Tips for Handling Academic Ableism in the Classroom

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.

WHAT IS ACADEMIC ABLEISM?

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:

  • Not following an IEP, 504 Plan, or other disability accommodations
  • Providing inaccessible classroom materials
  • Using disability as a punchline or mocking people with disabilities
  • Talking about a person instead of directly to them, or speaking on their behalf
  • Questioning if a person is actually disabled

WHAT ISN’T ACADEMIC ABLEISM?

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:

  • Referring to people with identity-first language, i.e “blind student”
  • Using words such as see, look, or hear in context, such as  “did you hear about that?” or “did you see the new movie?”
  • Asking questions about disability or assistive technology in a respectful/meaningful way

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TAKE NOTE OF MICROAGGRESSIONS OR SMALLER INCIDENTS

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:

  • 10/16/2012- “Veronica, I don’t know why you keep asking for large print when you’ll be getting a driver’s license soon. Obviously you can see better than you tell us.” (Note that I never have had a learner’s permit or license, though at the time lots of my friends were getting their licenses)
  • 5/5/2011- “There’s no such thing as large print in the real world, so try harder to read.”
  • 1/9/2014- “I feel bad that you don’t have an accessible copy of the textbook, but since you didn’t do the assigned reading I have to give you a zero.”

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.

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LET OTHERS KNOW WHAT IS HAPPENING

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:

  • Guidance counselor
  • Case manager
  • Teacher of the Visually Impaired
  • My parents
  • Another trusted teacher
  • The head of special education at my school

Conversations about academic ableism didn’t always take the form of formal meetings, sometimes it would just be brief conversations or sentences like these:

  • “Ms. A made me leave the classroom to enlarge my test today and by the time I got back, I only had twenty minutes to take a thirty-question test. I really needed the extra time to finish, but I was told that I should have been faster with getting my test enlarged even though I had to wait for the copier.”
  • “Mr. Q says that if I can read my phone to text, then I can read my classwork. But my phone is in large print and the classwork isn’t.”
  • “My math teacher keeps telling me that going to college with low vision would be a colossal waste of money and that kids with vision loss don’t go to college.”

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TALK TO THE TEACHER ABOUT WHAT IS GOING ON

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:

  • Having assignments and classroom materials enlarged by a paraprofessional so the teacher did not have to do it themselves
  • Letting me sit next to a friend in the classroom who could help me with reading assignments
  • Requesting assignments in a different file format
  • Receiving digital copies of assignments that I could make accessible on my own

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INVOLVING OTHER STUDENTS

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.

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PREPARING FOR A MAJOR INCIDENT

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:

  • Me getting yelled at in front of the entire class
  • Being barred from taking an important exam
  • Hearing repeated microaggressions that become very overwhelming
  • Having the teacher tell me to get out of their classroom

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:

  • Having a way to contact the school testing coordinator
  • Knowing how to quickly track down my case manager or other school staff
  • Finding a safe place I can get to if I have to leave the classroom- for me, this was the band room
  • Carrying my cell phone with me so I could call someone

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WHAT TO DO DURING A MAJOR INCIDENT

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:

  • Record what is happening- more on this in the next section
  • Remain as calm as possible, as there is a change that words will be twisted so that the student seems like the instigator
  • State facts in a neutral tone, i.e “my IEP says that I need assignments in 18 point font” or “I can’t see this”
  • Make sure that assistive technology and medical aids are protected and cannot be damaged- take items off a table and put them in a backpack, or make sure the person cannot reach out and grab anything
  • Get out of the classroom and go to a safe place, either the one that was planned in advance or something like the nearest bathroom
  • Report the situation as soon as it is safe to do so- call someone or go to the office once class is over
  • Allow other students to help with recording or documenting situations if help is offered

FIND A WAY TO RECORD WHAT IS HAPPENING

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:

  • Take written notes about what is being said by each person
  • Record an audio file
  • If there are written comments, take a screenshot or copy/paste them
  • Record the screen (if it is an online class)

WRITE A BRIEF STATEMENT ABOUT WHAT WAS WITNESSED

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.

REPORT INCIDENTS AS SOON AS POSSIBLE

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.

SUMMARY OF TIPS FOR HANDLING ACADEMIC ABLEISM IN THE CLASSROOM

  • Academic ableism is defined as the discrimination against disabled people in the academic space
  • Take notes about microaggressions and smaller incidents, including the date, time, and what was said
  • Tell a teacher, staff member, or other trusted adult what is happening
  • Talk to the teacher about ways to improve how accommodations are implemented in the classroom
  • If they ask, tell fellow students what they can do to help
  • Come up with a plan to get out of the classroom and stay safe if there is a major incident
  • If a major incident happens, find a way to record what is happening and leave as quickly as possible
  • Write a statement about what was witnessed
  • Report incidents of academic ableism in the classroom as soon as possible- don’t keep them a secret