By Sheryl Ruszkiewicz, Oakland University
In “Paulo Freire and a Manifesto for Disability Pedagogy”, Taylor Hein invites her audience to challenge their perceptions of disability*, to engage in a conversation about critical disability pedagogy, and offers an opportunity for advocacy and activism.
There are many incorrect assumptions and perceptions about disability. Disability is extremely common and is experienced by 1 in 4 people according to the CDC (qtd. in Hein, “Defining Disability”). Although most people may initially think of disabilities that are easy to see, such as a person who uses a wheelchair, disability is “highly intersectional and expansive” (Hein, “Defining Disability”). For example, people who require corrective lenses are usually not categorized as having a disability.
For individuals that have a chronic illness, including Hein and this respondent, it can be difficult to explain to others how a chronic illness affects a person’s life when that person does not have any visible signs of illness. Although no outward signs may be visible, people with a chronic illness tend to have a more limited supply of energy. Hein references the term “Spoonies”, which originates from Christine Miserandino’s The Spoon Theory, a personal narrative about living with a chronic illness that makes an analogy between a limited supply of energy measured with a set of spoons. Spoonies have to make daily calculated choices as to what activities they will (and will not) spend their “spoons” on in order to ensure they will have enough energy to make it through an entire day. Due to the expansiveness of disabilities, it is important to correct perceptions and acknowledge that many people live with a disability.
After correcting perceptions, Hein discusses the next step of disability pedagogy: to engage in a conversation and to “critically examine how these mechanisms of oppression manifest in our society” (Hein, “The Ontology of Disability”). Some specific examples of social oppression Hein mentions are ableism and dehumanizing language. Alissa Rausch et al. presents an ableism pyramid, which divides ableism into two categories: socially unacceptable and socially acceptable. Although some acts of ableism are socially unacceptable, there is still a significantly larger amount of actions that are still considered socially acceptable. Some of the actions include microaggressions, lack of access, low expectations, descrimination, and incarceration. It is important to be aware of these acts of social oppression, as well as to work towards eliminating social exclusion for people with disabilities.
Additionally, people with disabilities can feel excluded through dehumanizing language, which equates them with being “less than” human in some way. “If we refer to someone as ‘wheelchair-bound’ rather than a ‘wheelchair-user’ or a ‘person who uses a wheelchair,’ we are reinforcing the notion that to be a person with a disability is to be a problem, broken, a deficit, a burden, a victim, dependent, in need of charity, in need of pity, in need of a cure, in need of fixing.” (Hein, “The Ontology of Disability”). This is why Hein advocates for the use of person-first language that recognizes and asserts the humanity, wholeness, and personhood of people with disabilities.
Connecting to the prevalence of social oppression and systemic forms of ableism, Disability Critical Race Theory, or DisCrit, “has been taken up by scholars to expose and dismantle entrenched inequities” (Annamma et al.). This is highlighted by the tenets of DisCrit that include: often invisible forces of racism and ableism (55), intersectionality of identities (56), the social construction of ability and its effects (57), amplify voices and experiences of those who have been marginalized (58), how dis/ability has been used to deny rights (58), and the requirement of activism (61). A critical examination of disability creates awareness and understanding, and awareness and understanding offer an opportunity for advocacy and activism, if not (as DisCrit suggests) a requirement for advocacy and activism.
Similar to the tenets of DisCrit, there is a “deep relationship in critical disability approaches between theory and praxis” (Stanford University). Hein highlights this assertion by referencing Freire’s work that calls for the necessary intersection of scholarship and activism” (Hein, Reflection). Throughout the webtext, Hein’s progression from disability theory to activism closely mirrors this deep relationship. Additionally, due to “economic oppression, and exclusions in higher education, many [critical disability] activists use popular web platforms, including social media, to engage in their advocacy and disseminate their work” (Stanford University). Hein’s webtext also utilizes a web platform, Google Sites, in order to move her scholarship and advocacy outside of academia, and into a venue that is easily accessible to all people.
Taylor Hein defines herself as a student, scholar, and activist. As educators, we need to be aware that our students in the classroom also have these overlapping identities. Although some aspects of students’ identities may be invisible to use as educators, we need to be continually aware that the other people we share a classroom with are whole and complex individuals, and that their identity of “student” is only a small portion of that.
Also, as Hein strives to connect her two identities of scholar and activist, I think she is also calling on educators to do the same work of translating our scholarship into advocacy and activism, whether that be in our classroom pedagogy and/or outside of the classroom. Hein skillfully notes that it is a first step to have knowledge about a topic held within ourselves, but this should lead into a second step of applying and acting on this knowledge in the world around us.
*For this response, I am using the terms “disability” and “dis/ability” depending on the author being referenced.
Annamma, Subini Ancy, et al. “Disability Critical Race Theory: Exploring the Intersectional Lineage, Emergence, and Potential Futures of DisCrit in Education.” Review of Research in Education, vol. 42, no. 1, Mar. 2018, pp. 46–71, doi:10.3102/0091732X18759041.
Hein, Taylor. “The Ontology of Disability.” Paulo Friere and a Manifesto for Disability Pedagogy, https://sites.google.com/view/disability-pedagogy/the-ontology-of-disability
Hein, Taylor. “Student Reflection.” Journal of Undergraduate Multimedia Projects, 11(1) https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/disability-critical/#Acti
Miserandino, Christine. “The Spoon Theory.” But You Don’t Look Sick, https://cdn.totalcomputersusa.com/butyoudontlooksick.com/uploads/2010/02/BYDLS-TheSpoonTheory.pdf
Rausch, Christine. “Dis/Ability Critical Race Studies (DisCrit) for Inclusion in Early Childhood Education: Ethical Considerations of Implicit and Explicit Bias.” Zero to Three, 40 (2019): 43-51.
Stanford University. “Critical Disability Theory.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/disability-critical/#Acti