March 2024

Teaching about disability history benefits everyone in the classroom. First and foremost, disability history provides visibility for students with disabilities who may rarely see their identities or experiences represented while at school. Disability history also encourages all students to build historical empathy skills through learning about the meanings and experiences of bodily difference and diversity. In addition, the ideas and methods within disability studies can help teachers develop greater awareness of how ableism shapes the classroom itself—physically, institutionally, and pedagogically.

The Choices Program recognizes that there is a high demand among teachers for educational resources on disability history and studies, but that it can often be difficult to identify those resources—or even know where to begin. 

This Resource Guide provides teachers with educational resources on how to teach disability history, how to incorporate the ideas and methods of disability studies into history and social studies classrooms, and how to teach any subject while keeping questions of accessibility and anti-ableism in mind. It offers teachers a diverse array of articles, primary sources, lesson plans, archives, webpages, and blogs that both center the voices of disabled people and introduce educators to important concepts, approaches, and themes in disability studies.

Below you will find the following:

  • Disability History: An introduction to key topics in disability history, both within the United States and globally. Particular focus is given to the history of disability rights in the United States.
  • Accessible and Anti-Ableist Pedagogy: An introduction to topics in anti-ableist pedagogy and education, including conceptual perspectives on disability justice in schools, practical pedagogical strategies, and important legal issues relevant for teachers and students.


Disability Studies: Definitions and Frameworks

The concept and experience of disability has a complex social, political, and cultural history. For many today, “disability” or “disabled” are often understood in two ways: 1) a medical term associated with a specific diagnosis; 2) a bureaucratic term associated with legal protections under anti-discrimination law and educational or labor rights. For many disabled people, disability is also a personal, political, and social identity that they associate with pride and/or a shared commitment to rights and justice. Most often, however, the word “disabled” is simply avoided, stigmatized, or replaced with euphemisms.1

Defining Disability

What is disability? Defining disability has been a central matter of discussion within disability studies. The three essays below can help teachers and educators understand some of the ways disability has been defined and whose experiences have been more or less centered in these definitions. For a more general glossary of disability and neurodiversity terminology, follow these first three links: 

  • “Disability,” Rachel Adams, Benjamin Reiss, and David Serlin, Keywords for Disability Studies (2015)
    • Disability is not a stable concept, but instead has had many meanings over the centuries. This historical essay explores this longer history, but focuses particularly on the last two centuries, when disability was increasingly invoked in the context of eugenic science, citizenship, labor law, and political rights. This essay also explores the more complex ways that “disability” as a concept has and has not translated cleanly in global contexts.
  • “The Social Model of Disability,” Tom Shakespeare, The Disability Studies Reader: 3rd Edition (2010) 
    • This essay introduces a core concept in disability studies: the social model of disability. The social model of disability was developed in the 1970s-1980s by disability rights activists in Britain and the United States. In general, the social model argues that disability is not something that is inherent to a person’s body. Rather, it is a situation that is imposed on people with various “impairments” by a physical or social environment—for example, inaccessible walkways or stigmas about what is counted as “abnormal” behavior. Since the 1990s, complex debates have developed around the strengths and weaknesses of the social model, but it remains an important component of both disability studies and disability activism.
  • “The Mountain,” Eli Clare, Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation (1999)
    • Disability studies has long valued the intimate experiences of individual disabled people that often cannot be reduced to simple models. In this influential essay, disability justice activist Eli Clare explores how he experiences his own disability physically and emotionally and how different “models” of disability can be unsatisfying in attempting to capture the textures of lived experience.

Who Gets to Talk About Disability?

Reading and listening to disabled people’s own self-representations has been one of the essential frameworks of disability studies and politics. Both in the past and now, conversations about disability have been dominated by health professionals who often do not have lived experience as disabled people. Disability studies has opened up room for disabled scholars, activists, and everyday people to explore disability on their own terms.

Below are some examples of disability self-representation in practice. These contemporary primary sources reveal another key facet of disability culture: activists and thinkers organizing around disability as a broad-based political and cultural identity and around specific disabilities and experiences. Teachers may wish to consider developing classroom activities in which students explore one or more of these primary sources. 

