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Exploring Equity: Dis/ability

Designing schools and classrooms to benefit all learners

February 4, 2021
Overlapping Colorful Profiles

Equitable and inclusive learning environments are those that are intentionally designed. Educators should feel empowered to think of themselves not just as instructors or leaders, but as designers who are building and iterating classrooms in which all students can succeed.

“If we don’t design [learning environments] differently, some individuals and communities aren’t able to be successful,” says Zach Smith, a doctoral student in education leadership and co-faculty of Dis/ability in Context, a new module offered at the Harvard Graduate School of Education this January as part of a pilot of HGSE’s Equity and Opportunity Foundations course. “There needs to be a realization that elements like choice, options, multiple representations, are literally what keep some communities accessing and participating. These aren’t "nice to haves" — for some people they’re absolutely necessary.”

>> Learn more about Equity and Opportunity and HGSE’s other foundational learning experiences.

For educators who want to explore the social and cultural forces that lead to discrimination and exclusion of individuals with disabilities — and to design environments powerful enough to disrupt these forces — Smith and his co-faculty lead, Jenna Gravel, director of research and curriculum for professional learning at CAST, shared this useful guidance:

Take time to reflect.

To understand the ways biases, oppression, and ableism perpetuate in learning environments, educators must first start to understand the ways exclusion and discrimination have erased the contributions of people and communities. 

“There’s a long history of setting low expectations for learners with disabilities and I think teachers often aren’t supported to wrestle with the ways they’ve been socialized. It’s important to support educators to examine their beliefs in terms of the capabilities of all learners and to confront cultures of low expectations,” Gravel says.

Center the experiences and perspectives of people with disabilities.

Too often, the experiences and perspectives of individuals with disabilities are excluded from the design of learning environments. We need to consider whose voices and perspectives are represented in the assigned course materials. Gravel and Smith provide articles, multimedia, and guest speakers to help center these perspectives in their own course, and recommend educators integrate similar resources when designing their own classes.

Alice Wong’s Disability Visibility Project is a great place to get started and offers oral histories and podcasts.

Scaffold relationships.

Build in structures to help foster a caring classroom culture. Use partner or group check-ins at the beginning of class to emphasize that this is an environment where everyone takes care of each other.

Of course, school and district leaders must also make sure they emphasize the importance of building relationships and collaborating to solve problems. Encourage open-door policies and make room in the schedule for collaborative planning so teachers know that this is a place where they are supported to learn from one another.

Be flexible.

As designers, teachers and leaders need to recognize that building for learning is an iterative process. This means not only soliciting feedback but letting participants know you’ve heard them. Make sure you share how feedback will be changing practice moving forward. 

Provide options.

All learners — whether teachers in a professional development setting or students in a classroom — need choices. Let the learning goal drive accessibility. For example, if the goal is to have students develop a story, does it really need to be handwritten? After all, the focus is on exploring elements of plot, rather than on handwriting. Provide resources or assignments in multiple formats like visual representations, audio recordings, videos, or written documents. The same goes for school leaders — teachers should be able to reach school or district goals in multiple ways.

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Diversity and Inclusion K-12 Learning and Teaching Social-Emotional Wellbeing