By Cyril Slemaker
As school districts push for the complete return to pre-pandemic normality, it’s time to reflect on the ways that COVID-19 has made commonplace some of the accommodations disabled staff and students have been requesting, and ultimately denied, prior to the pandemic.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in the 2018-19 academic year, 14 percent of school-aged students in the United States were served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). That’s over 7 million young people nationwide who have a disability recognized by their school system and in turn receive some kind of accommodation for their studies. However, most signs point to that number being much lower than the reality, as over 61 million (or 26 percent) of adults in the United States are living with a documented disability according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. When we consider the staggering number of barriers around accessing physical and mental health care, the societal stigma associated with labeling and documenting a disability, and the lack of knowledge or misunderstanding regarding mental illness and rarer disabilities, these numbers begin to look alarmingly underreported and underacknowledged; proving beyond a doubt that conversations around disability and accommodations should be more than an afterthought to curriculum and school planning. Yet, except for the recent changes brought about by COVID-19, the way we “do” school hasn’t changed in decades to accommodate the true needs of our diversifying population. And as we learn more about the long-term effects of COVID-19 on young and adult bodies, it is more important than ever to consider the ways we’re addressing and teaching about disability and prioritizing accessibility in our classrooms and staff rooms.
Instead of returning to the normal mode of operation without critical analysis, we should take into account the processes and changes we’ve implemented and continue to offer the pandemic-inspired accommodations that have benefitted disabled students and staff. And it’s not just having virtual classes as an alternative to in-person schooling but also explicitly prioritizing mental health, being more flexible on assignments, allowing students to wear clothes that don’t irritate them, and freedom to use the bathroom whenever you need to and for as long as you need to.
Meep Matsushima, a genderqueer/lesbian school librarian, currently on indefinite medical leave, suggests disability allies “[advocate] for [continued] accessibility and reasonable accommodations,” as districts try to return to pre-pandemic workflows. She cites “working from home when grading, budgeting, purchasing; as well as enforcing humane workplace norms such as not staying late or having flexible hours,” as pandemic accommodations that, if kept, would continue to benefit disabled and non-disabled staff. The pandemic is pushing discussions of accessibility and disability back into the mainstream conversation and it’s time for schools to take these conversations seriously and reflect on their culture and norms.
And it’s not only physical accommodations we should be considering but a restructuring of our curricula to include disabled voices, experiences, and history. As educators, we know the importance of explicitly teaching identity and intersectionality. As we continue adding and exploring these topics in our curricula, we need to explicitly make space for the full spectrum of ability; naming and claiming disability without shame or judgment. “I think a pervasive attitude about disability is that it’s something we accommodate and ‘work around,’ but not [something we] learn about or consider a respected identity, community, or culture in the world,” said Carlyn Mueller, a professor of Rehabilitation Psychology & Special Education at the University of Wisconsin Madison and disabled woman with physical and learning disabilities. “That attitude harms everyone, but it especially harms youth with disabilities who never see themselves reflected in positive ways in school.”
Have you ever done an identity web exercise with students who wrote with pride that they are a “Guatemalan, boy, Christian, brother, gamer, soccer player”? It’s not out of the realm of possibility that this same student uses an inhaler, or glasses, or takes medication for ADHD. Those things would imply the existence of a disability, but there’s no mention of disability as part of this student’s self-described identity. “Disability is so socially stigmatized we don’t even talk to kids on IEPs about their disability,” explains Lauren Zepp, a veteran special education teacher turned Rehabilitation Psychology and Special Education doctoral student with a focus on disability in young adult and children’s literature. “Students were coming to my classroom, not connecting with the identity of disability at all—even actively rejecting it if anyone brought it up to them because it was seen as so shameful and something that, even if you acknowledged it personally, you would never say it out loud to another person and certainly not to your peers.” In society, and particularly in education, we have begun pushing back on colorblindness as a way of talking (or rather, not talking) about racial differences, instead educating ourselves and our students using anti-racism techniques and curricula. It’s important that we expand that work to include a critical examination of our current practice of ignoring or brushing over disability as well.
None of the disabled educators I spoke to, myself included, saw themselves or learned explicitly about disability in their K-12 curricula beyond, at most, a short unit about Helen Keller’s early life. Even in our current teaching practice, disability is often absent from the core curriculum unless an enterprising advocate is adding it in themselves.
“I was supporting my students on a history assignment about the Civil Rights movement,” Zepp recalls. “When one of my [disabled] students asked, ‘What about people like us? Does anybody try to get us rights?’” Zepp was floored by this astute observation and began a journey of learning and teaching that has shaped her career. “Teaching about the Disability Rights movement was something that gave my students a broader perspective on the world. And it was how I, myself, learned about disability rights and the history of disability in America. Before, even as a special education teacher, I didn’t have a concept of things beyond ‘this is IDEA and this is what the law means for schools.’ And so [teaching and exploring Disability Rights] was a pivotal moment for me as a teacher and a person.”
As with any marginalized identity, students need access to communities that share and understand their experiences. Mueller agrees, saying, “What I’ve heard over and over again from adults with disabilities is that from teachers and schools, they needed connection to the disability community, participation in disability culture, role models, and to see themselves reflected in curriculum. That requires a different positioning from teachers: one of allyship and of intentionally listening to disabled community as fundamental to the work of educating students with disabilities.” While having non-disabled teachers as disability rights advocates is excellent, hiring disabled teachers should be a cornerstone of this work. Matsushima asserts that “administrators need to stop seeing disabled job candidates and employees as burdens, but instead think of us as benefits. Kids are curious about disability and [being someone who can answer their questions] is a good thing. Not every disabled educator is going to be open to [being a teachable moment], and that’s okay. […] I want my students to grow up to be compassionate disability justice advocates, whether they’re disabled or not, and I’m willing to sacrifice a little privacy to do that.” Schools focus a lot of energy on educating disabled students in a vacuum, separated from the identity of disability. Making space for disabled teachers who bring adult perspectives and lived experience to disabled and non-disabled students is critical in empowering and reframing disability as an identity worth wearing with pride.
When we understand and respect disabled people and their experiences, making accommodations becomes second nature—it becomes part of the initial plan and not an afterthought. While the pandemic has given us the ability to see some level of accommodation and flexibility at work, this is only the beginning of a long road to acceptance and the restructuring of school norms and narratives to show disability as an identity without a negative value judgment.
Cyril Slemaker (he him/they them) is a white, low vision, chronically ill, transmasculine, secondary English as a Second Language teacher. He is an organizer and mentor with ProtestAccess, a collective that works to make online social justice content accessible. He lives in Boston.