  • Alice Wong, The Disability Visibility Project
    • Alice Wong is a disability activist who founded the Disability Visibility Project as an “an online community dedicated to creating, sharing, and amplifying disability media and culture.” Wong also hosts the Disability Visibility Podcast.
  • Lydia X. Z. Brown, Autistic Hoya
    • This was a blog run by autistic organizer, advocate, and educator Lydia X. Z. Brown. In addition to essays on autism, disability justice, and gender, this page also documents sustained efforts by many organizations to shut down the Judge Rotenberg Center, a psychiatric institution in Massachusetts that has been accused of perpetuating abuse and torture of disabled residents.
  • Imani Barbarin, Crutches & Spice
    • Imani Barbarin is a disability activist, writer, and speaker whose work explores disability and racial justice from the perspective of a Black woman with cerebral palsy. She posts regularly on X and TikTok.
  • Mia Mingus, Leaving Evidence
    • Mia Mingus is a writer and activist for transformative justice who helped develop the concept and practice of “disability justice.” Many of her essays published in this blog have been key texts within the field of disability studies more broadly.
  • Did I Stutter
    • As described within, “the Did I Stutter Project was created to provide an alternative way of thinking about speech and communication disabilities. Together we seek to empower stuttering voices everywhere, and to hear the diversity of sounds present in the human voice.”

Disability Justice

Disability “justice” as a concept and practice has profoundly shaped the course of disability politics in the twenty-first century. While the term “disability justice” is often loosely cited, its origins among specific disabled and queer activists of color beginning around 2005 is important. As these activists understood it, disability justice named a framework to understand how white supremacy, economic exploitation, ableism, and restrictive gender/sexual norms intersect to designate certain bodies and minds as deviant and unproductive. 

The resources below allow teachers to explore what disability justice means in more detail and better understand how activists relate it to their personal experiences. There are also links to organizations and activists working on disability justice projects today.

  • “No Body is Disposable,” Barnard Center for Research on Women
    • In these three short videos, disability justice activists Patty Berne and Stacy Milbern discuss what disability justice means to them. These conversations “offer snapshots of this framework and tools for activists, educators, and students to bring to their communities.”

Additional Organizations and Activists

  • Disability Justice Project
    • “Recognizing the centrality of storytelling to systemic change, the Disability Justice Project (DJP) trains human rights defenders with disabilities in Asia, Africa and the Pacific in documentary storytelling. Sending storytelling kits (cameras, mics, lights, etc.) to fellows all over the world, we support persons with disabilities to ‘take back the narrative’ on disability justice.”
  • New Disabled South
    • New Disabled South fights “To improve the lives of disabled people and cultivate strong disability rights and disability justice frameworks in the [U.S.] South,” focusing on issues of poverty, criminal justice, and voting access.
  • Project LETS
    • “Project LETS is a national grassroots organization and movement led by and for folks with lived experience of mental illness/madness, Disability, trauma, & neurodivergence. We specialize in building just, responsive, and transformative peer support collectives and community mental health care structures that do not depend on state-sanctioned systems that trap our folks in the medical/prison-industrial complex.”
  • Sick of It! A Disability Inside/Outside Project
    • “Sick of It! is a project to amplify the voices of incarcerated disabled people [….] Along with a zine featuring writings about disability justice, strategies of care and work submitted by our incarcerated community, we coordinate a penpal project to connect disabled folks inside to outside disabled penpals.”


Disability History

Disability as a Category of Analysis

Disability history as a defined field of study emerged later than disability studies, around the 1990s. Since then, disability history has grown and diversified, studying everything from ideas of injury and care in twentieth-century Botswana, to blindness in seventeenth-century Japan or medieval France, to histories of mental institutionalization around the world. 

One of the foundational frameworks for the so-called “new disability history” is that “disability” is what historians call a “category of analysis”—like race, gender, or class. In other words, disability history is not only a history of one group’s struggles for political rights, but a much larger history of how experiences and ideas of what counts as a normal or abnormal body or mind have shaped the course of events central to historical change generally. 

The three short essays below consider how teachers might use disability history as a framework to understand larger historical processes in different times and places. The remaining essays (Additional Resources) focus on how writers’ own experiences with disability inform how they write about the past and vice-versa. 

