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TTAC at Radford University
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Disability History and Awareness
October 20, 2016

October is Disability History and Awareness Month in Virginia. This resolution was passed in 2009 by the General Assembly due to the lobbying and diligence of a group of youth with disabilities. The vision behind this motion was to encourage public schools and universities to engage in activities that create greater awareness for individuals with disabilities. But, why limit mindfulness to this issue to just one month? Why not embed disability awareness and history into the curriculum students’ are learning in schools?

Following are three tips teachers can use to teach students how to better understand exceptionalities and the history about disability in the United States.

3 Tips

3 Timely Tips

1. Teach students about how society talks about people with disabilities. One way to do this is to introduce People First Language (PFL) to students and model its usage in the classroom. According to Kathie Snow, a disability rights activist, “disability diagnoses are often used to define a person’s value and potential, and low expectations and a dismal future may be the predicted norm” (Snow, p. 1). However, Snow states that disabilities are simply one of many characteristics that make up a person and should not be the defining characteristic. Although PFL is one accepted way to refer to people with disabilities, Identity First Language (IFL) is also used within the disability community (Ladau, 2015). Many people with Autism argue that referring to someone as Autistic is a positive way of accepting and respecting differences. Similarly, the culturally Deaf community also prefers identity first language.

2. Teach about disability history in social studies curricula. Minarik & Lintner (2011) noted that “disability history is not currently embedded within social studies curriculum, which is not a phenomenon that has gone unnoticed by historians” (p. 19).  However, thanks to the efforts of various disability advocates in Virginia, the revised 2015 History and Social Science Standards of Learning (SOL) now include a number of references addressing disability history (see SOL 2.4e, USII.9a, VUS.7c, VUS.8d, VUS.13c, VUS.13e, GOVT.1j, GOVT.9c, GOVT.11e). One approach to introduce the topic of disability history in the classroom is to have students consider the question, “Is disability history a history worth mentioning and learning more about” (Minarik, Carroll, Sheridan 2016, p. 62).

3. Share with students information about people with disabilities who have made significant contributions to society. This could be presented in a weekly “spotlight” on a person of importance (through a quick, weekly discussion or displayed visually on a bulletin board), and could include details about what the person contributed and information about his/her disability. Disability awareness can also be highlighted through movies about people with disabilities. A Beautiful Mind, My Left Foot, The King’s Speech, Mask, and Soul Surfer are just a sampling of biographical accounts that portray the lives of individuals with exceptionalities.  

2 Tools

2 Teaching Tools

1. Respect Ability provides links to numerous websites that contain curriculum ideas and lesson plans to use in the classroom surrounding disability awareness.  

2. Teaching Tolerance also provides lesson plan ideas of how to teach students disability awareness. Learning to be sensitive to people with disabilities is an important part of tolerance toward others.

1 Thought

1 Thought

"Our number one issue is still old attitudes towards us,
and those old attitudes see us as helpless and unable
and disability can make you very strong and very able."

--Ed Roberts,
Disability Rights Activist and
Father of Independent Living Movement


Ladau, E. (2015, July 20). Why Person-First Language Doesn’t Always Put the Person First [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Minarik, D., Carroll, M, and Sheridan, K. (2016). A compelling history worth mentioning. Oregon Journal of the Social Studies 4(1), 58-69. Retrieved from

Minarik, D. & Lintner, T. (2013). Disability history: Humanity worth defending. Ohio Social Studies Review 50(2), 15-22. Retrieved from

Snow, K (2009),. “People First Language,” Disability Is Natural.


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