Aired: January 10, 2020

Disability Justice

A protestor in a wheelchair looks at the Capitol Building, while carrying an American Flag with the stars in the handicapped symbol. Image credit: David Sachs / SEIU/ Flickr. Licensed by CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

  • From 504 to ADAPT (17 min.)

    With: Ruth Osorio (Old Dominion University)

    In recent years, ADAPT activists have made headlines for protests that helped stop the ACA repeal. Ruth Osorio says their tactics fit into a long history of disability activism in the U.S., from the 504 occupation in 1977 to #actuallyautistic.

  • "Infirmitas" (11 min.)

    With: Julia DeLancey (University of Mary Washington)

    Julia DeLancey explains how people with different types of bodies organized and advocated for their rights hundreds of years ago, in Early Modern Italy. 

  • Disability Education (24 min.)

    With: Liz Altieri and Darren Minarik (Radford University)

    For years, children with disabilities were taught in separate classrooms or even separate institutions, keeping them away from their peers. But more recently, experts and advocates have argued that this separation is actually a form of unjust segregation. Liz Altieri and Darren Minarik explain how accessible teaching methods can keep more disabled kids in the regular classroom.


Disability Justice– January 10, 2020. For a print-friendly version of this transcript in PDF format, click here.


Transcription details:

Client name: With Good Reason

Date: 1/19/2020

Sound file:

Speaker key:

SM: Sarah McConnell, producer and host

RO: Ruth Osorio

JD: Julia DeLancey

DM: Darren Minarik

LA: Liz Altieri

AS: Audio Sample



SM [music] It’s Fall 2017. The Republican Congress is pushing to repeal the ACA and cut Medicaid expansion. Across the country, disability rights activists ramp up their resistance.

AS No cuts to Medicaid! No cuts to Medicaid!

No cuts to Medicaid! No cuts to Medicaid! No cuts to Medicaid!

SM The images from these protests, led in particular by a group called ADAPT, are striking.

AS No cuts to Medicaid! No cuts to Medicaid!

SM Protestors in wheelchairs, filling the halls of Congress before being arrested, wheeled away, or removed by police–it was a powerful political move.

AS [chants fade in] No cuts to Medicaid! [chants fade out]


SM From Virginia Humanities, this is With Good Reason. I’m Sarah McConnell. Today on the show, a look at the power of disability activism. [music]

The longest non-violent occupation of a federal building happened in 1977, and you probably never heard of it. Ruth Osorio is an english and women’s studies professor at Old Dominion University. She studies the strategies disability rights activists have used throughout American history, from that 1977 occupation to Twitter; and #actuallyautistic. So, in 1973, there was a section that, for the very first time, wrote into law in the U.S. that it was against the law to discriminate against people with disabilities. How did that language get into the law in 1973?

RO Do you want to know what’s wild? Nobody knows.

SM Ah!

RO [laughs]

SM Right?

RO It’s this one sentence–this one sentence–that just appears, and has really groundbreaking impact on the way that our country thinks about disabilities. It was passed as a part of the Rehabilition Act. This is something that’s passed every single year, and Section 504–it’s this one sentence that, exactly what you said, it barres discrimination against people with disabilities from any institution that accepts federal funding. Before then, there was no federal legislation that did similar work.

SM So if, in ‘73, this amazing language goes through that says it’s against the law to discriminate against disabled people, what happened after that? Yay–nobody discriminates?


RO What happens after that is that people in the disability community become aware of this, and they’re excited and they’re hopeful. But again, no one knows who to report infractions to; no one knows: if my employer discriminates against me, if I can’t enter a post office. No one knows who to actually send those complaints to. No one knows how to enact or regulate this legislation.

SM But there was a big protest that changed all this in 1977 in San Francisco. What sparked that?

RO Well what sparked that was, again, this building frustration. There was this network of disability activists across the country, in ten different cities, that had these health education and welfare offices. This is the office that’s now referred to as Health and Human Services. And this was the office that was likely going to be the one to enforce Section 504. So, April 5th, 1977 comes, and hundreds of disabled people and their caregivers and friends and children, they enter these buildings in ten different cities across the United States. And, one by one, they are removed in various ways. They’re kicked out or, some just don’t have the resources to continue, except for in one city–and that is San Francisco; which, I think makes a lot of sense, because San Francisco at the time was the home of, in 1977, a lot of different activist groups. And, they camp out in this federal building, and essentially shut it down…for 25 days.

SM What were the groups that allied with them to help them out?

