Models of Disability

Last week, we had our first parent/teacher conferences of the school year. During the conferences we discussed the importance of self-advocacy for students with disabilitiesthat mathematical proficiency is more than procedural fluency, and how hard it can be for a parent of a student with a disability. This time afforded me the opportunity to reflect on some of the reading I’ve done lately including some books more specifically about disability.


One such book is Disability Studies and the Inclusive Classroom by Susan Baglieri and Arthur Shapiro. Baglieri and Shapiro present an easily digestible version of how disability is currently situated in the world of education and society. Baglieri and Shapiro go into detail about two models of disability that influence our work with students with disabilities in the school setting. They are the medical model and the social model of disability.

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Accessibility and Mathematics


I’ve tried to write this post many times. Each time I write the opening sentence, it seems to pale in comparison to the grand scope of what it should encompass. Access and equity is a huge topic, not only in math classes, but in education at large. Often equity is discussed in terms of gender, socio-economic, racial, or sexual orientation. These conversations are also vital, but this post will focus on equity for students with disabilities through access to rich mathematics curricula. However, writing a post about access for students with disabilities in robust math classes is still a daunting task. Since I believe in the importance of this topic I’m going to just begin, though I’ll probably regret how I began once I’ve finished.


When one considers how to create an accessible math class for students with disabilities it is generally done through deficit thinking. “My students can’t do _____, so what interventions can I implement to fix their deficits?”

At one level, the evolution of deficit thinking in special education stemmed from beliefs that, although some individuals functioned in ways considered “subnormal,” they were still humans and deserved to be educated. A review of the history of the development of programs for children with mild disabilities reveals that, in the early 1800’s, advocates of the child saving theory attempted to determine the etiology of students’ symptoms that resulted in learning and behavior problems.

These psychologists, physicians, and educators developed therapies and instructional interventions designed to improve the educational outcomes and quality of life of individuals with disabilities (Trent, Artiles & Englert, 1998).

Unfortunately, the idea of intervention is inextricably linked to deficit thinking and the belief that students with disabilities are not “normal.” I can’t help but disagree with this. Concepts like neurodiversity and presumed competence provide a much more equitable stance on how students with disabilities should be viewed and treated in the school environment. With this in mind, here are two effective lesson planning guides to increase access to rich mathematics for students with disabilities in your classroom.

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