The Problem with Ableism


Are Students with Disabilities Left Behind in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiatives?

For good reasons, commitments to strengthen diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives within school jurisdictions are improving. They are evidenced in school-wide practices that more openly and respectfully celebrate cultural, racial, and gender diversity. However, often missing from these initiatives and visible school practices is an adequate representation of students with disabilities, which is a problem with ableism.

What is ableism?

Ableism is a form of discrimination against people with disabilities and is rooted in beliefs about “normal,” “typical,” and “average” abilities. Based on practices of assessment and classification, the abilities of disabled people, whether physical, emotional, or cognitive, are ranked and often considered less favourable than the abilities of non-disabled people. Like racism and sexism, ableism leads to misconceptions and the justification of stereotypes that build barriers to the inclusion of disabled people.

How does ableism show itself in schools?

Not unlike other forms of prejudice, ableism is deeply embedded in educational frameworks and practices, including anti-oppression and social justice movements. Ableism can be so entrenched that harmful beliefs, attitudes, and actions toward disabled students remain unnoticed by those living without a disability. Even for people living with a disability and their allies, ableist barriers may be overlooked or minimized to increase feelings of acceptance and belonging. However, when children learn to mask their disability, over time, it creates long-term adverse effects on identity formation, well-being, and academic achievement. For students living with a disability, ableism in education looks, feels, and sounds different but may be manifested in the following ways.

Looks Like
  • Physically inaccessible schools, learning spaces, playgrounds, field trips
  • Segregating students in different learning spaces within and outside of classrooms
  • Non-participation in extracurricular activities, including sports teams, school plays, and music concerts
  • Lack of disabled role models in curriculum, resources, and school community
Feels Like
  • Highlighting disabled experiences as either tragic or inspirational
  • Questioning if someone “really” has a disability
  • Restricted and limited choice in learning activities, spaces, and materials, including technology and communication supports
  • Personalized accommodations, supports, and services are a burden
  • Embarrassment and stigmatization when unnecessary attention is placed on students
Sounds Like
  • Talking to a disabled student like they are a child or speaking for them
  • Naming a student’s disability in front of peers
  • Questioning a student’s need for breaks in front of peers
  • Using phrases such as “that’s so lame,” “they acted crazy today,” or “It’s like the blind leading the blind.”
Why is ableism an important consideration for leaders and educators developing DEI frameworks?

Over 14% of Canadians aged 15 years and older identify with a disability (Canadian Survey on Disability, 2012). Learning disabilities are the most reported disability, and for people who identify as having a developmental disability, 94% had at least one additional co-occurring disability, which commonly included a learning or a mental-health disability. Figures from the National Autism Spectrum Disorder Surveillance System (2018) suggest that 1 in 66 Canadian children are on the autism spectrum, and approximately 1 in 3000 Canadians are deaf-blind (Canadian Deafblind Association, 2022).

While considering data on the prevalence of disability in Canadian society is important to emphasize the importance of including the perspectives of disabled students in school-based DEI initiatives, it also serves as a reminder that student identities do not exist in isolation or disconnected parts. Instead, the identities of students with disabilities may also intersect with the identities and experiences of persons of colour and LGTBQIA2S+. Therefore, by addressing ableism in DEI frameworks, leaders and educators will more fairly include the authentic identities of all marginalized students they seek to represent and support.

How can jurisdictional leaders and teachers work towards removing ableist barriers in DEI frameworks?

Thanks to the advocacy efforts of parents, disabled students, and community members, the inclusion of disabled students in community schools has significantly improved since the 1970s and is backed by International Human Rights laws, including The Convention on the Rights of the Person with Disability (United Nations in Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2006). Policies to develop inclusive education policies are guided by the Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education (UNESCO, 1997). As Canadian schools seek ways to strengthen their inclusionary policies and practices, including DEI initiatives, the identities and perspectives of students with disabilities must be fairly represented. A few strategies leaders and teachers might consider as they seek to remove ableist barriers include:

  • Avoid tokenistic inclusion of disabled student voices and experience
  • From the outset, ensure students with disabilities are included in the planning, development, and review of DEI initiatives
  • Ensure students with disabilities have equitable opportunities to hold leadership positions
  • Reconsider ideas of time, space, and participation, including methods of communication and written/oral output, as a measure of the legitimacy of student knowledge and experience
  • In surveys and feedback forms, include items that are relevant to students with disabilities
  • Consider the intersectionality of student experiences, including race, culture, gender, and ability
  • Don’t speak on behalf of someone with a disability unless they ask you to

To advance the ethical and equitable inclusion of all marginalized students, fair representation of students with disabilities within DEI initiatives must occur. However, to improve the authentic participation of disabled students within DEI initiatives and activities, ableist barriers must be attended to by jurisdictional leaders and teachers. Excluding the unique perspectives and experiences of students with disabilities in the construction of school environments and cultures that are safe and caring creates risks of further oppression and a sense of homelessness for disabled students (Paterson & Hughes, 1999). Seeking and including the voices of students with disabilities is the most effective and principled way to reduce ableism in schools.


Canadian Deaf-Blind Association (2022). Did You Know?

Paterson, K., & Hughes, B. (1999). Disability Studies and Phenomenology: The carnal politics of everyday life. Disability & Society, 14(5), 597–610.

Public Health Agency of Canada. (2018). Autism spectrum disorder among children and youth in Canada in 2018. A report of the National Autism Spectrum Disorder Surveillance System.

Statistics Canada. (2012). Canadian Survey on Disability.

UNESCO. (1994). The Salamanca Statement and Framework for Action on Special Needs Education. Adopted by the World Conference on Special Needs Education: Access and Quality. Salamanca, Spain, 7-10 June.

United Nations. (2006). Convention on the rights of persons with disabilities.


Chandra Lebenhagen
Dr. Chandra Lebenhagen is an experienced teacher, leader, researcher, and author who has worked in private, public, and post-secondary settings for over 20 years. She is the founder and director of Including Autism, where neurodivergent children, youth, and adults receive educational support and teachers learn about best practices to support students with disabilities in inclusion. Chandra advocates for co-designing ethically inclusive research projects, policies, and resources that integrate multiple worldviews and theories, including curriculum development theory, learning
theory, and critical disability theory.

This article is featured in the Fall 2022 issue of Canadian Teacher Magazine.

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