“How am I supposed to teach those children?”
The seasoned fifth grade public school teacher who asked me this question was reacting to the news that two of her students had IEP’s. She did not yet know the students and, presumably, she had not yet read their IEPs, which would in fact tell her how to teach them. What she did not ask me was whether her teaching methods would serve these children well, what she could do to make their learning experience more appropriate, or if she could be helped to improve her practice. Her conviction was that students who could not learn the way she taught were deficient. She further believed that they should be segregated from “normal” children, into a self-contained class, because they would clearly be unable to thrive and would consequently hold back the children “who really belonged” in her room.
This teacher, a former colleague of mine, was exhibiting ableism when she assumed that she knew the capacity of children based on labels, and felt no compunction about limiting their opportunities in what she believed was the best interest of her class. This situation is a microcosm of the ableist world. The person or institution with power determines capacity and opportunity. The challenge faced by the individual with a disability is understood to be caused by a defect in the individual rather than unnecessary obstacles in the environment. The solution is to remove the individual from the environment rather than accommodating him or her by making the environment accessible.
Ableism is the misguided belief, supported by institutions and power structures, that an individual’s capacity can be predetermined based on the absence of certain abilities.
The people who hold ableist views see people who are disabled as “other.” They maintain that there are norms - expectations of how people should develop and act and feel and look - and those who do not fall within these norms are individually, inherently limited. Frequently, ableists reduce an individual to the label they have been given because of the perceived disability. There is no effort to find strengths - other abilities - or to view the individual as multifaceted. If you’re dyslexic, and you can’t read text, you can’t read. It doesn’t matter that you may have a sophisticated understanding of text when you hear it, that you can critique a work, or that you can yourself write text beautifully if you have speech recognition software, a scribe, or maybe just spellcheck. What matters is you can’t read.
The way we should respond to ableism will vary given the situation. Sometimes we need to be strategic - I didn’t correct my colleague. I offered to go over the IEPs with her and be supportive if I could. I wanted to set up lines of communication and help in the effort to make our school more inclusive. Sometimes we need to be disruptive or threatening, because comfortable people are not often motivated to make changes. And sometimes we just react, because sometimes we just can’t help it.
The answer to my colleague’s question, which sadly she had no interest in hearing, would have been that she should just teach well. She should figure out the individual needs of her students and adjust the curriculum so they had access to it. The “disabilities” she was so upset by, were probably the result of a mismatch between what the learner needed and how the teachers taught. Ultimately the question is “Who gets to decide?” Who decides what’s normal or appropriate? Who decides what someone’s capacity or needs are? Who decides what’s fair, or reasonable, or just? Who decides who belongs? Ableism stays with us as long as the people who make those decisions are not the people who suffer the consequences of them.