RO Most notably, the Black Panther party. They showed out, and supported this group and the activists. One of the people with disabilities that was in the room, in the occupation–Brad Lomax–he was a member of the Black Panther party and so was his caregiver. And he called them up and said, “Hey, I’m Black, and I’m disabled, and this is important to me.” And they showed up every single day with hot food for the protestors. And many of the protestors afterward–Cobrett O’Toole–talks about how this sit-in would not have been possible without the support of the Black Panthers. So, every single day, they had food for them. Local unions allowed the protestors to use their fax machines and copy machines. Local gay men’s rights groups, they snuck in walkie talkies. Glide Memorial Church showed up there to make sure people were treated well, and had resources. So, a lot of different groups came together. Cesar Chavez sent a note of support acknowledging that disability rights were civil rights. It was the first time that disability rights were talked about as a political issue on a national stage, as a civil rights issue.

SM I read that at one point, the FBI cut off the telephone lines, so the protestors couldn’t communicate with others inside and outside of the building?

RO Yes! But the protestors were prepared for that. Because what law enforcement was not prepared for, and they weren’t totally ignorant about, was American sign language. And so, they would have a protestor that spoke American Sign Language, or ASL, at the window, and sign information about what was going on inside the building to people outside the building. There were always people outside the building as well, you know, maintaining a public presence. And so then people outside the building would then also communicate news updates to people inside, again, through American sign language. So, the very things that, you know, people think of as weaknesses when it comes to disability were actually the assets and what made this protest so successful. The knowledge and wisdom that was gained navigating an ableist world as disabled people–they harnessed that, and were then able to overcome law enforcement’s efforts to prevent this protest from continuing.


SM So, how long did the takeover of the federal building in San Francisco and these other cities, last?

RO Well, the other cities, they didn’t last very long. They lasted maybe a day or two. In San Francisco, it lasted 25 days, and the only reason it ended was because they were successful. So, Joseph Califano said, “okay, okay, okay. We’re gonna sign these regulations. We’re gonna enact this law.” And it is to this day the longest non-violent occupation of a federal building. And I think what’s so exceptional about that is people didn’t see disabled people as people who are capable of launching a protest or a movement, and so, in some of the oral histories from that, you know, people were saying that disabled people from all over the country would wake up and look at the news and say, “wow, they’re still there.”


SM And so, since the ADA was passed in 1990, and now, what has arisen to be the next arena for disabled activism?

RO So, I’m really excited about this movement for disability justice that’s emerged, not surprisingly, from the San Francisco Bay Area. And, it’s a group of people who are queer, trans, Black, Indigenous, and other people of color with disabilities. And, what these groups have done, have looked at the history of disability activism, and especially the mainstream disability rights movement, and noticed how white it has been, historically. And how, we often, when we think about disability, we think about it in isolation of race and gender. But, if you are a Black, deaf, woman; if you are a Latina, queer, trans, person with a disability or a chronic illness, your experience of access and disability are so different. And so, groups like, Sins Invalid, activists like Sandy Wong, Alice Ho, Mi Amingas, have–Patty Berne–have done a lot of work to really bring attention to the fact that race, gender, and disability intersect in really powerful ways. And, in doing so, they’ve argued that, to move forward, we have to think about access and accessibility beyond legal minimums. It’s great if I can enter a building. But, if I enter a building, and I’m afraid that immigration and customs enforcement is going to be there, that’s not accessible for me. And, so, then, thinking about access in terms of, if I enter a building, and I don’t feel safe, cause I’m the only person of color in that building. And, so really pushing us to expand how we think about access so that we really do include everyone, and really value the different kinds of bodies and minds that are in this world, and the knowledge and stories and creativity and art that come from.


SM How are disability activists using the internet now to, sort of, add fuel to the movement?

RO I’m very excited about #activism, #metoo, #blacklivesmatter. And those are not disability specific, but to give you a sense. And these online spaces have been critically important for disabled people, because a lot of people with disabilities grow up without, maybe, meeting someone who has their disability. There’s an autistic scholar, Melanie Yurgo, and she talks bout how she didn’t meet another openly autistic person until she was in college. And so, there’s a real sense of isolation. It’s different from maybe other identities, because, as a woman, I grew up among women, so there were always women around that I could connect with and talk about that identity with. But with disabilities, it’s sometimes harder to find someone who has your specific disability and who has your identity. So, the internet became this really ripe space for people to connect. Also, people that maybe aren’t able to leave the house. Maybe people who physically cannot march. People who cannot march because it’s different to move, but also the sensory overload of these loud, crowded spaces. The internet becomes a space where people can connect. One hashtag that’s really active right now is #cripthevote, created by Alice Wong.

