Teaching (through) Disability and Difference

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel.

I first realized that I didn’t know how to approach learning disabilities in the classroom when one of my students asked me to send her the written text of my lectures. I wasn’t sure if I should provide them to her, or stick to the policies on my syllabus and ask her to consult the PowerPoint slides and recorded lectures available online to all students. I did not want to seem patronizing nor ignorant of her situation, since she had taken the proper steps to document her disability with the university. At the same time, I did not want to treat her differently in the classroom, which might disclose her disability to fellow students. More generally, I was not sure if I should modify how I presented material in order to meet the needs of students with disabilities or students without disabilities. Was it possible to do both?

In the end, I asked my student to listen to the recorded lectures, given that my own notes were fairly schematic and would have been difficult for another person to follow. However, I did send her the PowerPoint slides via email before each lecture and I tried to be especially conscious of her class participation. I also made sure that I gave more time for taking notes to all students before moving on to the next topic.

Later, I came to realize that the concerns described above are common to many new instructors. In this Teaching Tools post, I offer a lesson plan that aims not only to introduce disability and difference as a topic, but also to reflect on disability and difference as a method of study. This lesson plan provides a starting point for teaching disability and difference through activities that seek to provoke critical engagement.


The anthropology of disability and difference is an important body of work, which can be introduced in courses focused on anthropological theory or ethnographic research methods, as well as courses that focus on embodiment, race, or feminist anthropology.

The activities described in this post, if paired with the suggested readings, are appropriate for an upper-division anthropology course, while the activities alone are still appropriate for lower-division courses. The post might also serve as a starting point for a discussion among faculty members about effective teaching in relation to students with disabilities.

Suggested Goals (For Instructors)

  • Introduce students to the concept of embodiment and the interface of technology and disability.
  • Teach students about disability beyond a biologically determined phenomenon, helping them to think through its social, cultural, and political aspects.
  • Enable students to think through the links between disability studies and anthropological methods/theory via a specific, familiar example.
  • Enable students to think through disabling forces and forms of social exclusion, so as to develop an awareness of the ways in which disability is (re)produced through physical environments and sociopolitical arrangements.
  • Facilitate a discussion about students’ own bodies as a locus of (re)producing difference and otherness.

Before Class (For Students)

  • Read at least three of the articles from the Suggested Readings list.
  • Bring three images to class that represent (or challenge notions of) disability and difference.

Suggested Readings

Breckenridge, Carol A., and Candace Vogler. 2001. “The Critical Limits of Embodiment: Disability’s Criticism.” Public Culture 13, no. 3: 349–58.

Devlieger, Patrick. 1995. “Why Disabled? The Cultural Understanding of Physical Disability in an African Society.” In Disability and Culture, edited by Benedicte Ingstad and Susan Reynolds Whyte, 94–106. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Dolmage, Jay. 2011. “Disabled Upon Arrival: The Rhetorical Construction of Disability and Race at Ellis Island.” Cultural Critique, no. 77: 24–69.

Donoghue, Christopher. 2003. “Challenging the Authority of the Medical Definition of Disability: An Analysis of the Resistance to the Social Constructionist Paradigm.” Disability and Society 18, no. 2: 199–208.

Gammeltoft, Tine M. 2008. “Childhood Disability and Parental Moral Responsibility in Northern Vietnam: Toward Ethnographies of Intercorporeality.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 14, no. 4: 825–42.

Haegele, Justin Anthony, and Samuel Hodge. 2016. “Disability Discourse: Overview and Critiques of the Medical and Social Models.” Quest 68, no. 2: 193–206.

Imrie, Rob, and Rachael Luck. 2014. “Designing Inclusive Environments: Rehabilitating the Body and the Relevance of Universal Design.” Disability and Rehabilitation 36, no. 16: 1315–19.

Johnson, Kelley. 2009. “No Longer Researching About Us Without Us: A Researcher’s Reflection on Rights and Inclusive Research in Ireland.” British Journal of Learning Disabilities 37, no. 4: 250–56.

Kasnitz, Devva, and Russell P. Shuttleworth. 2001. “Introduction: Anthropology in Disability Studies.” Disability Studies Quarterly 21, no. 3: 2–17.

