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Celebrating Differences of Ability as Central to SLO County Culture

Updated: Apr 7, 2021

two boys relaxing while leaning on chainlink fence- one boy stares at camera

All of us have different abilities and strengths that arise from those differences. In order to create a welcoming, healthy, happy, and safe SLO County, we must redefine and reframe how we approach disability. We must ask ourselves often is this empowering, and person-centered? Are we tailor to the intersecting needs and strengths of the person(s) we are serving? Disability and diversity of abilities are essential components of how we address diversity. Disability is “a long-term, or recurring, issue that impacts one or more major activities that others may consider to be a daily function” (Diversability). Some disabilities are visible and others are not. Disability can include blindness, learning or intellectual disabilities, deafness, physical disabilities, chronic illness, mental health or psychological difficulties, acquired disabilities, and many more conditions. In order to support each other and our differences, we must create more inclusive and mindful spaces and undertake cultural shifts that promote respect and inclusion of all types of abilities.

People living with disability make up a considerable portion of our population. The World Health Organization reports that around “15% of the world’s population lives with some form of disability.” This portion of our population faces many challenges and barriers, often because our culture operates from an ableist perspective. Ableism is a form of descrimination and it involves determining an individual’s value and worth based on certain ideas of normalcy, intelligence, excellence, and productivity (Diversability). It can arise in the form of attitudes, feelings, physical barriers, laws, regulations, and exclusionary practices. Disability is often approached as though it is only a burden and disabled people are less than or inferior. The result is that people with disability face stigma, discrimination, challenges with employment, and violence. It’s seen in schools where disabiled children are separated or segregated from other students into designated areas in classrooms or in different classrooms altogether. It’s seen in the job market and workplace which present challenges to obtaining employment. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in 2019, 19.3% of disabled individuals were employed, compared to 66.3% of individuals without a disability. And not to be ignored is the increased risk of experiencing violence that comes from the stigma, discrimination, and ignorance regarding disabled people. Children with disabilities are 3.7x more likely than children without disability to be victims of some sort of violence (World Health Organization, 2012). Adults with disabilities are 1.5x more likely than adults without disabilities to be victims of some sort of violence (World Health Organization, 2012). Women* and girls* with disabilties are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse (Young African Leaders Initiative). Many of the challenges, barriers, and pain that people with disabilities face is rooted in how we consider, approach, and accommodate disability.

We must shift how we view differences in abilities to change from a culture of othering and violence to one of inclusion and acceptance. Disabilities are not something to ostracize or pity and people with disabilities are not less than or inferior. Disability is not a burden. It is a part of the human experience and a part of who people are. It’s an opportunity for us to expand our community perspective and take advantage of a wide array of strengths and experiences. Creating more inclusion, acceptance, and normalization of disability rewards us with valuable opportunities to learn from one another. We can recognize that people with disabilities may face additional barriers, but we must also recognize that there are strengths to having different abilities both for the individual and for the people around them. Disability should be neither ignored or held up as inspirational. When we hold up a disabled person’s ability to go about their life and do the things they enjoy, it’s an act of othering, infantilizing, and discounting. Instead, we must normalize and create greater inclusion for disability.

Beyond attitudes about disability, we all have a responsibility to ensure that inclusion of diverse ability is a part of the very foundation we use to design and construct institutions, spaces, and communities. Creating accessible and inclusive spaces expands our opportunities to learn from one another and create connections. We all must collaborate and communicate to build a community that includes everyone. For you and the children in your life, school is an area where changes can be enacted to create an educational setting that suits everyone. In terms of the physical space, classrooms should have furnishings and equipment that fit different body types, sizes, and abilities. All students should be able to use the space. The space shouldn’t be set up to have a separate or different experience for some students. For example, all seats should be wheelchair accessible and any specialized accommodations should be integrated throughout the room rather than confined to a section of the room. Those working in the classroom should be mindful of how different students may respond to different temperatures, lightings, and acoustic set-ups of the room. Social belonging can be increased and communicated by making sure educators and students use inclusive and respectful language. The visual content in lessons, activities, and decorations should also be welcoming to people of all types of backgrounds and abilities. Undertaking these changes, and making them a normal and expected part of classroom design, teaches children of all abilities to respect, appreciate, and include one another.

School curriculum itself also needs to be accessible and inclusive of all differences in abilities. The Universal Design for Learning (UDL) aims to do just that. UDL takes into account the broad possibilities of differences of abilities including physical differences, mental differences, and neurodiversity (can link to neurodiversity post). The first part of UDL is creating multiple means of representing information. Classrooms should “provide alternatives and multiple media for presenting visual or auditory information, including sound amplification, visual displays, and equipment for lecture and notes capture” (Holeton, 2020). The next aspect of UDL is creating multiple means for students to express their understanding. This entails using assistive technologies, using writing, using computers, and offering students different ways to create and share content (Holeton, 2020). The last aspect of UDL is creating multiple means for students to engage with the teacher and with each other. Classrooms should have plenty of flexibility for collaboration and teamwork and should include furniture that can be moved or reconfigured to foster more movement and interaction (Holeton, 2020). In tandem with these factors is always the necessity to be aware of student needs, empathetic to challenges students may face, and accommodating for any changes a student may need.

In your personal relationship with your child, it is important that you teach them that differences in abilities is a normal part of life. Center any discussions you have about disability around the acknowledgement that while there can be barriers, there are also great strengths to living with disability. Expose your child to representation of people of diverse abilities. This representation can come from books, movies, role models, and even from social media. Connect your child with people who live with disabilities and allies to foster a humanizing environment of inclusion. Talk to your child about any experiences you or the people in your life may have had with disability. Advocate for your child’s school to talk about disability and include abelism in conversations about discrimination. You can reach out to your child’s school district and teachers today to start a conversation about how different abilities are being supported in the classroom and what could be improved. Talk to administrators and superintendents about what steps have to be taken to make those changes. Set an example for your child by speaking up for persons with disabilities and asking for the resources and accommodations required to ensure people with disabilities are included in all spaces.

Part of ensuring that our SLO County community is welcoming and inclusive to people of all abilities is raising our children to understand, respect, and value difference. Doing so allows us to work toward dismantling a culture where people are harmed and isolated because of discrimination, stigma, and exclusionary design. In its place, we can create an environment that truly works for everyone and which values the different strengths that people of all different abilities can offer.

Additional Resources

Further reading on creating inclusive educational spaces:

Resources to support independent living:

Organization providing help and support to families of children with special needs in SLO County:

Accessible activities in SLO County:

CDC “Disability Impacts All of Us Infographic”:

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