Put Abilities on the Multicultural Spectrum

The framework for multicultural education is relatively new and still evolving. What started, in the 1980s, as a movement to ensure inclusion of the experiences and culture of African-American students has expanded to include women’s voices, LGBT perspectives and people with differing abilities.

The growing diversity of student populations makes recognizing and celebrating the unique cultures of all students more crucial than ever.  Multicultural education, as defined by Nieto and Bode in Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education (Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2008), is “[a] process of comprehensive school reform and basic education for all students. It challenges and rejects racism and other forms of discrimination in schools and society and accepts and affirms the pluralism (ethnic, racial, linguistic, religious, economic, and gender, among others) that students, their communities, and their teachers reflect.”

As a teacher who has cerebral palsy, I enjoy talking with colleagues about ways to broaden discussion and curriculum to include perspectives of people with differing abilities.

How can you create a classroom that embraces disability as part of the multicultural education equation?  Here are some tips: 

  1.  Recognize and reject ableism at all levels. Ableism (the set of attitudes and practices that regard disabled people as inferior and acknowledge the physically and mentally able body as the “normal” or “right” body) is insidious, as are all forms of discrimination. It’s a distinction that many of my colleagues haven’t considered. But in order to make classrooms physically, emotionally and mentally welcoming to all students, we have to be aware of ableist attitudes among other students. And we must emphasize that disability is simply another difference, like race or gender.
  2. Authentically and meaningfully include people with disabilities. “Nothing About Us Without Us,” the unofficial motto of the disability rights movement, emphasizes that people with disabilities belong at the forefront of all disability discussion. Assess your students for those who might want to talk about their experiences, but be careful not to single out any student who may not be ready to share. Read literature written by disability activists. Invite members of the community to share their own stories.
  3. Use course materials that include people with a variety of abilities. When looking to expand your library, consider including books that include people with disabilities. Be mindful of the messages your materials send about disability, and be aware of intersectionality. People with disabilities, like the rest of humanity, come in all shapes and sizes, and should be represented as such.

This is just the start of what I hope will become a long list of strategies. I’d like to hear from you. Include your tips in this blog’s comment area. What will you do to make your classroom more disability-friendly? What have you already done?

Liebowitz is a Pennsylvania college student with several differing abilities, She is majoring in special and elementary education. 


As the author of this piece,

Submitted by Cara Liebowitz on 30 July 2013 - 9:09pm.

As the author of this piece, I truly, deeply appreciate all the comments and discussion this is generating. I don't get notified when comments are posted on my pieces, so it came as a great surprise to find 14 comments on here!

In regards to language - I truly hate terms like "varying ability". "Disability" and "disabled" are my preferred teams, because they describe the reality of not only my impairment, but the physical, social, and attitudinal barriers that society imposes on me and people like me. I believe my disability is a part of me that cannot be separated and so I use identity-first language rather than people first language most of the time, though it is not a hard and fast rule as it is with some other disability activists. Jim Sinclair, an autistic activist, wrote a great piece on this entitled "Why I Dislike People First Language". You can read it here: http://www.cafemom.com/journals/read/436505/Why_I_dislike_quot_person_first_quot_language_by_Jim_Sinclair

I hope this will spark even more discussion and I invite you to also read and discuss on my personal blog, That Crazy Crippled Chick. Thank you all for your insight!

I agree that we must include

Submitted by Clark Graham on 17 July 2013 - 4:24am.

I agree that we must include all abilities. And we tried to do that at our school, but encountered challenges. Unfortunately I operate s school that is a charter-type school. Since there is no enabling legislation creating charter schools, we operate as a non-public school. We have been told by the special education department that because we are not a public school we are not eligible to receive special education services. Therefore, if a child at our school is suspected to be a special needs child that child must enroll in the public school in order to be eligible for special education.

As there no way a non-public school can get special education instructors to work with them?

Thank you.

What an excellent article!

Submitted by Helen Goren Shafton on 16 July 2013 - 7:35pm.

What an excellent article! The more we can raise the collective consciousness the better. I am so encouraged by the ideas in Cara's article, as well as the thoughts shared in these comments. Bringing inclusion and celebration of all students to the forefront of educational discourse is paramount to the success of all children. Imagine a world in which everyone demonstrates compassion, understanding and encouragement of others regardless of race, gender, sexual preference, ethnicity and abilities! We are all better people as a result. I will post this article on my facebook page (facebook.com/makingartspecial) and share it with my colleagues. Thank you!

