Back to School Ableism

It’s the back-to-school season. As you head back into classrooms and lecture halls, remember that every student has an equal right to education. I’ve seen far too many student handbooks and classroom rules that are overtly ableist and not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. So let’s look at some of the ways school rules can unfairly create barriers to equal access.

Dress Codes

Dress codes often place extra burdens on students with disabilities. Sensory processing disorder and other related issues can rule out certain fabrics or cuts of clothing, or make them unbearable to wear. It’s not exactly easy to pay attention and learn while your entire body is itching or on fire from clothes you’d never pick for yourself. Bans on leggings and yoga pants take away the most comfortable options for bottoms, leaving things that aren’t equivalent instead. Bra requirements for developing students aren’t taking into account how painful and distracting it can be to have a rubber band around your rib cage all day, and they’re centered on the notion that developing breasts are obscene and shameful. While many students can work around restrictive clothing choices, other students already have their clothing choice restricted by their disability.

Assigned Seating 

Sitting by the door may be a mild distraction for some students, but a constant interruption breaking all hope of concentration for others. Requiring students to sit in a seat chosen without their needs taken into account is not equally disruptive to all students. Simply letting students have an input on their seats can make a tremendous difference, even if those seats are then assigned for the remainder of the term. Find out who needs to be in the front, who needs to be in the back, who can’t handle being near the door, and who desperately needs the door for frequent bathroom breaks.

Bans on Electronics 

Any student has the capacity to use a cell phone or tablet as an aide in school, or as a distraction. But some students need personal electronic devices – to follow along, to take notes, to use Adaptive Accessibility Communication to communicate with the teacher and participate in class discussions. A total ban on phones and tablets costs these students more than the others.

Bathroom Restrictions

While it might be ideal for classroom management if no one ever had to use the bathroom during class, it’s not reality. Many disabilities impact bladder and bowel control, frequency of urination, and consequences of “holding it in”. Kidney disorders, irritable bowel diseases, and even pregnancy (which is considered a temporary disability) can make it impossible or even dangerous to abstain from using the toilet for prolonged periods of time.

Physical Education Without Accommodation 

I want disabled students included in physical education. It’s often harder for us to get exercise, and even more important that we do so. However, I want physical education that recognizes our strengths and weaknesses and works with them to teach sustainable healthy exercise methods that don’t exacerbate pre-existing conditions. Much of the very worst ableism happens in gym class. Things like making an asthmatic student run without an inhaler, disbelieving students about injuries acquired in class, and laughing off the idea that menstruation could impact athletic ability in the short term for some. When disabled students are believed, they’re often simply excluded from physical education altogether, or told to bring a doctors note and sit on the sidelines for the remainder of the year.

So what’s the solution? How can we balance individual education needs of disabled students with classroom management?

  • The first thing I’d recommend to educators is to recognize blanket policies are restrictive. If you’re going to allow accommodations to the classroom rules for disabled students, let them know. Put it in the syllabus. Don’t make students guess that if they work up the nerve to talk to you, you’ll be reasonable, because some will not be able to without that reassurance.
  • If your university or school has a disability services program, let ALL students know that when they enroll. I attended university for three semesters as a disabled student before even finding out we had a disability services center on campus. A single sentence during student orientation would have let me know this existed and where it was, but instead I tried to go things alone because I didn’t know I had choices.
  • Honor individual education plans. If your student needs a note-taker or extra bathroom breaks or modified PE requirements, respect that and work with the student to find solutions that fit everyone’s needs. Don’t assume you know a better way to achieve that than the student does, and don’t assume the requested accommodations are unnecessary.
  • Remember that failing to provide accommodation is not a neutral act. When you refuse to accommodate a disabled student, you are requiring that disabled student to accommodate you.

1 thought on “Back to School Ableism

  1. Excellent and true !

    I remember having to sit several seats back, and behind a tall male student, when I was recovering from eye surgery in grade four, a whole bunch of years ago. It never occurred to me that the teacher was discriminating against me.

    Then there were the multiple problems I experienced while I was in college, and losing most of my hearing at the same time. Hearing loss is one of those things that is so gradual that you don’t really realize what is going on until you get an audiological test. I lost 40% of my hearing (on top of a previous 10% loss) between 2007 and 2010, and didn’t understand why taking college classes was so difficult. One of the professors had a habit of turning his back to the students for most of the class, which made reading his lips impossible. When he wasn’t doing that he would drop his head and look away from us at the end of a sentence. I should have been much more proactive about going to him to let him know how much of a problem it was.

    Thanks very much. I appreciate you talking about this.

    Take good care,

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