Disability has been differently understood both formally, in medical science, in teaching pedagogy and informally, in social norms and attitudes.  For example, a policy ensuring an increased numbers of disabled teachers are employed in schools does not necessarily translate into increased hiring, more respect from non-disabled peers or non-discriminatory attitudes towards disabled teachers.  The same is true in the classroom.

Like other forms of exclusion- gender, class, race, sexuality- disability is not solely about one person’s impairment.  It is the social context that makes one able or disabled.  Like feminists and anti-race scholars before, attitudes towards the exclusion of certain bodies outside of the classroom (in business, employment, or cultural production for example) are re-created in the classroom. Disability is a dynamic category based on context.  The impact of disability varies depending on intersecting factors such as gender, race, nationality, poverty, sexuality and citizenship status.

In the 1970s, UK activists with disabilities challenged the conceptualization of disability as an individual medical problem.  Known as the social model of disability, activists and thinkers like Mike Oliver made the distinction between impairment and disability where impairment is a physical mental and psycho-social limitation, and disability is the social relational response to this impairment.  To draw again on the parallel between gender and disability, gender inequality is not rooted in differences in sex, instead it is in the social relations of how that particular sex is viewed or understood.  Sex is biological, gender is social.  Efforts to include girls in schooling focus on the social, attitudinal barriers to schooling, and not barriers limited to ones’ sex, for example.

Disability activists argue that being blind or having low vision is not disabling, but living in a world created for and by sighted people imposes disabling limitations on the active engagement of non-sighted people.  The social model of disability rejects the notion that disability lives within one body, or within one person, and instead puts the onus of disability on society.  It asks educators to re-think their understanding of disability in education.  Social model thinking puts all students including disabled students at the centre of learning.  It expects the instruction, classroom structure and building architecture to change to accommodate students, and not the other way. 

Social model thinking encourages educators, education ministries, and school boards to:

  • Understand disability differently and to change discriminatory attitudes,
  • Change their practices and policies to include all students,
  • Let disabled people direct their own learning, identify needs and strategies,
  • and in the process, it transforms organizations and institutions. (Rieser, 2013)

Understanding disability as exclusion and discrimination rooted in the social relations has significantly shaped legislative policy frameworks like the Salamanca Agreement and Education for All which advocate for inclusive education. Inclusion is the idea that all students and learners are able to grow and learn together in one space, irrespective of ability, race, class, gender, sexuality and caste.  What kind of support for teachers is needed to create more inclusive classrooms that successfully accommodate disability is the topic of an upcoming Education International publication entitled Re-thinking Disability.


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Tania Principe

Tania Principe is currently pursuing her PhD in Social Justice Education and Critical Disability Studies at OISE, University of Toronto.  Her current research explores the education and regulation of neurodiverse learners in elementary school. In addition to her research, Tania is Gender at Work’s Director of Operations and has over 20 years of experience working globally and locally in women’s rights and gender equality.  She is the fortunate mother of two school aged boys who continually challenge her thinking on education and she is a volunteer advocate for parents of children labelled with disabilities.

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