Disability Awareness Upended
About 20 years ago, I followed in the footsteps of my mentors who conducted disability awareness activities in their schools or classrooms, just like I'm sure many of my readers have done. I did the simulation activities where students would wear blindfolds to pretend they were blind, or they'd use a wheelchair to know what it feels like to have a mobility disability. I used the inspirational videos to show students how inspiring people with disabilities are, and that we should love them and be nice to them, even if we did it out of pity.
I did these activities with a big heart and great intentions. I did this for years and I was honored for it by my administrators, my colleagues, my families. It felt really good to get that recognition. It felt really good to do something that I thought was going to make a difference. But then I got an additional part-time job teaching a disability studies course at a local community college. Although I had a master's degree in special education, and I knew a lot about disabilitIES, I did not know a lot about disabilitY. I knew that I needed to dive in and learn more. I needed to do research before I could teach the course with integrity. And so I did, I dove in. And when I did, I had such an awakening! What I learned upended my old understandings.
It was then that my three worlds collided. My life has a sibling who found myself always needing to advocate for my brother; my life as an elementary educator, constantly having to prove that inclusion is a good thing, and it can work; and my life as a college instructor, teaching about the disability experience in the context of disability research.
Suddenly everything started to make sense to me. I learned about ableism access, assistive technology, disability, history, disability, rights, disability, justice, and so many other concepts I'd never heard of. And I was able to apply those concepts to my brother, Joaquin's, life experience, as well as my experiences as an inclusive educator.
I finally understood why Joaquin was excluded and why he was institutionalized, and why our family and friends were put in that advocacy role time and time again. I finally understood why administrators and teachers and parents resisted efforts toward inclusion and why my inclusion work seemed to be in vain. As I said, it all started to make sense. So that's the good news. The bad news was (well, it felt bad at the time, but it turned out to be good), but the bad news was that given my new understanding, I also had a new realization that all the things I was doing for my disability awareness endeavors were counter productive. They were not helping to change hearts in my community. They were not making strides in eliminating barriers to access, creating consciousness around access or opening doors to inclusion, true inclusion. They were simply perpetuating more of the same ableist attitudes and policies.
That's when I decided to go Beyond Awareness. I tested out different strategies and focused on research-based content that truly makes a difference. I practiced at my school. And I believe over the years, and I'm told by others, that my efforts truly did make a difference in our school culture.
Then I started speaking about it. And I wrote a book about it. I created resources, and a digital course about it, and then a podcast, and most recently, a compact Beyond Disability Awareness Educator's Guide.
If you're like me, open, willing, coachable, and truly wanting to make a difference for people with disabilities, wanting to make a community mindset shift toward inclusivity, then check out my resources and share them with others! Together, we can steer disability awareness efforts in the right direction, toward actual access, inclusion, and belonging.