Did you see today’s Google Doodle last week? They paid homage to Ed Roberts, who was a disability rights activist. At the age of 14, he contracted polio and became paralyzed from the neck down, only able to move two fingers and a few toes. He became very active when he was in high school. After timeless efforts of society to keep him down, he became a loud voice for disability rights.
It was wonderful to see Google dedicate their page to him for the day. We tend to leave out disability rights when we are discussing intersectionality and issues of oppression. Intersectionality, in case you’re unfamiliar with the term, is the overlap of varying identities we possess and social categorizations that make up who we are. And we absolutely need to address education from an intersectional standpoint.
One of the biggest issues in education in the United States is its ability to sift and sort students. Jeannie Oakes writes in Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality, Second Edition about the ways children are tracked throughout their schooling, sorted, and thus, thrown into a spiral of inequality. The problem with this (aside from the obvious that it puts value on “intelligence” when it is truly immeasurable outside of arbitrary numbers and scores) is that biases end up rearing their heads. Children who are students of color, those with disabilities, and often times girls, are placed in classes that do not foster success. Students who are placed on the upper track receive more opportunities for AP courses, more resources, and will likely have a better chance at college.
We often hear about racism and sexism in the classroom. It’s evident that the majority of materials focus around heterosexual, cisgender, White, neurotypical, non-disabled individuals. Why is this? Well, of course because that’s the dominant culture, but it’s also a power play. This may not be believed – many people will say because the majority of people are heterosexual, cisgender, White, neurotypical, non-disabled individuals. Regardless on the validity, why does this mean that we should exclude everybody else? Representation is very important.
We see so many discussions on these issues in the classroom, but one area I feel is lacking in terms of advocacy is that of individuals who are disabled and we stray from the discussion of neurodiversity. Individuals who fall into this category tend to be left out of the conversation, and then it comes to receiving resources for them, it is extremely difficult. Many parents must fight for days, weeks, and months to receive IEPs (individual education plans) for their students, our current climate and individuals in education think that the best way to tackle issues of exclusion is to push for more exclusion – “special schools”, and children fall victim to capitalism, which makes it difficult for employees in the school system to help students to the best of their ability. It is fantastic that there are advocacy groups out there helping students who need plans or accommodations, but why do we need them to begin with? Of course, I won’t deny that there are so many factors – budgets, growing classroom sizes, lack of resources on school and institution levels – but why aren’t we getting creative?
Intersectionality is so important. Students can fall into almost any “category” simultaneously. For instance, my husband is a Latino man with dyslexia, but because of biases and money, he was simply pushed through school, not being assisted until he was in his early 30s and back in college. We see so little representation of anybody but the dominant culture that we often forget people of all backgrounds are impacted by our educational system. We NEED intersectionality in the classroom so we can better discuss, connect, adjust, and help our students. We must push for better representation so our students can feel as if they are seen, they are heard, they are important. Intersectionality should be a word that is in the very foundation of education, starting in kindergarten, up through college, and especially in teacher training programs. If we begin approaching education and teaching from an intersectional standpoint, we will not leave out individuals who are outside of the dominant culture, we will not forget to advocate for people with disabilities when advocating for others, we can achieve inclusive education. We also must be willing to be corrected, have discussions if we are wrong or offensive, and be willing to change and adjust, especially if of the dominant culture. We cannot pretend that these identities do not exist, but instead, we must recognize them, value them, represent them in order to be the best educators possible.