SM Crip the vote?

RO Crip the vote. C-R-I-P the vote.

SM What does it stand for?

RO Well, so, there has been a move in the disability community, to reclaim the word ‘crip,’ which is shorthand for cripple. And, the hash, is sort of like a reclamation, sort of in the way that queer has been reclaimed by many people. And so, crip the vote, is doing really important work in talking about disability in terms of political elections. So, disability is so rarely talked about in terms of debates. We see this right now in the primary. Disability is usually only discussed when it comes to healthcare. But, disability is an important conversation with employment. It’s an important conversation with housing. When Elizabeth Warren talked about disability in relation to housing, and making sure people have rights to live independently and within the community, the disabled folks online were just thrilled. Cause they get to hear people talk about themselves, and their lives, and their issues in really important ways that impact their everyday life.

SM What are some others in addition to #cripthevote?

RO So, another one is #actuallyautistic. So, this hashtag emerged because the tag, autism, was largely populated by people who were not autistic. Parents of autistic children, educators, doctors, scientists, but not autistic people. And so, if autistic people wanted to have a conversation about their experiences of autism, their experiences of navigating through the world as autistic people, they really couldn’t have it in these spaces, because there were a lot of people talking about how hard it was to have an autistic child, which was really painful for a lot of autistic people. So, #actuallyautistic emerged, and it’s this really exciting, fascinating hashtag to me, because it has these multiple facets, and one of it is just talking about the everyday lives of autistic people, and embracing things–autistic ways of talking and expressing themselves as normal, as valuable, as poetic. So, for instance, people with the hashtag talk about how they styme, which is these kind of repetitive movements that, often times, autistic children are told to ‘stop doing that.’ They’re sometimes even physically forced and prevented from flapping when they’re happy, and moving their hands and their bodies in ways that are not considered normal ways of communicating. So, in this hashtag, these autistic movements and expressions are not seen as something that is bad. Instead, these movements are poet, they’re artistic, they communicate so much. And the problem isn’t the styming, or isn’t the flapping, the problem is that neurotypical, non-autistic people just don’t understand what they’re trying to say. And so, this virtual space becomes a place where people can talk about their lives as autistic people in positive ways. And that’s not all just, ‘yay! Everything’s great–to be autistic.’ Cause they also use that space to say, and look at the ways that ableism, the discrimination against people with disabilities, and specifically anti-autistic ableism, hurts them. And discussion about how these therapies that are designed to fix them, actually use physical force to prevent these ways of communicating, have been really harmful for them. And so, the conversation that they have in this hashtag, #actuallyautistic, it shifts the conversation. Autism isn’t bad. Ableism is.


SM How did you get interested in this? Why did you study disability activism?

RO Well, you know, I was introduced to disability studies when I was in my Master’s program. And it was so exciting to me. I have loved ones and family members who are disabled, who are sick. I myself have had temporary disabilities and disability studies as a framework really helped me understand that the ways that the people that I loved, the ways that they moved through the world, were not invalid. They were not inherently bad or weak. They were just different, and they were beautiful in their own ways. Sometimes, a lot of people think that, ‘well, I’m not disabled. Disability doesn’t matter to me.’ But, you know, disability studies scholars like, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, she says that, ‘if we live long enough, all of us will be disabled.’ And so, I have disability studies to be a really useful way of thinking through how we move through the world in different ways. Everyone benefits from access. Everyone benefits from elevators that work. ‘Cause even if you don’t need it today, you might need it tomorrow. Even if you don’t have a disability, you might have a stroller with a baby in it. Everyone benefits when we build worlds that are built under the assumption that every kind of body and every kind of mind is valuable and valid and can contribute meaningful wisdom to all of us.


SM Well, Ruth Osorio, this is fascinating, thank you for talking with me and With Good Reason.

RO Thank you so much, Sarah, this has been a real delight. [music]

SM Ruth Osorio is an english and women’s studies professor at Old Dominion University. Coming up next, the guild-like groups of early Venice that helped protect people with disabilities. What defines a person with a disability? Who decides what counts as disabled and what doesn’t? Julia DeLancey, an art history professor at the University of Mary Washington, says a look at early modern Venetians shows how disability isn’t a set category. It’s cultural. Julia, you studied the Italian city of Venice in the 16th century when wealthy people were funding great works of art. But you decided at one point to also look at the lives and art of a different group of people–people with disabilities. How did it come about?

