Lesson Plan – Nothing About Us Without Us: Introducing Disabilities Studies

Pushing our understanding of what “disability” means can help our communities reimagine themselves and the systems they are a part of.

1. Freewrite: At the start of the lesson, the statement “Nothing About Us Without Us” is written up on the board. Ask students to take five minutes and write a freewrite response to this quote: What does this phrase mean to you? What is it trying to say? How would you describe or define this statement in your own words? (5 mins)

2. Share Out: Ask a few students to go around and share what they wrote for their freewrite responses, and gauge where the class is at in terms of familiarity and comfort with what may be a new subject. (3 mins)

3. Introduction/Vocab Check: “This statement, ‘Nothing About Us Without Us,’ though it could be applied to many communities’ struggles for justice, comes originally from the Disability Rights Movement. Founded by people and communities who were defined by the medical establishment as physically and/or mentally ‘handicapped,’ this movement rejects the idea that there are normal kinds of bodies, and that all others fall into the category ‘handicapped.’ The Disabled Rights Movement teaches us that bodies cover a huge span of abilities, and that people of all abilities have the right to devise, express and advocate for their own needs and desires.” Write brief definitions for “Disabled” and “The Disability Rights Movement” on the board, and define any other words with which students are struggling or need more clarification. Make sure that “lacking or being denied access” is included in the definitions. Have them add all of these definitions to guided notes, or into their notebooks. (10 mins)

4. Brainstorm: “How does this movement relate to our community? We have here that one definition of being disabled is to lack access to the tools and resources one needs to survive. Are there any ways that we or our communities are disabled in ways that we don’t normally think about? What systems make decisions for us, but do not involve us in their decision making?” As students begin to discuss some of these questions, try to start generating a list on the board of systems or institutions which are “About Us Without Us.” You may want to start the list off with “school,” or “a classroom,” and take some time to break down why these might be examples of systems which decide things for people without their input. Give students a few minutes to think together about the questions, then go around and see what other examples can be added to the list, helping students if they are having trouble coming up with their own:

– school

– the classroom

– public assistance

– real estate/housing

– education

– charity

– standardized testing

– spending of government money

– prisons

– the military

See what ideas students can generate on their own, but this may be an area in which suggestions and guidance from the teacher may be helpful. (12 mins)

5. In Small Groups: Ask students to work in small groups, with each group selecting one of the items from the brainstorm–or one of their own–to discuss. Ask students to break down the subject in the same way the large group did with the idea of school and the classroom: How is this item an example of a system which is “About Us Without Us?” Who created it, and why? How could this system involve us in ways that it doesn’t now? Ask each small group to write as many notes for their item as they can. Make sure every person in the group is taking their own notes that they can refer to later. (10 mins)

6. Closing/React: Bring the collective back to the board. If there is time, ask a few groups to share what they wrote and talked about while they were working on their item: “The goal of the Disability Rights Movement, which is still in full swing, is not simply to challenge systems which do not involve and deny access to disabled people. Its goal is to create whole new systems, ones which can involve the voices of entire communities, and in which oppressed people are able to make and enact their own choices. How do we begin to imagine new ways of doing things, systems which are about us and with us?” Return to one of the items on the list (gender may be a good one since it was already discussed, but focusing on the classroom as an immediate example may also be powerful) and quickly brainstorm some concrete actions that can be taken to start breaking down the hierarchies of that system in everyday interactions. (10 mins)

7: Homework: Ask students to return to the item they examined in their small groups. Ask them to review the notes they took together, and to take time to write a proposal of how their item might be changed into a system which is “about us” and “with us.” How would this system have to change? How would it have to look different? What kind of a whole new system might take its place?


Ideas for later lessons returning to Disabilities Studies:

Another similar quote associated with the Disability Rights Movement is “Nothing About Us Without Us Is For Us.” What does this quote mean, what statement does it make, and how is it slightly different from the first quote we examined? What more does it teach us about Disabilities Studies and the Disability Rights Movement?

