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39 Ableist Microaggressions You Might Encounter At An IEP Meeting | Think Before You Speak

Updated: Jan 13, 2023

crowd of individuals with disabilities in park

Microaggressions have been getting a lot more attention recently, and with good cause. It’s very easy to spot someone who is openly hateful, racist or ableist. I mean, I think we can all agree that if you call someone the R word, that’s ableist.

But ableism takes many different forms and shapes. And, I’m of the opinion that we should be much more worried about the microaggressions from people who have power to make decisions (lawmakers, education administrators, etc.) than the person who might be openly ableist but has no power. Yes, it all matters.

Sometimes I find that parents are some of the worst offenders when it comes to ableism. I get it, mind you, been there myself. It’s because society tells us how to feel about raising a disabled child. We absorb societal ableist messages before our kids are even born.

Think Before You Speak

And, for some of us, and yes that includes me, we don’t see our ableism until we’re living this life. Still, it’s weird to me what some people will dig their heels in about. Often when I call out ableism, there’s no shortage of moms who will come and “save” the mom who I asked to change her language. I’m working harder at the “Think Before You Speak” mantra and not just blurting out the first thing that comes to my mind.

For what it’s worth, for most of my reading and learning on this subject, I read first-person disability blogs. When disabled people speak and say “this is how that makes me feel,” I think we should listen to them.

Ableism definition

What Is Ableism?

Ableism is to disabilities what racism is to people of color. Ableism is, in short, the expression of a discriminatory preference for someone without a disability. It might be outright and blatant, such as calling a person with Down Syndrome the r-word. Usually, it’s much more subtle. Ableism assigns inferior worth to people who have developmental, emotional, physical, or psychiatric disabilities by devaluing their worth. This can limit their potential, particularly for the gatekeepers to access supports and services.

Ableism includes things like minimizing the need for mobility devices, accessible parking cards, assistive technology, sign language interpreters (can’t she just read lips?), the need to take medication, frequent appointments, or any other challenges that students with disabilities have to deal with that people without disabilities don’t experience.

In working on a list of racist microaggressions that IEP parents encounter, I thought that it wouldn’t hurt to compile a list of ableist ones too.

Ableist Microaggressions At IEP Meetings

Individuals with disabilities in workplace meeting

You may witness these as a parent, student or school personnel. I’m providing this in hopes that school personnel examine their own personal biases.

  1. Not inviting students to the IEP meeting because of a perceived lack of ability to participate at any level (all kids can offer something, even just to say hi or send in a note or video!).

  2. Not being prepared for a disabled person’s attendance at the meeting if the team knew they were coming (not having a chair removed for wheelchair space, ASL interpreter, etc.)

  3. Talking about the person while in their presence, as if they weren’t there.

  4. Speaking to the parent rather than the student

  5. Telling the student/parents how “inspiring” or “brave” they are (instead, work on eliminating an ableist system that requires bravery to attend public schools)

  6. Dismissing bullying

  7. Not allowing processing time for speaking, for students with slower or delayed processing.

  8. Not allowing speaking time for students who stutter or otherwise talk slower than average.

  9. Speaking extra loud or extra slow to someone who doesn’t need it

  10. Baby talk or condescending high voice speak (good rule to live by-this should be eliminated once the child exits 0-3 services)

  11. Not offering things of age appropriate interest

  12. Assuming that the child is not on a diploma tract, regardless of age

  13. Predetermination of placement, particularly for students with DS or intellectual disabilities

  14. Not presuming competence, presuming incompetence

  15. asking personal questions about devices, orthotics, or whatever equipment the person uses

  16. Pushing a person’s wheelchair without asking them first

  17. “You don’t look disabled”

  18. Dismissing medical needs with phrases such as “Well, can’t you just…” (No, we can’t. We are going to do what our doctors tell us, thanks.)

  19. For students who use wheelchairs or walkers, eliminating them from group photos because the photo site was not accessible

  20. Assuming that because of a wheelchair or other device, that a student is not interested in XYZ (everyone can contribute something!)

  21. Not having all areas of a public school, including the playground, accessible for all

  22. Portraying the student or parent as the victim of some unfortunate circumstance, such as “I could never do what you do” or “I’d hate to be you.”

  23. Assuming that disability always means inability; it’s not, and certainly not in all areas

  24. To piggyback on that–not recognizing the strengths of a disabled individual

  25. Fake praise, condescending praise

  26. Sharing Inspiration Porn, just stop it.

  27. Minimizing a person’s diagnoses with phrases like “Ugh, I didn’t see that, I am so blind!” or “I’m really OCD about how I arrange my desk.”

  28. Assuming that the person’s disability is all negative, all the time. Yes, an IEP meeting is to discuss supports and services. But, if done right, you should be celebrating more successes than fixing IEP problems.

  29. Assuming “won’t” instead of “can’t” (and therefore denying supports that could possibly get them to “can!”)

  30. Using outdated language; it’s ok to say “disabled” and “autistic”

  31. Any negative assumption that you wouldn’t assume for a non-disabled student

  32. Dismissing the disability because you witnessed the child succeed at something “He can’t be that disabled….”

  33. Using victim language such as “suffers from….”

  34. Using powerless terms to describe the student such as “confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair-bound.”

  35. Getting the student (whose IEP you are discussing) confused with another disabled student

  36. Assuming that all autism/down sydrome/epilepsy families know each other.

  37. Interrupting or talking over the disabled student as they speak.

  38. Asking “why do you do/wear/eat that?”

  39. Offering unsolicited medical advice

  40. Treating the whole meeting from a negative viewpoint (flip the narrative–this is actually a time to give a student what they need to be successful in life!); treating it as a stressful burden (for staff) is ableist, it’s part of your job.

  41. Toxic positivity “just get more sleep!” “You can choose to be happy!”

Ableist Microaggressions-COVID Related

While I have you on the phone…. But seriously, I figured that this is not worthy of its own blog post, and this way I can just go in and delete this section when the pandemic is over. But if you’re saying these things during the pandemic, these are also ableist.

  1. “It only affects those who have pre-existing conditions.” Thanks, trust me, every mom who is in my situation is painfully aware of our kids’ high-risk status.

  2. Telling a parent that she is overreacting about the virus. (you don’t know their situation)

  3. Putting accommodations in place for COVID that should have been in place (and likely were declined to those who asked for them) for disabilities

  4. Making distance learning not accessible to all

  5. “He’s lucky he doesn’t have to wear a mask!”

  6. Fake positivity “get a good night’s sleep!”

1 Comment

Jackie Yoshi
Jackie Yoshi
Aug 30, 2021

This happened so much, and not just in school. I had a "therapist", who would be more properly defined as a follower of the Anti-Screens Cult, talk as if I weren't in the room. This monster posing a threat to keep me from the only thing I understood, technology.

I don't know what happened to her, but I do know people like her are the reason our schools have had several suicides. They make the person they're supposed to be helping invisible.

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