Ableism in Special Education

Unfortunately, ableism runs rampant in the field of education, and especially within the special education niche. Let’s learn together about how we can change our behavior and spread the word to our colleagues and other community members.

Ableism in Special Education

What is Ableism?

Ableism is a form of discrimination that favors those that are abled, rather than disabled. It may take the form of bias, discrimination or prejudice.

Even those of us that are disabled ourselves are likely ableist. We may have internalized ableism, we may have been taught ableist information in college or through learning from colleagues, and ableism is simply everywhere. We live in a world built for non-disabled people. 

And because of the society we live in, we all need to take steps towards recognizing ableism and modifying our own behaviors.

What are some examples of Ableism?

A general example of ableism is when an abled person assumes their life is more valuable than a disabled person’s life. 

For example, a neurotypical person may assume that a deaf or blind person’s experience of life is sad or less enjoyable than their own life. They can’t understand their experience of the world, so they conclude that they are grateful to not be that way.

Similarly, having pity for someone who’s in a wheelchair and assuming they wish they could walk is a form of ableism. (Note – this is not to discount the experience of someone who is in a wheelchair who DOES wish they could walk, of course. But it should not be the default assumption from able-bodied folks.) 

Another example is assuming that a neurodivergent person needs to work on a part of themself to appear more neurotypical, such as needing to work on their social skills to “fit in.” While certain social skills can certainly be a goal, if the driving factor is to make a person seem less disabled, that is ableist. 

More examples include:

As a rule, although being disabled can have its challenges, it isn’t inherently negative… even if many abled people assume so.

If you need a reminder on the definition of neurodivergent, neurotypical, etc., refer to the blog post below.

How does Ableism tie in to being

Recognizing ableism is a good starting point for becoming neurodiversity-affirming, because it can help us reframe how we think about our students, what goals we decide they should work on, how we talk about our students, and how we talk and teach our students. 

We can learn to observe and respect body language, and shift our learning objectives to be neurodiversity affirming.

To learn more about this topic, check out my podcast episode on “Be The Exception in Special Education”.

How is the Special Education field Ableist?

Most of us in the Special Education field were unfortunately taught from a pathology frame of reference. We were taught methods to help our students be less impaired. We are taught about recognizing “deficits” and “symptoms,” and everything is labeled as a “disorder.” We are taught to assess and diagnose, and then make a plan for how to “fix” said problems. 

You may be starting to catch on now why this is not okay.

Our goal should never be to try to make anyone more “normal.” Who decided that disabled people can’t be themselves? 

This is especially prevalent with our neurodivergent students. If a kid or teen is having dangerous behavior that is one thing, but if they are just not presenting as neurotypical, that’s not something we target to change.

Our goal as special educators should not be to try to fix someone; it should be to help the person learn about themselves and how they can best fit into a world that wasn’t made for them. Any teaching method or learning objectives that intend to change the behavior of a student to appear more neurotypical is the opposite of neurodiversity-affirming!

What are some ways to counteract Ableism?


When it comes to our neurodivergent students, rather than focusing on changing a student’s behavior to mask their disability, like decreased stimming or neurotypical social skills training, try instead to help the student reach goals surrounding self-advocacy, boundaries, consent, communication, self-determination, safety, perspective taking, and social problem-solving.

We can teach self-awareness, how to self-regulate, and how to self-advocate.

We can give them the skills so they know what accommodations are and how to seek them out. 

We can teach them communication skills, whether vocal or non vocal. 

But we are not trying to change the parts of them that make them, them.

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If you notice others engaging in ableist behavior, gently explain what you know. Most people are oblivious to what ableism is, so they need the education!

You can also create your own ability event, post flyers, or engage in conversations on social media or other online platforms. The more we talk about it, the more it will become mainstream knowledge!

Check out the free resources below!

How can I learn more about Ableism?

It’s important to learn from disabled folks who have lived experience. While there are many non-disabled advocates and educators in the world with valuable insight, we need to diversify who we learn from. This includes listening to people from different cultures, races, ethnicities and backgrounds.

Disability advocacy is extremely important, so that we NEED to listen to disabled folks.

Whether or not you are disabled yourself, the best thing you can do to combat ableism is to LISTEN and ADAPT. If you are doing those things, you are on the right track.