7 (Dis)ability Faux Pas in Social Justice Education by Ashley Wiseman and robbie routenberg

The social structures that oppress people with disabilities are deeply rooted in a history of violence, segregation, exclusion, and other forms of gross mistreatment. Continuations of this history are present in countless aspects of our social interactions and environment, conveyed by silent avoidance, biased language, and failure to expect the presence of disabled people.

While these common microaggressions, or (dis)ability “faux pas,” are harmful in any context, they are especially painful when perpetuated by the social justice education community. And when (dis)ability is excluded from conversations on social identity, many disabled people feel anger, isolation, and even collusion. Every time (dis)ability is ignored, it promotes the idea that it should be ignored, thus potentially contributing to someone’s internalized oppression.

Underscoring the need to address these issues is the fact that disabled people constitute the largest minority in the United States (http://nod.org/forgotten_diversity_infographic). More likely than , there are people with disabilities participating in every program we offer, dialogue we facilitate, and event we organize.

This blog post is a proactive effort to raise awareness of seven common (dis)ability faux pas in order to minimize their presence in our field. As two disabled social justice educators, we speak from personal experience of the comments, behaviors, and silence that pains us and members of our community. We are defining disability to encompass people who are socially, environmentally, and politically targeted because of biological differences in their bodies, minds, and hearts.

“Condition”, “Illness”, “Impairment”, “Suffering”:
Many times, conversations on this topic convey that disability is something biological that should be fixed. This aligns with a medical model of disability, where disability is not considered an identity but rather an impairment. Many disabled scholars and activists embrace a different conceptual model that aligns more with social justice education’s philosophy of identity – the social model of disability. Susan Wendell (1989) illustrates this model when she writes, “Disability is not a biological given; like gender, it is socially constructed from biological reality.” The social model takes the blame off of the person’s mind and/or body and places it on their social circumstance. For example, it is the lack of ramps, braille, and ASL, as well as normalized expectations related to testing time, social behaviors, and thinking styles that are disabling. As social justice educators, it is important that we understand disability in a way that honors individuals’ experiences of oppression.

“I don’t see anyone with a disability”:
Disability is often conceived of as something visible. Facilitators frequently try to gauge their participants’ ability to perform different activities based on visible cues, assuming nobody has a disability unless it is noticeable or personally disclosed. This faux pas is based on the assumption that disability is always physical and observable. But disability also includes mental, emotional, learning, and developmental manifestations. Educators must be aware of these disability experiences in order to consider an array of inclusion needs, such as frequency and duration of breaks and mealtimes; ease of social interaction; how much time is needed to read handouts and what size font to use; what media is accessible in slides; what type of movement is possible; and so on. No educator can be expected to anticipate every possible inclusion need; however, accessibility must be considered in a broad manner during our curriculum development process.

“Overcame the chances”, “Defy the odds”, “Despite her disability”:
Stigma operates in explicit and implicit ways. For disabled people, it is often perpetuated in an assumption that they cannot accomplish what non-disabled individuals can and that they have to overcome their disability in order to be successful. This trope is present is movies, motivational speeches, and other media related to disability: the disabled individual experiences a tragic struggle, followed by intense dedication, until they defy the odds and overcome their disability. While often portrayed as a ‘feel-good’ message of hope and optimism, it actually shows disabled people that their disability (and therefore their identity) is a hindrance to living a happy and successful life. Well-intentioned educators sometimes use materials that perpetuate these harmful messages when they are not aware of common tropes and how they contribute to disability stigma.

“You’re always smiling; you never pity yourself.”:
Similar to the previous faux pas, comments like this convey that certain bodies, minds, and hearts are so undesirable that it is impressive that the individuals who have them manage to find happiness at all. The speaker is usually overwhelmed with a sense of pity, which leads to low expectations and restricts the opportunities offered to people with disabilities. These low expectations can also be internalized by disabled people and severely limit what they perceive as choices for their lives.

Furthermore, these types of comments encourage people with disabilities not to authentically acknowledge some of the undesirable biological aspects of disability. To do so might suggest that they are indeed pitiable, so it is better to only show a happy side. Those of us engaged in social justice work know vulnerability and authenticity are crucial. It is therefore necessary to consider the underlying messages of intended compliments like this one.

