When I was in middle school, I began to experience academic ableism in the classroom, primarily from my teachers. While I was fortunate to have many wonderful teachers who helped me to develop a love of learning and a sense of belonging in the classroom, I also had teachers who made me feel like I was incapable of learning and that I wasn’t welcome in their classroom because of my disability. Sometimes, these teachers would even tell me directly that they wished that I wasn’t in their class and that they didn’t want to have to deal with having a disabled student. As my experiences with academic ableism continued into high school, I became much better at handling these types of situations and making sure that they were correctly documented, and have been able to help many other friends and students who deal with their own experiences of academic ableism in the classroom. Here are my tips for handling academic ableism in the classroom that I have shared with many friends and students over the years, based on my own personal experiences.
Academic ableism is a term that was coined to describe the discrimination of disabled people in the academic space. Some examples of academic ableism include:
While this post specifically focuses on academic ableism, it’s helpful to know what behavior is and isn’t ableism. Some examples of things that are not considered academic ableism include:
In my case, there were always microaggressions or smaller incidents that lead up to the “big incident” where I would get yelled at in front of the class. I would take notes of these incidents by typing what was said into my phone when I have a free moment, and if I had a friend who sat next to me, I would ask them to write down what was said as well. Some examples of incidents that my friends and I would take notes of include:
Another common occurrence for me would be that I would be sent out of the classroom to go get my assignments enlarged, and would be given a hall pass to go to my case manager’s office or another location. I would save these paper hall passes so that I could use them as evidence later, or I would show the hall passes written in my school agenda to my case manager to show that there was a pattern of me being sent out of the classroom and having less time to complete my assignments. I should add that I wouldn’t tell my case manager every time I didn’t receive an assignment in an accessible format, but if I started to notice a pattern of regularly not getting accessible materials, I would make sure to tell them sooner rather than later.
When I was in middle school, I was scared to tell people about the academic ableism I was experiencing in the classroom because I blamed myself for what was happening and didn’t want to get myself in even more trouble, or get my teacher in trouble. This mentality led to me never talking about my experiences in the classroom until a major incident would blow up, and then everyone would know what was going on whether I wanted them to or not. When I got to high school, I became much more comfortable with talking to people about incidents involving academic ableism so that when major incidents did happen, it wouldn’t be the first time people were hearing about this behavior. Examples of people I would talk to about microaggressions and smaller incidents include:
Conversations about academic ableism didn’t always take the form of formal meetings, sometimes it would just be brief conversations or sentences like these:
My parents and I both have a great amount of respect for teachers and for everything that they do, and we recognized that it would take extra time and planning for me to receive accessible materials in the classroom for certain subjects. If we started to notice a pattern of teachers being unable to provide accessible materials, my parents, case manager, and/or myself would meet with the teacher and ask if there was anything we could do to help make it easier for them to follow my accommodations. While these solutions weren’t always the cure to academic ableism in the classroom, they did help teachers to know that they did not have to figure out how to implement accommodations on their own, and that there were tools available for them to help support students.
Some examples of solutions we proposed included:
I rarely talked about academic ableism with my friends in middle and high school because I didn’t want these incidents to change their perception of a teacher, especially if it was a teacher that we both had. However, if a student came to me and asked if there was a way that they could help, I would typically ask them to document what was happening so that I wasn’t the only one talking about this, or to tell someone if a major incident took place and if I left the room. If my other teachers noticed something, I was more open to telling them that I was having an issue in the classroom.
While it’s not fun to go to school paranoid that something will happen, I would have to deal with what I called a “major incident” of academic ableism at least once every school year. Some examples of major incidents I dealt with included:
One of the things that helped me to be able to handle these major incidents without losing control of my mind or saying things that I would regret is having a plan for what to do if any of these things happened. Some examples of plans I had in place included:
Even if I could not predict when a major incident would take place, I would know the general warning signs. If I noticed that my accessible materials had disappeared, if I was experiencing more microaggressions, or if there was much more frustration around me being in the classroom, I generally knew that something was going to happen and it was not going to be fun. While I tend to block out exactly what went down during a specific major incident, here are some helpful actions I took to help protect myself:
While classes should not be recorded with the expectation that a major incident involving academic ableism will occur, it is invaluable to have recordings of outbursts or public displays of academic ableism. While students may not be comfortable or able to record the incident with a camera, there are a few other options for recording what is going on:
After a major incident dies down, it can seem overwhelming to process what has just happened. Even if a student didn’t catch anything on a recording, it’s extremely helpful to write down what was witnessed in the form of a brief statement. This can look similar to the notes on microaggressions or take the form of a longer statement that can later be shared with an academic office or principal. I recommend including as much detail as possible and saving the document to a personal device or notebook, not a school computer.
While it may seem tempting to pretend that something never happened and to shut down mentally when a major incident takes place, these major incidents need to be reported as soon as possible. After one major incident, I hid in another classroom for the rest of the day and pretended that nothing happened, and was prepared to continue to pretend nothing happened until my mom started getting calls from the parents of students who had witnessed what had taken place. By the time those calls started coming through, the school day had ended and we had to wait until the next school day to be able to report the major incident. In another example that takes place several years later, one of my close friends had a major incident of their own take place and they waited months to report what happened because they weren’t sure if anything would happen if their incident was reported.
The advice that I gave to my friend and the advice I wish that I had given myself is that it is not their call to determine whether there will be consequences or action taken against the person for their academic ableism, but if they stay quiet and pretend that there are no issues, then there will definitely be no consequences and the person will get the message that it’s okay to act this way, and may target another student in the future. Even if there are no consequences now, reporting these incidents may help others in the future who experience the same thing, or they may receive consequences in private or at a later time.
By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes, www.veroniiiica.com