  • “Disability in History,” Douglas Baynton (2006)
    • In this well-known essay from Perspectives in History, Baynton helps to establish the core argument explained above, arguing that disability as a concept helps historians think about all manner of historical developments in which ideas about bodily normality or abnormality were central. Most influentially, Baynton argues that many basic debates over U.S. citizenship and civil rights revolved around ideas about mental or physical abledness, capacity, and competency.
  • “Toward a History of Ableness,” Beth Linker, All of Us (2021)
    • What about the history of the “normal” body? Drawing on her larger work on the history of posture, Linker argues that disability historians pay attention to the history of ability as well as disability—namely how medical, cultural, and political ideas established what it meant to have a fit and functioning body, why this ideal was so valued, and how all peoples’ lives have been shaped as they seek to attain and fall short of such ideals.
  • “Insights from an African History of Disability,” Julie Livingston (2006)
    • Disability historians have not only focused on the United States and Europe. In this Radical History Review essay, Livingston reflects on her experience studying and conceptualizing the history of disability in twentieth-century Botswana. Beyond simply contrasting Western and non-Western cultural ideas about injury, care, and debility, Livingston points to the need for a more global disability history that encompasses shared histories as well as geographic variations and particularities.

Additional Resources

History of Disability Rights in the United States

For many educators, the history of political activism for disability rights—particularly in the late-twentieth century United States—offers the most accessible introduction to the field of disability history and disabled identity. 

The disability rights movement usually refers to a period of organized national activism aimed at developing and enforcing federal anti-discrimination legislation. These movements drew on the aims and strategies of earlier movements for Black freedom and developed—and continue to develop—alongside struggles for political and economic rights among an array of Americans marginalized on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, and Indigeneity. That story often begins with mass demonstrations in the early 1970s and culminates with the fight for passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. The longer history of disability in the United States is well-represented in the Doing Disability History section of the Resource Guide.

The resources below include two audiovisual presentations that introduce the disability rights movement through first-hand interviews and documentary footage. The latter two essays deepen this history by exploring the complex ways the disability rights and psychiatric survivors’ movements intersected with the Black freedom struggle and gay rights activism in the 1970s. 

Accessible and Anti-Ableist Pedagogy

Teaching disability studies and history requires attention to how ableism shapes the classroom itself—physically, institutionally, and pedagogically. 

It is important for educators to recognize that ableism affects more than disabled students—all of us have access needs. Ableist pedagogy geared toward an imagined “normal student” limits everyone’s capacity to fully learn and express themselves. Teachers also have access needs and research and practice must address the needs of disabled teachers as much as students (see Gail Pritchard below).

The resources below offer educators different perspectives on disability in education—from educational research and learning theory to first-hand classroom accounts to practical everyday guidance. Included are broad overviews of the policies and legislation affecting students with disabilities, anti-ableist teaching principles and approaches, and personal stories of navigating educational institutions as disabled students and teachers. 

  • “Your Rights in School: A Good Education for All,” Autistic Self Advocacy Network
    • This short, plain-language guide explains the basics of federal laws regulating education for disabled students, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the ADA, and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. The guide offers further links to explore issues around education rights, disability, and autism. This link further explains key distinctions between a 504 Plan and an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
  • “Universal Design: Places to Start,” Jay Dolmage (2015)
    • Universal Design for Learning (UDL)—the idea that teachers should plan for diversity instead of retrofitting classrooms to accommodate it—is often reduced to a checklist of solutions for disabled students rather than an organic process that requires reciprocal student input and collaborative tinkering. This essay in Disability Studies Quarterly offers a view of universal design as an activist pedagogy and it introduces the value of multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement. While geared toward higher education, many of the “universal design” ideas will be valuable for other educators as well.

Doing Disability History: Lessons, Exhibits, and Archives

Disability studies and disability history emerged as people with disabilities worked to understand their own lives, identities, and histories. Disability history is best understood as a collective project in which students themselves can contribute. 

The resources below offer more hands-on approaches to disability history through a combination of 1) lesson plans that introduce topics in disability history and politics through direct engagement with primary sources; 2) virtual exhibits that present and contextualize a diverse array of especially non-textual primary sources; 3) digitized archives—including institutional collections, activist newsletters, and oral history collections—that offer students the chance to engage directly with both the sources and the processes by which the past is preserved and curated.