JD There’s a variety of different reasons, but I think, really, the kind of, ah-ha moment came when I was on a walk with a friend of mine who’s a historian who also, at that time, worked on disability studies. And we–you know, as people often do–are talking about our work and talking about what we work on, and she was telling me that she worked on disability and I was asking her a little bit more about that. And, she was talking about the fact that, in ancient Greece, blindness was not necessarily seen as a disability. So, I had said to her, you know, “how can blindness not be a disability? Doesn’t everyone agree that that’s a disability?” And she simply looked at me and said, “why?” [laughs] And, so, I had this moment where I thought, “well, why?” and it completely took something that I had taken for granted–this category of disability and the idea that there is these certain things that absolutely have to be disabling, and turned it absolutely on its head.

SM Was that her saying, “why?” or was she saying the Greeks really saw it differently?


JD She was saying the Greeks saw it really differently. So, in other words, one of the certain things in disability studies is the idea that the category of disability is socially constructed. So, in other words, it’s not something that’s absolute in any way–that different cultures see disability differently. So the ancient Greeks might see it one way, 19th century people in Japan might see it another way, 21st century Americans might see it a different way, and that there’s not something necessarily absolute in that category.

SM So, at some point, you decide to look at this area of expertise, for you, which is 16th century Venice, and look at the disabled population.

JD Yeah, so, part of what happened is, this friend, we had this conversation, and we started thinking about, what do we understand about the early modern or the Renaissance period–16th century–about disability. And I started looking, and I realized there was nothing. Not only the lives of people with disabilities but also how they thought of themselves and how the culture that they lived in may have thought of them.

SM So what documents from this period in Venice did you find evidence of the disabled population?

JD Yeah, I had a conversation with a friend of mine and I was saying, you know, I’m here to look at topics related to disability and I’m trying to figure out where to look. And he just, sort of, casually said, “oh, you should look at the guilds!” I think there was a guild for Khan Fraternity–one for people with visual impairments and one for people with mobility impairments. And it turned out that there were probably hundreds of pages of documentation to work with.

SM And what sort of guilds were these? So, a guild for people with visual impairment–what did that mean at the time?

JD Yeah, I think of them as sort of spiritual clubs for lay people. So if you think of like Kiwanis or Rotary or the Elks, only with a spiritual bent and, they’re not for monks, they’re not for priests–they’re for regular people out working in the streets. And, in Venice, during this time period, there were two different kinds of these groups. There were very large ones that were for elite members of the society–people at the kind of top of the social ladder. And they did a lot of charity work, philanthropic work, they commissioned major, massive works of art, they had their own buildings that had huge commissions of works of art by some of the biggest names in art history. But then there was also a second level of, we might think of them as more kind of popular groups. So not necessarily for the elite, although there some were, some of these would be the more traditional trade guilds, so for people who made shoes or people who made things out of iron. But then there were also, at another end, groups for people who wanted to beg. And, these are the groups that I’m looking at. These were groups where they had very little money and, they essentially formed because they wanted to beg in the streets. And the Venetian government said, “you can’t just be wondering around begging on your own. You need to have some sort of official approval.” And they did that through saying, “you need to form one of these groups.” And there were two in Venice that we know of at least–one for people with visual impairments and one for people with mobility impairments.

SM And did they do more than get approval to beg in the streets? Did they participate in Venice society through the groups?

JD Yeah, so we know some about that. They certainly, as one of these groups would be involved in, say, processions in the city. So, if they’re having a big commemorative procession, they would bring out all of the Khan Fraternities and have them process in the streets and so they might have been part of that. They certainly had some work to do in terms of taking care of each other. So they would have a fund that might pay for the dowry of a member’s daughter who was wanting to get married. They would also have religious services. And we know that they had a space as well. They would have kind of a little space in the church where they would conduct their religious services but also their meetings. They had meetings to kind of keep organized and keep their work moving forward–both the begging work but also the organizational work.


SM What are some of the gems that came across that just delighted you?

JD So there’s this wonderful moment in the records of this group with people of visual impairment. They referred to themselves as ‘the guild of the blind.’ And there’s a moment where they’re getting worried about staying on the right side of the state. So they want to make sure that they keep permission for the state and they want to stay on the right side of that. And so there’s a point where they keep getting worried about who’s joining up. And so they start saying that, “well, you can only be a member if you’re blinded pernatura or if you’re blind of natural causes–by nature.” And what they start doing is saying, “well, if you’ve been blinded as a punishment, then you can’t be a part of the guild.” So they’re drawing these really interesting lines in terms of who’s in and who’s out.