“Crazy”, “Insane”, Schizo”, “Freak”:
Words have immense power to carry a history of oppression, pain, and bias into daily colloquial vernacular. Regardless of the context, certain words are still painful. Today, the words ‘crazy’ and ‘insane’, and even ‘schizophrenic’ and ‘bipolar,’ are used to describe numerous things in one’s life – professors, tests, current events, the weather. Even when unintended, these words become equated with negative associations: weird, unpredictable, annoying, ridiculous, etc. This suggests that people with disabilities are all of these negative things and does tremendous harm to the ways we subconsciously understand members of the disabled community. As educators, we ask our students to make difficult changes in their own lives to make the world a better place. It is our responsibility to model the same behavior, and choose to avoid and challenge vocabulary that contributes to the negative connotation of disability.

“Handicapped”, “Differently Abled”, “Physically Challenged” Handicapable”, “Special”:
Disability can be difficult to talk about for people who don’t know what words to use. This discussion is usually full of euphemisms (see heading), many of which seem acceptable to use either because they are ubiquitous or because of their seemingly-positive associations. Linton (1998) refers to these as “nice” words that “inflate the value of people with disabilities, [and] convey the boosterism and do-gooder mentality endemic to the paternalistic agencies that control many disabled people’s lives.” Social justice educators may be especially tempted to use such words in their efforts to linguistically recognize the inherent dignity of disabled people. It is important to know that these types of words were mostly created and perpetuated by people with ability privilege and do not reflect the preferences of most disabled people.

“Can I pet your dog? She’s so cute!!”:
Many people feel uninformed and insecure about interacting with disabled people, especially because we are commonly taught that talking about disability is disrespectful and it is best to treat people like they are non-disabled. When the opportunity arises, some people don’t know the appropriate way to engage, so they avoid direct communication. They ignore the individual and focus on things around them. For example, service dogs get more attention than the individuals they serve and conversations on mental health are surface level or avoided altogether. As social justice educators, we have a responsibility to interrupt this behavior and create opportunities for people to speak directly across (dis)ability identity in order to reach a place of mutual understanding and social change.

As a community of social justice educators, we need to support each other and hold one another accountable to not perpetuating these faux pas. Because they are rooted in a long oppressive history that has led to pervasive ableist thoughts and behaviors, this is no easy task. Furthermore, these faux pas are also prevalent in literature and other resources. Although Disability Studies is growing as an area of inquiry and critical scholarship, as we engage in self-work, we will need to think critically about the materials we are using and their potential limitations as a product of ableism.

Because disability encompasses such a range of body/mind/heart experiences, even disabled people will likely experience other forms of ability privilege. For example, someone with a learning disability may experience sight privilege. Arguably, we all have a great deal of learning ahead of us. As educators, we have the capacity to make positive contributions by including (dis)ability in our social justice work. Together, we must continue challenging the oppressive status quo and supporting each other through shared knowledge and understanding. We hope this blog post is just one example of how this can be accomplished. If you are interested in continuing this conversation, please email us directly (contact details below).

A longer version of this post is available at iincitechange.org.

Linton, S. (1998), Reassigning Meaning. Claiming Disability: Knowledge and Identity. New York: New York University Press, pp. 8-17.

Wendell, S. (1989), Toward a Feminist Theory of Disability. Hypatia, 4: 104–124. doi: 10.1111/j.1527-2001.1989.tb00576.x

Ashley Wiseman (ashleylwiseman@gmail.com): Ashley’s work focuses on building interculturally inclusive communities and empowering historically marginalized groups. Using dialogic pedagogy, Ashley strives to instill self-awareness and a sense of lifelong learning and integrity among college students. Her commitment to social justice begin during her undergraduate years at Grand Valley State University, where she obtained her Bachelor’s Degree in International Relations with a minor in Middle Eastern Studies. She’s then acquired her Master’s in Higher Education with a concentration in Social Justice and Diversity from the University of Michigan. Ashley currently serves as the Interim Associate Director of the Global Scholars Program at the University of Michigan.

robbie routenberg (robbie@iincitechange.org): For over 10 years, a commitment to social justice and interculturalism grounds robbie’s personal and professional involvements. Through highly interactive and reflective social justice pedagogy, robbie facilitates the development of awareness, knowledge and skills in students and practitioners, and assists them in applying this knowledge to multiple roles and contexts. robbie attained a Master’s Degree in Higher Education Administration at the University of Michigan (2007) and a Bachelor’s of Sociology from State University of New York at Geneseo (2005). Currently, robbie serves as the Interim Director of the Global Scholars Program at the University of Michigan. As a frequent consultant, presenter and author, robbie has helped individuals and organizations achieve their goals related to intercultural communication, reflective practice and engaging across identity differences.

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