We learned together that Radical Feminism is a way of thinking and acting which challenges systems of inequity and heirarchy. How are Radical Feminism and Disabilities Studies related? How are they different? How could their different perspectives work together to help us imagine whole new systems?

8 responses to “Lesson Plan – Nothing About Us Without Us: Introducing Disabilities Studies

  1. I love this! And I have follow up questions about intersectionality– how do we deal with ways in which non-normative bodies seek accommodations but are not disabled? I’m thinking of fat bodies (aren’t I always?), and also trans* bodies. How do we work in solidarity to find alternatives to the medical model of bodies without appropriating the work of disability organizing? I know, big questions.

    • Dang, thank you so much for these really thoughtful questions. I would really like to know if you have any further thoughts in response to them yourself. I might say that I think queers, for example, have come up with all kinds of methods, practices and ideas which challenge power, and which I hope all oppressed people might learn about and put into action on their own behalf. Is it appropriation for different kinds of non-normative bodies to rely on models and methods developed by disability organizing, making sure we cite our sources? Can we start by understanding that there are always huge ranges of bodies in our communities, and that familiarizing ourselves with and keeping alive struggles for disability rights is all of our responsibilities, in all of our best interests?

      • Citing sources is always a good idea and makes appropriation less of a problem. But can non-normative bodies use structures that have been created by and for disabled people/bodies? Can a fat person who is otherwise not disabled use the ADA to access accommodations? Personally, I’m uncomfortable with that. But I don’t think it’s open and shut because I don’t think that disability is a strict binary. I think there’s also a lot of thinking that can happen about embodiment and what disability is. What is the relationship between people and bodies: do we have bodies or are we our bodies? Or is there another understanding of bodies? Where is disability located– is it in the individual (perhaps a biological or identity modle), in a group (a biosocial model), or in social order (where society creates disability)? I see it as all three, and each definition creates different ways to work with disability and non-normative able bodies.

      • These are more great and really powerful questions I had not considered, and ones that I think would be great to try and tackle within a curriculum like this one. This is definitely a complicated area you draw attention to, but I do hope that solidarity can come precisely from our expanding the vision of our own struggles to directly include those we may not have originally seen as belonging to that struggle. But this is not a subject I know very much about. Thank you so much for offering your nuanced approaches to these questions and issues. These are definitely things I will need to keep in mind as I continue learning about Disabilities Studies and radical pedagogy.

      • There are questions that I continue to struggle with. Radical pedagogies have to acknowledge the existence of non-normative bodies and work toward goals that include liberation for all people and bodies. When I feel a bit overwhelmed with these theoretical questions, I like to remind myself that we don’t have to have answers, but we do have to ask questions and collaborate on solutions for everyone.

  2. A great discussion here! I’m non-q, a poc raised when the phrase, “Better dead than Red” carried connotations for me and my body quite divergent from the politcal ends then being sought. I am also a litigation attorney who has done work under the ADA and Michigan’s Hanicapper Act.

    During my 20+ years of practicing law I have seen Civil Rights move backward despite contrary (superficial) appearances. Comments, typically made by those in dominant positions, suggest ‘things are getting better’. While there does seem to be less overtly physical violence, a great deal of violent oppression is hidden in silencing discourse, and I see any number of power struggles firmly entrenched in slick verbiage. Given historic and multigenerational gaps in socio-economic power, verbal education and abilities, and standing-to-speak, I think the struggles less likely to be resolved than ever before under sytematized movements and processes.

    What If: the issue is not what might be seen and thought of as objectified bodies; that the pivot is instead at the point of the oft-forgotten ‘truth’ that human beings are present (no matter what one may think or believe that my, your, their or our bodies represent)?

    What If: the authoritative framing of issues and accepted procedures for dealing with them are faulty — that assertion and/or assention to a belief in ‘normativity’ and having faith in the system’s procedures for resolving conflicts are primary errors?

    What If: workable solutions, no matter their primogenesis, should be utilized simply because they work?

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