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Countering Disability Stereotypes

Posted by on in Education Resources
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"Frustration" is probably the best word that can be used to describe my feeling after watching the film adaptation of JoJo Moyes' Me Before You. The film centers on William Traynor, a man who sustains a disability after an accident, and who ultimately (spoiler) chooses assisted suicide over life in a wheelchair. The film came under fire by critics for perpetuating harmful, inaccurate stereotypes about people with disabilities. Indeed, Me Before You would have us believe that people with quadriplegia are asexual beings who cannot enjoy truly robust lives. And who can't visit Paris for some reason.

Me Before You was clearly written by someone who has little experience with disabilities in the same way that, say, Heart of Darkness was composed by someone who had very little interaction with Congolese natives. I wonder, though, how many students out there would be able to recognize the problematic nature of the text. Or how many would walk away from the film feeling mere pity for those with spinal cord injuries? Likewise, how many students who read John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men are troubled by the ending and skeptical of Steinbeck's portrayal of intellectual disabilities? How many see Lennie as an animal-like creature whose death was inevitable?

How many students have only been exposed to what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls a "single story" about disabilities?

Education provides us with a vehicle for breaking down stereotypes and for exploring difference - or perceived difference. Here is one activity that can help teachers to lay a groundwork for helping students to recognize and counter disability stereotypes.

Web Resources

Introductory Lesson Plan


In this activity, students examine the term "disability" and recognize disability as an ambiguous, and contested term. They will use evidence and reasoning to support claims about what "disability" is and what it looks like.

Activities: Introduction

First, ask students to attempt to define "disability" and to list some characteristics of people with disabilities. Students share these responses with a partner and then discuss responses with the whole class. Encourage students to find discrepancies in beliefs about disabilities and ask students to consider what beliefs might be stereotypes.  

Next, tell students that there isn't one single agreed upon definition of disability, but that we'll start with the Merriam-Webster definition. Display the dictionary definition of disability and call on a student to read it out loud.

Possible questions to ask:

What is a disability, according to this definition?

Would someone who needs a hearing aid be considered "disabled?" Would this person fit the definition of disability before hearing aids were invented? What are some other conditions that would be considered "disabilities" 100 ago?

What are some physical or mental conditions that might limit someone from pursuing an occupation? Are these conditions always limiting? Why or why not?

Tell students that they are now going to interrogate or question what the word ‘disability’ means. Say: "One of the best ways to do that is to listen to someone who has a disability." Distribute note sheets for students to record notes while they listen. Play "A Work In Progress" by Aimee Mullins. Ask students to share their initial reactions and notes with a partner, then play the podcast again. Then, ask students to move into small-groups for 5-10 minutes to discuss their responses and to add to their notes. Finally, lead a whole-class discussion that is guided from the notes outline.

Four Corners Activity: Post signs on four corners of the room: Strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree.


Ask students to stand in the middle of the room.

Read aloud the following prompts (below) one at a time.

After reading the prompt, ask students to pick a corner.

Once students have chosen their corner, ask students to discuss their decision with people in their group. Divide groups of students into groups of 3-4 if group is large.

Allow students 2-3 minutes to discuss their choice with their peers and to write an evidence-based explanation of their choice. Then ask students to share their conversations with the class.

Students summarize points of agreement and disagreement. The teacher records these notes on the board.

As a class, evaluate evidence provided for claims and decide what evidence-based claims are strongest. Re-read prompt and allow students to "switch sides" if their opinions change.


Aimee Mullins has a disability

People in society want to see people with disabilities as victims.

It is a problem when people with disabilities are presented negatively or in a stereotypical fashion.

Some of my attitudes or beliefs about disabilities or people disabilities changed today.

During this activity, teachers can encourage lively discussions by pressing students for concrete evidence, by encouraging students to revise their opinions when they lack sufficient evidence to back up their beliefs about disability and by asking students to find evidence to support a new claim. When the activity is complete, ask students to return to their desks and to write a reflection on what they learned about disability and about using evidence to support claims.


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Amy Williams holds Masters degrees in English and teaching. She was a New York Educator Voice Resident Fellow in the 2014-15 school year, and was a National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Grant recipient in 2014. Her writing and lesson plans have appeared on ReadWriteThink, EdWeek Teacher, and in other publications. Amy was a tenured educator in New York where she taught grades 10, 12, English electives like Mass Media & Society and dual-enrollment courses with Tompkins Cortland Community College. She now teaches at an IB World School in Germany.

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Guest Friday, 21 October 2016