  • “Disability History Through Primary Sources,” Emerging America
    • This curricular resource guide is an extensive library of lesson plans and a variety of other essays, web links, and primary source collections (particularly those associated with the Library of Congress) that help educators present the rich scope of U.S. disability history. Of particular note is the virtual Disability History Museum, which can be accessed here.
  • Crip Camp Curriculum
    • Building off the documentary Crip Camp—which explores the history of U.S. disability community and activism in the late twentieth-century—this curriculum offers an array of educator and parent discussion guides and lesson plans addressing media literacy, civil rights, ableism, and disability justice.
  • “EveryBody: An Artifact History of Disability in America,” Smithsonian
    • This collection by the Smithsonian provides an accessible introduction to U.S. disability history over the past 200 years, foregrounding a curated collection of various artifacts, ephemera (vintage ads, technologies, posters, etc.), and photographs. Succinct essays frame each object collection.
  • “Care and Custody: Mental Health and Incarceration,” National Library of Medicine
    • These lesson modules, developed by historian Anne E. Parsons, explore the history of mental healthcare, psychiatric institutionalization, and deinstitutionalization, and the connections between institutionalization and criminal incarceration. In addition to providing access to archival sources, educators might also explore the accompanying virtual exhibit and image gallery.
  • Perkins School for the Blind Archives
    • Founded in 1829, the Perkins School is the oldest school for the blind in the United States. To facilitate wide accessibility, the Perkins Archives have digitized a large proportion of its collection, including historical newsletters, personal papers, photographs, tactile maps, and audio recordings. 
  • ADAPT Online History Museum
    • ADAPT is a grassroots disability rights organization that grew out of a local community in Denver in the 1980s. Their digitized collection traces the organization’s history from the 1970s to the twenty-first century in the form of newspaper clippings, photos, videos, letters, and more. Of particular interest may be the multimedia material on actions leading up to the passage of the ADA in 1990.
  • Madness Network News Archives
    • Madness Network News was a core newsletter and focal point in the 1970s-1980s for the psychiatric survivors’ movement. Its digitized issues here preserve the voices, artwork, poetry, and political activism of survivors of psychiatric institutions who, in turn, fought against psychiatric violence and institutionalization and for alternative forms of mental healthcare.
  • Black Deaf Life in California Digital Exhibit
    • This virtual exhibit documents the recent history of Black Deaf life, community, and organizing efforts in California, particularly around California State University, Northridge (CSUN). While exploring the larger context of Black Deaf history, the exhibit focuses on filmed ASL interviews with local Black Deaf organizers, educators, and artists. For more on Black Deaf history, see this video series on “The Hidden Treasure of Black ASL.”
  • Covid Disability Archive
    • From March 2020-2022, the Covid Disability Archive collected audio interviews, zines, artwork, and social media posts from disabled people reflecting on their experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. This archive was designed “For Disabled people to have access to their history,” “To show how the pandemic has uniquely affected the Disabled community,” “For future historians and researchers to have first hand accounts from Disabled people,” and “To ensure that us and our experiences are not forgotten.”

1 – This guide uses both “person-first” (PFL) and “identity-first” (IFL) language at times, but tends toward the latter—i.e. “disabled people”/”autistic organizer.” IFL is used more often by the authors below, despite the mainstream popularity of PFL. On the value of IFL, see here and here. The inclusion of histories and politics around Deafhood, Autism, Madness, or other identities does not imply that all individuals part of these communities have identified as disabled, even if many have and do.

2 – Many people who identify as neurodivergent do not identify as disabled. Many people likewise identify their neurodivergence as a disability or identify as both neurodivergent and disabled.

Special thanks to Max Chervin Bridge, who led the project to develop this Resource Guide. Thank you as well to Sarah Christensen, Katie Meyer, and Alex Newson for their work on the project.

Photo credits (Note that all images may not be fully visible on all devices): “EveryBody: An Artifact History of Disability in America,” Smithsonian Institute. Left to right: (Top) Equal Rights Button, 2010, “ADA 1990” button, Sign 504, button, 1977, ADAPT button, “Deaf Pride” button, 2004, “Handicapped” button, Iowa; (Middle) Attitudes Disable People” button, 1986, Autism button, 1990s, “T4, Never Again” button, 1999, Disability rights button, 1980s, Anti-R word button, 2011, AIDS Quilt button, 1990s; (Bottom) ADAPT button, 2002, Equality button, “I love ADA,” button, 1990s, March on Washington button, 1976, DIA button, 1970s, “Support ADA” button, 1989.

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