Multicultural Education I

Submitted by James McDuffie on 16 July 2013 - 6:00pm.

Multicultural Education

I have found that when people know what Multicultural Education really is, they are not against it. Quite simply, Multicultural Education is simply putting the event in the middle of any discussion, and letting all of the stakeholders have a voice in how they view the event and what their perspective of the event means to them. In other words, no one culture or experience gets to be the defining or center factor of what the event is or means. Once everyone comes to grips with this idea, it is no longer threatening.

HOWEVER, differing abilities

Submitted by Bonny on 16 July 2013 - 5:51pm.

HOWEVER, differing abilities needs to include those with MORE ability. The gifted are the truly lost kids. They may sit in class politely or act out, but if we don't teach them WHERE THEY ARE, we lose them. They are bored, they need to learn new things, they need to have their questions considered seriously and not sloughed off. ALL abilities means ALL!

My son attended grade school

Submitted by Chris on 16 July 2013 - 5:27pm.

My son attended grade school where some kids with disabilities were in his class, but most were in a separate class. One of his teachers paired one of the girls with the most "popular" girl in the class, which gave the disabled girl instant status and instant friends. His class also travelled to the disabled kids' classroom each week for one subject or another, or spent recess with the kids. I believe every other classroom also visited. My son especially enjoyed pushing wheelchairs during kickball games!

Person first! As we address

Submitted by Robin Gray King on 16 July 2013 - 4:38pm.

Person first! As we address this issue, most importantly we must acknowledge the person first and the disability (differing ability) subsequently. I am a teacher of students with Developmental Cognitive Disabilities. These disabilities do not define or confine my students. They are unique individuals with unmeasurable strengths and talents as well as challenges. But first they are Ger, Ben, Ethan, Olivia, Devonte, Alex, Andrew, Kalisa, Kelisa, LaDiamond, Micheal, Matthew, Richard, Dawson, Aaliyah, Anton, Mari, Muna... They are students with rich cultural lives at home and in school. Ability/disability is indeed a culture and often a foreign language! When families become a part of a special education system to provide their students with Free and Appropriate Education in a Least Restrictive Environment, they are required to blend their racial/ethnic/ cultural identity as individuals and families with not only the culture and language of the school community but also that of a special system to provide their child with an individual and personal plan for education and life!

Speak and teach openly about

Submitted by Marilyn Lauer on 16 July 2013 - 1:01pm.

Speak and teach openly about the differences both visible and invisible that exist in the classroom. It has been my experience that people with differences, whether they be clearly seen and not understood or not seen and therefore not understood, want to claim all of the ways in which they are the same as everyone else. If a student has cerebral palsy I invite other students to understand the medical reasons why cerebral palsy looks the way it does in that student. I invite all students to ask questions about the visible symptoms and the unintended experiences that result from having the condition. I find ways to highlight the strengths that student has and ways to inspire compassion for the struggle without engendering pity or shame.

I would add: - Showcase (if

Submitted by Eugenia Brady on 16 July 2013 - 12:58pm.

I would add:
- Showcase (if student is ready)specific abilities of the student in the classroom (Art, music, particular interest of the student, etc,) that may be include either as part of the curriculum or just as part of a classroom member presentation. That will give the student the chance to talk to the class and show her/his abilities as well as bring down biases that other students can have about the student with a disability. A student with Autism (for instance) can be very excited if he/she knows that she/he will have the chance to talk about her/his very strong interests. That will help his/social skills, self esteem and confidence as well as the rest of the students to be aware about what individuals with disabilities can do and see the classmate as just another friend who deserves respect and to be seen as an equal individual with no need for patronizing him/her.
- An individual with a disability has many abilities, but usually the focus is just on what the individual can't do.
- Make students aware of diversity in nature and a sense of belonging to "fight" concepts of what is "normal" or not. Ex.: what is the "normal" shape or color of a fruit or a flower, tree, etc.? The beauty in nature reside in the specific characteristics of flowers, plants, trees, so it is only among humans where differences represent an issue, even though we have no problem with nature itself. Thanks. Eugenia B.

Cara, I have shared this on

Submitted by Shaun-Adrian Chofla on 16 July 2013 - 12:33pm.

Cara, I have shared this on my professor page. My only request for you and other authors is that you use more affirmative terms like "varying ability" rather than the subtractive term "disability."

