Applications of Disability in Teacher Prep

This latest post comes from Emily Wilson (, a Ph.D. student in the Joint Program in English and Education at the University of Michigan. Wilson explains how disability is approached in teacher preparation and includes a link to a unit for teaching the poetry and fiction of disability. Visit Wilson’s site for more information and resources:

I look forward to posting more, and as always, contact me at if you’re interested in being a guest blogger for the site, or would like to joint the DS-Rhet listserv. —Dev


When I was getting my undergraduate degree in education, I learned the term “mainstream.”  This term referred to the kids who were, supposedly, “normal,” and it came loaded with assumptions regarding race, gender, cultural background, sexuality, and ability.  We had to take a class for children who were considered outside the mainstream, and the name of that class changed every year.  One year it was “students with special needs.”  Then “the exceptional child.” Then “differently abled students.”  We learned how to write lengthy IEPs, how to make accommodations, how to intervene to help those exceptional children.  Many things bothered me about that class, like the strange, tiptoe-ing euphemisms, the ‘us versus them’ dichotomy, the fact that disability was treated like an inconvenience that distracted teachers from the so-called “real work” of teaching.  It wasn’t until 13 years later, when I took Melanie Yergeau’s class, that I realized the problem: my disability studies class was not, in fact, a disability studies class at all.  It was what Simi Linton calls an “applied approach” that focused on disability as a problem to be solved and never turned the lens back on society to ask what we were presuming about bodies and minds that would make accommodation necessary in the first place.  My undergraduate experience is not unique.  Most teachers, if they are taught anything about disability, are taught in purely interventionist terms.  The social, political, and rhetorical implications of disability are never explicitly explored, and ableism is never mentioned.  School can be difficult–even nightmarish–for disabled students. I argue that inadequate teacher preparation is partly to blame.

Some educational scholars are turning a critical eye toward the concept of “normal.”  Kerry Anne Enright argues that there is a need “for a reframing of the notion of mainstream in order to better represent the linguistic and cultural diversity of today’s classrooms.”  It is critical that we broaden the space for engagement with difference in the secondary classroom.  Students need to become aware, in their formative years, of our culture’s discriminatory practices toward disability, and disabled teenagers need to see themselves represented in the curriculum.  It is also important, in framing this discussion of disability, to heed Stephanie Kerschbaum’s warning against turning the study of disability into some kind of “bazaar” where we gawk unreflectively at other people’s difference. Instead, teachers need to facilitate understanding of disability in a way that helps them work with students to create a more equitable society.

Working toward that end, I’ve created a unit plan, consisting of 12 full-length, Common Core-aligned lesson plans to teach the poetry and fiction of disability in the secondary English classroom (  The unit focuses on the novel Me, Who Dove Into the Heart of the World, by Sabina Berman, as well as a large collection of poems and essays from the marvelous anthology, Beauty is a Verb.  I’ve attempted to move toward something like a universal design in my pedagogical approach, working to make the lesson plans multimodal and widely accessible (I would appreciate feedback on how well I have or have not accomplished that).

I want to give you an example of my approach.

In the first lesson, my objectives are for students to:

  1. Understand how different bodies perceive and express themselves in different ways.
  2. Collaborate to establish ground rules for safe discussion, including learning some of the language for talking about disability.
  3. Respond to poetry, citing evidence from the poem that supports conclusions drawn from details.
  4. Analyze a poem and portraits for both denotative and connotative meanings. Analyze the impact of the author’s/artist’s textual or artistic choices in creating an overall effect.

The lesson starts with the teacher and students analyzing a variety of self-portraits, looking for details the authors are saying about themselves through their portraiture.  We examine well-known portraits, like Van Gogh’s, and I also introduce them to Laura Swanson’s brilliant anti-self portraits.  Students then have opportunities to create their own self-portraits through a variety of different media–using art supplies, technology, or even making digital recordings of descriptions of themselves. Here are some questions from our follow-up discussion after this activity:

  • Consider what some of the differences might be between how we choose to express ourselves to the world and how other people choose to see us.
  • Why is language important in talking about our own identities and the identities of other people?
  •  What problems or issues might we face when we’re talking about people who are different from us?
  • How might this process of presenting our selves to the world be complicated or enriched by the presence of a physical or mental disability?

As you can probably tell, there’s a hidden agenda here.  Teachers love free lesson plans and activities.  But throughout my lesson plans and in my bibliography and unit overview, I’ve embedded commentary and materials to help teachers think about systemic, discriminatory features of a society that has structured itself (both physically and rhetorically) to exclude or marginalize the disabled.  My hope is that this unit plan can serve as one step toward reframing mainstream and empowering teachers and students to promote justice and equity in the classroom and beyond.

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