SM What did you also learn about the other guild? The guild for the people who had mobility issues?

JD Yeah, what’s interesting with them is that, like the guild of the blind, the group of people with visual impairment, they also had arguments about who could and couldn’t be part of the group. And one of the things that became clear with them is that they were concerned with whether you were a person who just walked with a limp or whether you were someone who had lost a limb. And I haven’t been able to figure out what’s going on there quite yet. I don’t know if it has to do with, sort of, bodily integrity, if you will, or if it had to do with how people moved. That part’s not clear but it’s clear that they’re really wanting to draw those lines–very very strongly.

SM Were decrees by the government about who’s really disabled?

JD Yeah and that may come into it! So, one of the things that’s interesting about the 16th and 17th century Venetian ideas about this category that we might now call disability is that the term that they used was infirm. The Italian one is infirmità. And you were considered infirm if you couldn’t work to take care of your own needs. So, if you were a war veteran and you had had a leg amputated but you were still able to work to take care of your own needs, you wouldn’t be considered infirm. On the same token, if you were a single mother, who had maybe five children, and all under the age of say seven, and they weren’t able to take care of themselves, you might be considered infirm. Because you weren’t able to work outside of the home. And so, that may well be part of it–the idea that you’re thinking of with the mobility impairment. That what they were looking at is were they actually able to take care of your own needs and the needs of people dependent on you?

SM Have you found anything akin to what your friend said about how the Greeks see blindness as not necessarily an infirmity–that Venetians had different views of limitations?


JD Yeah, so there’s a couple things I would say there. One of those would be the example that I gave of this category of infirmità and that it doesn’t necessarily map out to what we see as disability. So if you had a visual impairment but you still could work, then you wouldn’t be considered disabled if we think about disabled and inform as the same thing. I think the other thing is that, one of the kind of key principles out of disability studies is the idea of ‘nothing about us if without us.’ So, the idea that it’s important to try to maintain, in the work that you’re doing, the voices of the population that you’re writing about. And, that’s been one of the hardest things about doing scholarly research about disability studies is getting the voices with people with disabilities. And so that’s partly why these documents about people with visual impairments and mobility impairments have been so interesting is that they record what people were saying, because they were court cases. And so we get kind of verbatim the voices of people testifying. And they don’t really ever refer to themselves as lesser than. They’ll sometimes talk about themselves as we poor blind people–poveri ciechi–but they don’t really seem to have a sense of ‘oh we’re less than other people.’ And, in fact, a lot of the cases are them fighting very very hard for rights and attention and those sorts of issues. And so that’s been an interesting piece–that their sense of group identity and sense of wanting to be visible is really really really clear, and the fact that they’re working together as a group is really clear.

SM Julia, this is wonderful. Thank you for sharing your insights on With Good Reason.

JD Thank you so much. It was a pleasure talking with you. [music]

SM Julia DeLancey is an art history professor at the University of Mary Washington. This is With Good Reason. We’ll be right back. [music]. Welcome back to With Good Reason from Virginia Humanities. I’m Sarah McConnell. Even as the number of students and special education increases, special ed teachers and getting harder and harder to find. And so, schools are falling short of a promise to educate all students. Liz Altieri and Derren Minarik are education professors are Radford University. They’re working on a big project to help schools better serve students with disabilities. Liz and Darren, you say the move to include more students with disabilities in the regular classroom is social justice. What do you mean by that? How is it social justice?


DM Well, when I think about social justice, really what comes to mind is equality. And having–thinking about people with disabilities, students with disabilities, and thinking about how important it is for them to be fully included with their peers. That’s what I really think about it.

LA You know, you go all the way back to 1954 and there was a Supreme Court case, Brown v. the Board of Education, that basically said, for Black students, separate is not equal. And it’s really this same issue. That not only is separate not equal, but the opportunity to participate in the life of the school is not present when kids are pulled out or pulled away in separate places.

SM What kinds of disabilities do these children typically have?

LA Today, maybe kids with milder disabilities such as learning disabilities and attention deficit disorders–those students have been included. But, really, our main focus is those students who have developmental disabilities. And those are students with autism, students with intellectual disabilities, with physical disabilities such as cerebral palsy. Individuals who have difficulty with things like communication. Those are the hardest kids, or at least people perceive them as hard to include.

SM Aren’t you just talking about mainstreaming of children with disability into the regular classroom? And, don’t we already have that?

