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Identifying Disability Bias in Classroom Curriculum

Special educators exist in complex and nuanced spaces within public schools. Our roles simultaneously require us to be lead instructors of standards-based curriculum, interventionists focused on addressing gaps in knowledge and skills, relationship counselors between school administrators and parents, and compliance officers responsible for meeting the regulatory requirements of state and federal special education laws. However, I contend that our most vital role may be to combat the prejudicial attitudes toward disability that are manifested in the content of classroom curriculum itself. In order to encourage future special educators to address issues of disability bias in academic curriculum, a university teacher preparation program, with a social justice focus, trained teacher candidates to identify prejudicial, ableist messages that were embedded in children’s literature recommended for classroom use by the Common Core State Standards framework. Prior to engaging in informed conversation about disability bias and learning to use an ableism checklist tool, teacher candidates were largely unable to identify instances in which curriculum materials positioned disability as something to be regarded as inferior or unwelcome. Following thoughtfully facilitated conversations and the use of an ableism checklist tool, the teacher candidates were able to identify aspects of curriculum that conveyed prejudicial messages about individuals with disabilities. This approach showed promise as a tool for teacher preparation and also as an approach that could be used with currently practicing teachers. It is a process that can help teachers challenge their existing beliefs and move toward more inclusive, socially just classroom curriculum.

Questions to consider:

  • As teachers, are we aware of the sometimes hidden messages within classroom texts that convey prejudicial and limiting beliefs about individuals with disabilities?

  • As parents, what opportunities are provided for us to become familiar with our children’s classroom curriculum materials?

  • As teachers and parents, how prepared are we to move away from familiar, time-honored children’s stories that communicate biased views toward individuals with disabilities?

  • As teacher educators, what can we do to provide future and current teachers with the tools needed to reframe and reshape curriculum to be more inclusive and socially just?

Blackwell, W., Fisher, M., Buss, J., Cisco, K, & Jaeger, M. (2017). Exploring ableism with pre-service teachers. Scholar-Practitioner Quarterly, 11, 266-279.

As a disability advocate and through his work with the School of Teaching and Learning at Sam Houston State University, Will is focused on preparing the next generation of special educators. Find Will on Twitter, @Will62094978.