Language shapes how we think about and treat children and by using a term like varying ability, it brings the philosophy together. Disability might be something we have to check on government-issued forms, but it is not a term we should ever think, write, or say out loud.

With respect,


Profe Choflá, Your point

Submitted by Heather Montes Ireland on 29 July 2013 - 4:59pm.

Profe Choflá,

Your point regarding finding language that is more *affirming* for people with disabilities is an important one, especially in terms of thinking about child development models, and I see your point. However, it is also just as important to understand 'disability' as a specific category of analysis. This is for two main reasons: 1) to avoid murky relativist discourse, and 2) to combat ableism. Otherwise, we eventually see the conversation devolve into one that has happened on this board here...folks derailing the dialogue from one where we are discussing systemic ableism and how to be more deliberately inclusive of children with disabilities, to people interpreting that "differing abilities" means that gifted children are the "truly" underserved. While that is arguable, and it is of course valid to assert that all students should be met where they are along varying degrees of ability, this demonstrates how the analysis becomes murky when we take 'disability' out. The idea here is to attack *ableism,* not make disability a dirty word. In fact, similarly to various "Othered" identities, the problem is not with the person who is constructed as different, but rather with our society's deeply ingrained beliefs about who is considered (most) human. Furthermore, disability a word that is being reclaimed so as not to be seen as a slur, but we all benefit in meaningful ways from learning more about disability. And, lastly, we must consider what we are teaching children about ability itself. Are we most concerned about meeting children we they are and challenging them in ways unique to who they are? Or, are we positing that all students must conform to a certain "standard"--one that is often set by ableist constructions of normality? Getting rid of 'disability' does not do away with the oppression--only acknowledging it, addressing it, teaching about it, embracing it, can do that. Thanks for the work you do in the struggle for social justice.

sorry...I so disagree. I have

Submitted by susie nicoli on 16 July 2013 - 2:36pm.

sorry...I so disagree. I have 2 children with disabilities and I believe that sometimes we try so hard to be politically correct that we forget how hard people with disabilities work to keep pace. My kids work hard to achieve and show improvement. I teach my children to embrace their disability and work around it. "Varying ability" sounds to me like "Special Education". Neither terms fool kids. They know they are different and so do their classmates.....
My mother raised 6 children after suffering polio and loosing the use of her right arm. An elder brother was born with a rare heart condition that limited his physical endurance. I watched them embrace their disabilities and achieve things at a different pace. My son is deaf. Someone told me that I should say "hearing impaired". REALLY! I don't think so. He speaks 2 oral languages and 2 different sign languages. He has a disability and I have raised him to be proud of that disability. He was well into his early twenties before he would say....."Sorry, I am deaf, could you repeat that?"
He has severe learning disabilities in all that is math. He has to as an adult be able to say that or his world would be a messy place. He was recently offered a promotion at work which would have involved the cash register. Thank goodness he was not afraid as a young adult to say....."I have a learning disability, I cannot do math." He received a promotion in another area.

We need to send the message

Submitted by Maxi on 18 July 2013 - 11:20am.

We need to send the message that we are all different and that is okay, but no human being is less than another. Race, creed, color, sexual preference, academic ability, physical ability or whatever does not make any of us inferior to another person. I believe that all students in an inclusion classroom setting should be accountable for the same content. Inclusion teachers have a responsilility to teach all students. Where the rubber meets the road is teacher willingness to do the extra steps to adapt lessons for students of different learning styles so they can achieve success in being accountable for learning the same content as the so called normal students.


Submitted by Serena Randol on 17 July 2013 - 5:31pm.


The prefered term by the Deaf

Submitted by EdInterp on 17 July 2013 - 4:52pm.

The prefered term by the Deaf is Deaf. The capitol D recognizes not a person's ability but rather the culture they identify with. Although included in the ADA for accessibilty Deaf are not impared. They can do everything except hear. Additional learning abilities that are out of mainstream range is a different area of education but should include cultural information. If you are a parent of a D/deaf child I highly recommend investigating the rich cultural foundation Deaf have here in America. Gallaudet University has a web page and resources about American Deaf Culture. www.gallaudet.edu/clerc_center/info_to_go/educate_children_(3_to_21)/resources_for_mainstream_programs/effective_inclusion/including_deaf_culture/about_american_deaf_culture.html