DM Well, mainstreaming is kind of an older term that was used–really, the idea of mainstreaming was taking kids that were separated, put them into this classroom setting, but not really thinking about how important it is to fully include them. Not just academically but socially, emotionally, and physically. And mainstreaming really focused on those disability groups that we mentioned–the learning disabilities and students with attention deficit. It really wasn’t thinking about those students with developmental disabilities and how to fully include them in the classroom.

LA I have this image that I like people to think about. So, mainstreaming is this idea where you have a teacher and she’s swimming along the river and she’s coaching this kid and saying, “come on, come on,” and we throw this kid with a disability into the river and they have to keep us. And what happens is they can’t. And so they end up coming in the side again and needing these special supports. When we’re talking about inclusive practice and inclusion, we’re really talking about a pond where you have a variety of people working with small groups of kids. You have kids who can swim fast, kids who are learning to dive, kids who are learning to hand off things to their peers while they’re sitting’ in that lovely cushy floaty chair. It’s a very different way of thinking about schooling.


SM Don’t we already have special ed teachers who come to the classroom and spend a portion of the day focusing exclusively on these children in the main class?

LA Co-teaching is a very popular movement right now. One of the things we’re seeing though is that the research based practice that goes with it isn’t always in place. So, the teacher comes in, the special ed teacher comes in, and kind of functions like a helper. And they’re just working with these kids of disabilities. One of the things that we are–in the schools that we work with as well as in the students that we’re preparing to be teachers–we’re teaching them to use small groups, to use parallel groups, to use stations, to use the kids of strategies where you are merging the expertise of that educator and that special educator. And the reality is it’s not just those kids with disabilities that are being helped. Everybody in the class has the opportunity for individualization and extension. So it helps kids who are gifted as well as kids with disabilities; English language learners.

SM How does it help the gifted child?

LA So, if I have three people in the classroom instead of one–I might have the reading specialist there, I might have the special educator, and the general educator. We can divide those kids into three groups of kids, and really individualize, for each group, and provide them the instruction that they need in that small group.

SM And we’re not already doing that?

DM So what we’re seeing right now in the classrooms is special education teachers might be in there, and there might be some collaboration taking place. We might be seeing students who are receiving some special education services in the general education classroom. But it’s a seat in the classroom, and they’re not really being included the way we would like to see.


LA I would give you an example. The other thing is that when we’re talking about kids with more significant disabilities, it takes a fair amount of creativity to figure out, how can this student be part of this instruction, say on Jamestown Settlement or on, you know, the Declaration of Independence. And it takes the expertise of both individuals to figure out, how do we adapt materials? How do we have a variety of things for kids to read? Those who are gifted might be reading something at the high school level, someone else might be primarily working with pictures to learn about it. That’s an example of what we’re talking about. Those kids with more significant disabilities, people still believe that they are better off if they are in a separate place with instruction that is–I’m gonna say quote-on-quote–“just for them.”

SM So are you only saying that, yes, let’s do differentiated learning. Let’s mainstream children with disabilities into the mainstream classroom. And, instead of having a special ed teacher pull them out of the class for specialized instruction, let’s have the special ed teacher do it in the class. Or, are you saying more than that?

DM It can be both ways. You can have a special education teacher pull out a student for more intensive types of supports in order to help the student be more successful. But, for a school to be truly inclusive, we need to be able to then take what that student is learning in that pulled out setting and then they need to be applying that back in the main educational setting with their peers. And a good analogy to think about in terms of a truly inclusive school is to imagine that the child is attached to a bungee cord. And, where is that bungee cord connected? So, in an inclusive school setting, the child’s bungee cord is connected to the general education classroom. And so, when the child goes out to get services, the tension is pulling back in with his or her peers in the classroom. In those schools that do pull out that are not very inclusive, the child feels like the tension is pulling them more to be separated from their peers. And so that’s what we’re trying to change with the culture of the schools.


LA I think, also, schools are going to have to change really how they structure education and teaching. And this is not just about kids with disabilities. When we’re talking about inclusive practice, we’re talking about all those kids that feel on the outside. You know, folks are very concerned with those kids who feel like they’re outsiders and the tendency to be bullied or to be violent. This addresses all kids who are on the outside, and it requires that we think about how we schedule. So, for example, we have core times when everybody in the classroom is working and learning, and then we have these times that are for enrichment or intervention for small groups of kids. And then, if you need speech, you get speech. If you need some gifted, accelerated learning, you get that. If you need some mental health counseling, you get that. If you need special education intervention–but it requires us to rethink, sort of, that structure of the school day that is still very much stuck in the 19th century. You know, you do math at this time and reading at this time. And, everybody goes along in lock-step. What happens is that kids with disabilities, especially, get pulled out of core academic instruction in order to receive those specialized services. So, they get those specialized services–let’s just say they’re getting reading instruction–but, you know what, they’ve just missed the rest of language arts, which is focusing on book study, and focusing on writing, and focusing on maybe a theme that they’re working on. So, that’s why pulling out instruction is so hard. It’s not that the intervention that they’re getting isn’t good. It’s that they’re missing that core academic instruction that happens to the whole class.

