SIP 14.10 Eliminate Ableism from Your Teaching

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Two students in a drone operation class.

If you are like many faculty members at Metropolitan State University of Denver, you take pride in differentiating your instruction for students: taking care to integrate visuals into your lectures, making sure classes involve lecture and activities, being available during office hours and through other mechanisms outside of class to offer support and clarification.

You are motivated by seeing the lightbulbs go on for students who may have struggled in college. You work hard to be creative in your teaching and go above and beyond to help students succeed.

At the same time, you may feel frustrated when students request disability-related accommodations that require you to put what seems like an inordinate amount of time and energy into meeting the needs of a small number of students. You sometimes don’t understand how the requested accommodations will help the student succeed, or you provide the requested accommodations and the student still doesn’t succeed, or you go to a lot of trouble to provide a particularly cumbersome accommodation and then it appears that the student doesn’t need it. It can feel disheartening.

Take a SIP of this: eliminate ableism from your teaching

While this frustration may be shared by many, it’s a form of ableism – discrimination in favor of able-bodied people. When we think of the needs of able-bodied people as “normal” and the needs of disabled people as “special,” our thinking gets distorted. We adapt things for able-bodied people all the time; when we think of students having diverse needs, we may take pride in meeting those needs. But when we think of students as having “special needs,” suddenly those needs can feel like a lot of work.

Examining commonly requested accommodations reveals them not to be special at all. The needs of students with disabilities are often the same as any other student: having enough time to finish an assignment, being able to attend class regularly and sit through it in relative comfort, knowing what is being said in a discussion or video, being able to read handouts or slides. These are not strange or unusual or special needs; they are unremarkable. Simply shifting how you think about accommodations can help you approach them with more enthusiasm.

You also might think you don’t have any disabled students this semester, so these ideas don’t apply to you and your students. Think again. It’s probable that you have students with disabilities in your classes who have chosen not to register with the Access Center or who have not requested accommodations.

While the Access Center is a strong advocate for students with disabilities, there are many reasons a student with a disability might choose to not register with the center. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of stigma associated with disability that many people would prefer not to deal with. Or the student may not be aware that their condition could qualify for accommodations. That is why it is helpful to review information about the Access Center during your first class meeting. When a student first meets with someone from the Access Center, they can be granted provisional accommodations for one semester while they work on securing documentation. However, getting medical documentation of a disability can be a confusing, time-consuming, expensive process that can take longer than one semester. A student in your class may be somewhere in the process, saving money for a doctor’s appointment, waiting for test results, trying to determine the right specialist to see or something else. The fact that they haven’t completed the documentation process does not make them any less disabled than they will be when they have the documentation.

Some students who have secured the necessary documentation and registered with the Access Center may decide not to request accommodations. Even with the backing of the Access Center, requesting accommodations can be exhausting. Scholar Annika Konrad calls the work of managing the stigma around disability, educating others about disability, the pressure to show immense gratitude for even the most basic accommodations and being openly vulnerable to being seen as lazy or looking for shortcuts “access fatigue.” Konrad’s research indicates that “the everyday pattern of constantly needing to help others participate in access (is) a demand so taxing and so relentless that, at times, it makes access simply not worth the effort” (

Ready to push back against ableism in your teaching? Here are some steps you can take:

  1. Use the principles of Universal Design for Learning to make your courses accessible to everyone. You can get started learning about UDL by reading SIP 1.12. Teaching using UDL principles is a great way to help students with disabilities who are not registered with the Access Center succeed in your class.
  2. Notice how difficult it might be for a student with physical disabilities to find your classroom. The buildings you teach in are required by law to have ramps making them wheelchair-accessible, but take a moment and consider: Do you know exactly where the ramp is? Is there any indication at the building’s main entrance where the ramp is? Often, the answer is no because most buildings are designed with able-bodied users in mind. Ironically, the least mobile among us often have to wander around the outside of a building looking for the way in while the able-bodied get clear visual cues allowing them to easily enter. Before the first class meeting, email the class with instructions on how to locate the classroom, including how to get into the building using a ramp. Mention where stairs and elevators are. Consider barriers that might be encountered by students who are vision-impaired.
  3. Recognize that asking for accommodations is a stressful process for students. Praise and support them when they make their accommodation needs known. Konrad notes that “people with disabilities are often encouraged to advocate for their own access without consideration for the mental and emotional labor required to do so” (180). Consider this before assuming that the student is looking for a way to do less work or be held to a lower standard when asking for accommodations.
  4. Understand that students with approved accommodations may have accommodation needs that fluctuate during the semester. Be prepared to have conversations throughout the semester to identify what might help them succeed in the course. The idea that disability is stable and unchanging once diagnosed is an ableist assumption and not the reality for many people. You could use a Classroom Assessment Technique to gather feedback from the whole class about what students would benefit from (for more information about Classroom Assessment Techniques, check out SIP 12.11.
  5. Accept that the accommodations students ask for may not make sense to you. It may not appear to you that a student needs an accommodation they are asking for. Depending on a student’s disability and other circumstances, such as the student’s current stress and energy levels, their work schedule, the weather, their ability to eat a good diet and even their hydration level, their needs may change. It’s OK if the accommodation doesn’t make sense to you.
  6. Invite students in your syllabus and/or in a statement you make to the class during the first meeting to talk to you about what they need to be successful, whether it’s accommodations or something else. Opening up a conversation with your students about the limits of a “one size fits all” approach can help you and them begin to recognize and push back against internalized ableism.

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