Alan Holdsworth started working on a disability-inclusive curriculum in 2009, reaching out to school districts in the Philadelphia area. But the director and founder of the nonprofit Disability Equality in Education, based in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, realized he didn’t have materials to show anyone.
Over the past several years, the group has developed a curriculum and lesson plans vetted and evaluated by people with disabilities, said Holdsworth.
The goal is not just to educate students about disabilities, but to offer lessons that are respectful of all students in a classroom to “….challenge the stigma of disability in education,” he said. Holdsworth notes that the group helps teach how to examine disabilities from a sociological perspective.
“Through education, we’re trying to have kids grow up feeling comfortable about having those conversations,” Holdsworth said. “So in 20 years, we may have a whole generation of kids who can go out into various fields of employment and change the world.”
Interest is slowly growing in developing a curriculum inclusive of people with disabilities. Pennsylvania, for example, launched a grant program this school year for public and private schools to build curricula that highlights people with disabilities, including those who have made political, economic and social differences in society.
The benefits of offering disability-inclusive lessons are extensive, say educators in the field, including helping to build empathy among students. And there are best practices that teachers and stakeholders hoping to start on this path should consider before trying to develop a curriculum on their own.
Here are some of the best resources to consider, according to experts.
Show don’t tell
Holdsworth said that his group's curriculum doesn’t teach students the specifics about a disability but instead offers a perspective from someone who experiences the disability. Materials don’t always directly address an impairment, he said, but highlight the experiences of disabled people.
“We’re not trying to explain what autism is, for example, but instead say there are people in your community with autism and how they may be discriminated against,” he said.
For young students, Holdsworth encourages educators to include disability-related books in their classroom libraries, including Cece Bell’s “El Deafo.” The graphic novel follows Cece, a young student who wears a hearing aid to school and imagines herself with superhero hearing powers. He also points to Maria Gianferrari’s “Hello Goodbye Dog,” about a young girl named Zara and her dog Moose, who trains to become a therapy dog after he keeps sneaking into school.
“We’re looking at it from a sociological perspective,” Holdsworth said.
Approach disability as a social phenomenon
The Nora Project’s executive director, Angela Adler, agrees with approaching disabilities in curriculum as a social phenomenon. They note that this focus helps students consider how to be inclusive of all people and think of ways to make society more available to everyone.
“We’re establishing that disabilities are an expected part of the human experience and human diversity,” they said.
The Nora Project, based in Montgomery, Illinois, was launched seven years ago, according to Adler. It focuses on developing disability-inclusive curricula for educators. To that end, the group offers lesson plans and social-emotional learning programs, as well as professional learning opportunities for educators through a fee-for-service model.
Adler said the SEL portion of the nonprofit’s learning model is core to any disability-inclusive curriculum, as the approach stitches in skills including inclusiveness and empathy. This strategy can also help to reduce bullying among students, as it increases the understanding of what students with disabilities experience in their daily lives, they said.
“How it impacts bullying is by giving students the tools to understand each other if they’re disabled and not disabled,” Adler said. “It gives those foundation skills so bullying can be averted and avoided. Students can understand each other, celebrate similarities and disabilities, and recognize the values and even recognize barriers students would encounter that non-disabled do not.”
Just begin the conversation
To Jessica McQueston, just starting the conversation is a great way to introduce a diversity-inclusive curriculum, no matter the grade educators are teaching. One approach can be to explain that students will be sharing classrooms with other students with disabilities, said the assistant professor at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas.
One of McQueston’s favorite tools when introducing disability topics is to bring books into the classroom. And she encourages educators to go through the materials they already use to see if these are inclusive, as well.
“Whether you’re teaching kindergarten or a 12th-grade class, do you have any book in the curriculum that involves at least one character with a disability?” McQueston said. “But also look at whether there are any authors with disabilities that you can include.”
McQueston, who calls herself a disabled scholar, is also director of disability studies for the Eleanor & Charles Garrett Teacher Education Center at Sam Houston State University. She said a favorite author of hers is Patricia Polacco, who struggled with learning to read as a child.
McQueston said teachers in subjects including math and science can be thoughtful of the materials they use, too. They can look for people with disabilities who excelled in those fields and include in their curricula books and other resources that mention them.
Another way McQueston suggests bringing awareness of disabilities in the curriculum is to apply adaptive rules to tasks and assignments.
When she was an elementary school teacher, McQueston said, she put this into practice during the first week of school when she would hand out different worksheets or papers to students. When they looked around at what their classmates were doing, their neighbor’s page would look completely different.
McQueston said her point was to help students understand that each pupil may get different resources and supports in the classroom, but she was going to make sure everyone got what they needed.
“I did that on purpose because I wanted them — after we had these conversations — to see it in action,” she said. “It may be subtle but the explanation is that everyone is getting what they need and then set that form in action.”