SM And our attitude primarily has been, but aren’t they lucky to be getting that pull out instruction? Good enough.

DM Yeah, and it’s important to get that instruction, but it doesn’t help if, then, they’re not able to utilize it with the core subject areas that they’re learning.

LA I want to go back to that ‘good enough’ piece. One of the things that we’ve learned, about fifty years ago, about providing special education services, is that we have to have really hgih expectations. And when we have low expectations, we’re okay with ‘good enough.’ And some of the very early court cases that were in place basically said that special education has to do the minimal, not the optimal. But what we’ve learned, and research really provides this example, is that kids that we believed would never read–for example, kids with intellectual disability–we now have the knowledge and the skills; we know how to teach those kids to read, and they know how to read. When I first was teaching, we didn’t even have any books in our school. Because it was all for kids with moderate to significant disabilities, and the assumption was that they would never learn to read. So, we have to do more than ‘good enough.’ We have to have high expectations for all our kids.


DM We teach our students in our pre-service program that they need to presume competence in every child that walks into the classroom, and then go from there–create the best educational opportunity that you can.

SM So your program would do what? What would be the major difference in terms of who you instruct and how?

LA So, in one of our schools, they’ve got a 5th grade, a 4th grade, and a 3rd grade that they’ve studied. In the 5th grade, the special educator and the 5th grade classroom teacher are working together to provide mathematics instruction. They’re doing that within a co-teaching arrangement. But they also have been given time to co-plan–to really think through and analyze their instruction together and what strategies they’re using; and, are they working? In the 4th grade, there’s a special education and a classroom teacher who are co-teaching, but they don’t have time to co-plan. In the 3rd grade, they don’t have a co-teaching arrangement. They have that typical sort of thing where the special educator pulls the kid out–kids out–for some instruction, or drops by. They analyze their testing results and they found out that, in the 5th grade, 100 percent of the kids passed those mathematics assessment. All the kids with disabilities. Statewide, by the way? Less than 50 percent of kids are successful in mathematics. In the 4th grade class, they had about 80 percent I wanna say. So it still wasn’t working for about 20 percent of the kids. And then in the 3rd grade, they were barely meeting the benchmarks that have to be met. So, what they saw for themselves was, here’s the things we put in place, and here’s the things that worked. And it was this co-teaching but also co-planning, the differentiation strategies, the adaptations, and really being systematic about how they looked at that instruction and provided it.

DM And the beauty of that is it’s not us telling them that this is the best way to go about doing it. They’re seeing it themselves through their own data and their own practices. So, we don’t have to just go in and teach them, this is the right way or this is the best way or the best practice. This is something that they’re learning as they’re going along, and they’re seeing it. They’re seeing the results in their students.


SM I see the two of you, remarkably piloting this program in two different, very interesting schools that are very typical. What’s more important–going around the country and persuading all the schools to do this, or going around to the education schools and teaching all the new teachers to do this.

DM We have to choose? [laughs]

LA [laughs] We do both.

DM Yeah

LA We do both. We have what we like to think of as a model for teacher preparation. We take our elementary student teachers–not all of them, a couple cohorts. We have our elementary student teachers and our special ed student teachers, and we place them in the classroom together for their field experience, where they learn how to co-plan, co-teach, co-evaluate, and be a part of a team.

SM That’s really neat.

LA Thank you. You can’t just read about collaboration, which many schools across the country, they teach their teachers about collaboration. They teach them the co-teaching models. But unless you get to practice it within a supported, very supported setting, you’re not really going to understand how to do it when you get out. So, we have that model for teacher preparation, and we think it’s essential. We think that separate teacher preparation is, in fact, maintaining separate schooling.

