Ableism is the most frequently used word to identify and name prejudice and discrimination against people with disabilities. It is also used to describe “the idea that disabled people are not as good as non-disabled people” (Withers, 2013, n.p.). Some other related words include: disablism, mentalism, sanism, and audism. Actions don’t need to be intentional to constitute ableism; unconscious or unintended actions can also perpetuate ableism and have a negative impact on people and environments.

In teaching and learning, ableism can be expressed both overtly and subtly at individual, interpersonal, structural, and cultural levels through our perspectives on and attitudes about disability and accessibility, the language we use, the course material we choose, course processes we put in place, the architectural design of our classrooms, and in class discussions.

Below, we provide some examples of ableism that disabled people have experienced over the course of history and strategies disability communities have used to counter ableism. We also review how the Medical Model Approach to disability perpetuates ableism and how the Social and Human Rights Model Approaches can help us identify and address it.

The rest of this resource will offer concrete examples of how we can make all aspects of our teaching and learning practices more accessible and inclusive, thereby reducing and resisting ableism — including the barriers it constructs and the exclusion it creates and condones.

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  • Read about the ableism embedded in Autism Awareness Month, and autistic people’s advocacy work to promote Autism Acceptance Month instead. Learn concrete steps you can take to support autistic communities in resisting ableism (Leary, 2017).

Disability History

One form of privilege that non-disabled people often experience is that they have not needed to know about policies and practices that impact the lives of disabled people or the advocacy movements that disabled people have formed to respond to exclusion and harm.

What this means is, while disability community organizing on campus and in Hamilton has been happening for years, it rarely catches the attention of the broader McMaster community. Seldom does knowledge emerging from disability movements make its way onto course syllabi or into class discussions. We often pay little attention to ableism on campus.

Accessible teaching and learning starts by recognizing the historical ways of understanding and treating disability that continue to influence our actions today, including the negative experiences of ableism that people with disabilities have faced for generations. We also need to become aware of ongoing community efforts to resist this discrimination and exclusion.

Here are some examples of this history:

  • Institutionalization: Disabled people have had a long history of institutionalization. Many people with disabilities have been excluded from society and warehoused in asylums, hospitals, and “special” schools (Davies & Beckman, n.d.; The Community Consortium, Inc., 2015). They have often been neglected and abused in these places, and have, in recent years, advocated for and won many class action lawsuit settlements to compensate for the harm that has been caused (CBC News, 2016).
  • Eugenics and Reproduction: Disabled people have been prevented from having children and participating in parenting through involuntary sterilization; forced or coerced termination of pregnancies; limited access to privacy, space, and support to participate in sexual activities; limited access to sexual health information and services; and the removal of children from the homes of disabled parents. These sorts of practices are often referred to as eugenics (Living Archives on Eugenics in Western Canada, n.d.; University of Lethbridge, n.d.). Faculty member Dr. Ann Fudge Schormans and PhD Candidate Alan Santinele Martino collaborate with advocates labelled with intellectual disabilities to challenge this history and advance disabled people’s rights to “intimate citizenship” (“Making Space for Intimate Citizenship”, n.d.).
  • Participation in Education: People with disabilities experience significant systemic barriers that impact their access to education (Ontario Human Rights Commission, n.d.). As a result, they are less likely to graduate from high school or from a postsecondary program compared to their non-disabled peers. According to a survey on disability conducted by Statistics Canada (2012), 30% of disabled people discontinued their studies and 40% indicated that they had experienced people avoiding or excluding them at school. These barriers and exclusions are being challenged by the McMaster Students Union’s new Maccess service run by and for students with disabilities, which hosts an annual Accessibility Forum (McMaster Students Union, 2014, 2015) and (In)Accessibility Week campaign (McMaster Students Union, 2016).

One way that you can respond to this history of ableism and contribute to disability advocacy is by learning more about accessibility and incorporating Accessible Education principles into your course design and delivery.

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