Kohrman, Matthew. 2003. “Authorizing a Disability Agency in Post-Mao China: Deng Pufang’s Story as Biomythography.” Cultural Anthropology 18, no. 1: 99–131.

Lupton, Deborah, and Wendy Seymour. 2000. “Technology, Selfhood, and Physical Disability.” Social Science and Medicine 50, no. 12: 1851–62.

Ralph, Laurence. 2012. “What Wounds Enable: The Politics of Disability and Violence in Chicago.” Disability Studies Quarterly 32, no. 3.

Reid-Cunningham, Allison Ruby. 2009. “Anthropological Theories of Disability.” Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment 19, no. 1: 99–111.

Guiding Questions for Discussion of Suggested Readings

  • How might an ethnographer study a form of difference without firsthand knowledge of it?
  • How does physical difference enable and disable social relations, values, and needs?
  • How do power systems enable and disable certain forms of embodiment? What counts as an able body in our society and in others?
  • In light of differences between approaches to disability in a cross-cultural context, how do we balance respect for local practices and normative claims in a more universal register?

In-Class Exercises

1. Open by asking students to share and discuss the images brought to class. By way of inspiration, I have included a sample image.

Disabling environments. Photo by Antranias on Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/en/storm-storm-damage-trees-forest-840962/

How do images such as this one portray (or challenge notions about) disability and difference?

This exercise is designed to encourage discussion about differences in students’ experiences and to critically evaluate how these differences relate to topics raised in the readings. This exercise may also be more successful after a discussion of the readings, at which point students will have already begun to engage with key issues.

2. Invite students to generate their own ideas/terminology about disability and difference. They might also be prompted to imagine a world without a language/terminology to describe disability. The instructor may bring in different disability-related terms used to refer to people, actions, or bodies, inviting students to discuss how different terms reproduce differences and what terms might be used instead. The National Center on Disability and Journalism’s Disability Language Style Guide for speaking or writing about people with disabilities. Depending on the topic of the course, this discussion can also be extended to race, gender, sexuality, class, or other registers of differences and otherness, making note of intersections with disability.

3. Ask students to observe and make notes about the elements that shape their uses of space in the classroom and on campus. Invite them to discuss how their uses of space might be different from each other’s. How do space and the built environment shape their movements and their experience? How are their everyday lives and experiences mediated/interrupted by such environments?

This discussion aims to draw out the link between embodied experiences and material space. It extends beyond disability and difference, thematizing exclusions, limitations, and disabling forces in their material senses. Depending on the theme of the course, invite students to consider how interactions with(in) physical spaces are regulated not only by (dis)ability, but also in terms of race, gender, class, and other social markers.

For more on the intersection of ethnography, disability, and design, listen to the AnthroPod episode “Ethnography and Design 1: Disability, Design, and Performance,” featuring an interview with Cassandra Hartblay.

4. Drawing on the readings and their own experiences, invite students to reflect on the legal rights and protections given to people with disabilities in different cultural contexts. This discussion will help the students to understand how disability is socially constructed and politically charged.

Differences of gender, race, sexual orientation, and ethnicity can provide food for thought about the social construction of disability. Invite students to reflect on differing policies and practices based on such differences. How can ability, race, ethnicity, class, gender, or sexual orientation function as a disabling force?

5. Invite students to reflect on their own experiences of embodiment? Since our abilities and bodies change throughout our lives, what might the study of disabilities tell us about embodiment more generally? How are experiences of embodiment heightened when we undergo some sort of deviation from the supposed norm?

Encourage students to think about the technologies that they have/use with(in) their bodies. You might give a short writing prompt about how technologies contribute to the meanings and experiences of the lived body. For more on embodiment, see the Teaching Tools post “Teaching Embodiment through Technology” by Leah Zani and Marzieh Kaivanara.

6. Going forward, encourage students to find additional sources and evidence. You might create a blog where students can post the resources they find as well as responses to them. Students can also use social media platforms such as Twitter or Instagram to share their ideas and images, using a specific hashtag to collate all of the content intended for discussion.

For more on integrating digital technologies into your teaching, see Venera Khalikova and Whitney Russell’s Teaching Tools series “Teaching with Digital Technology.”