DM I think, too, you mentioned schools of education and how they can change things or schools and how we could go in and make change there with, maybe, the teachers. And I think about the students. The students that, when we’re creating these co-teaching relationships, and teaching our future pre-service teachers how to work in the schools, part of what we’re trying to teach them to do too, is to empower the students that they’re working with. We often talk about a term called self-determination which is giving students the capacity to understand their own disability and be able to advocate for themselves, and to be more independent, and to be able to communicate their needs and their wants and their dreams for their future. And our students we’re trying to prepare them, and I think we do a really good job of that, trying to prepare them to educate the students to be able to have that empowerment. And that’s really what’s going to change schools. I think adults, we’ve been trying it for years, and we’re not doing always the best job of doing that, because we forget that the most important part that we need to include are the kids.


SM Who objects the most to this? Is it the parents of the children in the classroom, is it the parents with disabilities, is it the teachers in the classroom?

DM Any type of change process has resistance in it. And, a lot of times, the communication piece what you need in order to figure out where that resistance is–what’s causing that resistance. It’s all of the above. There are going to be parents that don’t want it for one reason or the other, or children, for one reason or another, or teachers for one reason or another. But, usually, it’s a misunderstanding of what we’re talking about when we’re talking about inclusive practice. It’s not that we’re saying that you have to drop those things that you think are working really well for your child, if you’re the parent who is resistant to that. What we’re saying is that we want to make sure that what your child is learning in that more self-contained setting is then something that they can replicate and use for their entire life, and that they can be around their peers and experience inclusion, which is what society is. If we’re separating them in schools, and then we’re asking them to live independently once they graduate, they’re not going to be prepared for that situation.

LA And I want to speak to the parent piece, because we know there are parents who say, “I want one-on-one, and I want it to be in this very safe setting. I want my child to have everything–the best possible.” The reality is that just putting a child in the general education classroom is really resulted in some very poor outcomes for kids who needed some very specialized supports. Parents know those stories, they’re fearful that their child is going to be frustrated. Parents share their stories actually of their child being frustrated. Kids who have communication problems, they tend to respond through their behavior when things aren’t working out for them. So, the reality is that, without good, inclusive practice that involves many of those things that we’ve been talking about it–the co-teaching, the co-planning, the differentiation strategies, the adaptations, universal design for learning, lots of visual supports–if those things aren’t in place, there could be poor outcomes, and there have been poor outcomes. And teachers have seen it, and parents have seen it, and kids themselves have seen it. And so there is that group of folks who say, “I don’t want this for my child.” And it’s a bit frustrating to have been in the field and to see for 35 years that we know how to do this, so why isn’t it become practice?

SM They don’t trust their local people to implement it the right way.

LA Well that’s…

S4 Because they’re not seeing it be implemented the right way. And that’s not the fault of the school divisions. The school divisions, often times, don’t have the professional development and the support and the coaching to implement that. The resources are already there–you have the general education teachers, you have the special education teachers, you have the support staff in place. But, the question then is, how do those teachers, how do those faculty members, work together in order to make successful outcomes for students with disabilities?

SM So we do need more money for training the existing personnel?

DM That may be the only area where I would say it comes into play. But, again, going back to teacher preparation programs, if we’re doing a really good job in teacher preparation with helping future teachers, that’s actually a money saver for school divisions, because then they’re bringing in professionals who already have that. But then you also need, then, a coaching piece. You need those who have that institutional knowledge of inclusive practice to be able to share it with others in a way that’s–that allows others to accept it and be able to use it effectively with their peers.

LA And that’s one of the things that our project is able to do. We’re funded through a Virginia board with people with disabilities grant for two years which ends actually in September of 2020. So, we’ve been able to work with these two school divisions, and provide some resources to provide a stipend to some of these coaches and to provide some training. But, in the big scheme of things, it’s not a big expense.

And I think there’s some pressure on school divisions right now because, in spite of everything we’ve put in place for Virginia, less than 50 percent of kids with disabilities are academically successful. It’s a wake up call. It tells us that the way we’ve been doing this is just not working. Schools are really still struggling with these children.

SM Liz and Darren, it’s exciting to hear you talk about this. Good luck! [music] Liz Altieri and Darren Minarik are education professors at Radford University. Major support for With Good Reason is provided by the law firm of McGuireWoods and by the University of Virginia Health System, connecting doctors and patients through telemedicine to deliver high-quality care throughout Virginia, the U.S., and the world. With Good Reason is produced in Charlottesville by Virginia Humanities. Our production team is Allison Quantz, Cass Adair, and Matt Darroch. Production help was provided by Georgianna Reid. Special thanks this week to Todd Washburn of WHRV. Some of the music from the episode is by Blue Dot Sessions. For the podcast, go to I’m Sarah McConnell. Thanks for listening. [music]


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