Teaching about Disability in Your Classroom

These activities and resources guide teachers on incorporating disability studies in their classrooms.

Contributed by Michael Baker

Posted September 21, 2022

These activities are inspired by the DisAbility issue of Kayak: Canada’s History Magazine for Kids.

Distribute copies of Kayak’s DisAbility issue to your students and read through the magazine together before starting this lesson.

Activity Overview

Students will be tasked with reading Kayak’s DisAbility issue, either as a group or individually. Teachers are encouraged to do further reading into the topic through the provided resource guide.  Students will also engage with the importance of using language in disability studies.


Language Matters

This activity will ask students to explore the role of language in disability studies. Teachers are encouraged to explore with their students what words are appropriate or not and why. They will also explore language as it affects identity, through the use of person-first language and identity-first language. Students will be encouraged to evaluate their school communities for accessibility improvements.

Provide digital or paper copies of the articles “Disability is Not a Bad Word” and “No Good Way to Use the R-Word” by Michael Baker.

With your students, explore the importance of language in disability studies. Ask them to reflect on words they’ve heard or read before, both good and bad words. Ask your students: why do words matter? How do words make us feel? What words should we or shouldn’t we be using in our classroom? This could turn into a class contract where students and teachers commit to using more inclusive language and learning about what words are harmful and why. It’s important to note that this could be a difficult conversation and may be triggering for students or teachers, but its an important conversation to adequately interrogate the role of language. Remember to celebrate disability as diversity.

Person-First versus Identity-First Language and Resources

Person-first language foregrounds the individual before their disability, showing one’s identity is not solely defined by disability. For example, saying people with disabilities, versus disabled people. The latter emphasizes the disability of the person and is known as identity-first language. Both can be used under different circumstances, and there is no universally preferred method since some people might see their disability as an important part of their identity.

An important thing to remember when exploring the differences in language is that in many cases its not always relevant or necessary to point out a person’s disability. Rather it is more important to acknowledge persons with disabilities as exactly that — persons. Nor does a disability need to be something seen as unmentionable or inherently negative.

Read this article on the differences and uses of each type of language: “Person-First Language vs. Identity-First Language: Which Should You Use?

Provide your students with this list and ask them to review the types of language used in each phrase. Is it person-first or identity-first? What suggestions do they have for any inappropriate phrases?

  • Person with autism
  • Disabled person
  • Quadriplegic
  • Wheelchair-bound
  • Handicapped person
  • Person with an intellectual disability
  • Diabetic

Ask your students to evaluate news articles online or from magazines, social media posts, or institutional websites for their use of language regarding disability and accessibility. Pose these questions to your students:

  1. What types of language do you notice? Are they appropriate or not?
  2. Reflect on language you’ve heard or used before. What would you suggest needs to change?
  3. Was anything surprising about the articles?
  4. What improvements could be made?

Accessible Icon Project

The Accessible Icon Project’s goal is to transform the original International Symbol of Access into an active, engaged image, opposed to the static image of an individual seated in a stationary wheelchair. Explore the element breakdown and the significance of the project at their website.

Ask your students to read two different perspectives on this topic in the article “The Great Blue Man Debate: Two Views.”

Pose these questions to your students:

  1. What arguments from the articles do you find most compelling?
  2. What actions of meaningful change do you think could be made in the world? In your community? In your school?
  3. What do you think of when you see the International Symbol of Access?

Ask your students to get creative and create their own colouring pages, murals, or host a drawing contest to change signs around your school.

More Reading on Accessible Icon

Extension Activities

Resources for Educators

Disability studies is a wide-ranging topic that intersects with a lot of contemporary and historic discourse. We encourage teachers to continue educating themselves in the area and their students with the included resource guide that expands into many other topics.

More Ways to Teach about Disability in Your Classroom

You Are Unique

In this reflection, Ben Bourne Flosman encourages kids to recognize their own unique experiences and to stand up for what is right.

Fair Play in Your Community

In this activity, students will assess if their playground is accessible and will make recommendations for how to make it more inclusive for all kids.

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