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Leading Toward Disability Justice

Podcast Transcript

Leading Toward Disability Justice

We are grateful to Dr. Gillian Parekh for helping us deepen our thinking around what disability justice entails and providing insights and making connections between ideas that are important to us.

By: Dr. Gillian Parekh

Disability is often an unattended and underexplored theme within social justice discourse in education (Pugach, et al., 2021). Perhaps this is, in part, because education has historically ignored critical conceptualizations of ability as well as the role education policies and practices play in the construction of disability (Parekh, 2022). After all, many of the goals centred within education policy and practice have to do with improving, developing and honing student ability and proficiency in important skills. As such, fields such as disability studies in education  ask us to consider whether the presence of impairment, whether lived or perceived, immediately positions disabled students in conflict with the education system.

Schools are often a place where ability is overtly celebrated and in which students are frequently organized by ability. The organization of students by ability can occur within a classroom, a school or even across schools within an educational system. Examples of this include formal or informal academic streaming, ability grouping in the classroom, placement or enrolment in special education and/or speciality programs, as well as  approaches to school discipline such as exclusion, suspension and expulsion.

These organizational strategies are so entrenched in the practice of schooling that they often appear ‘natural’, based on or justified by ‘neutral’ assessments or measures of ability. Many scholars within the fields of Critical disability studies and disability studies in education challenge these premises. Critical disability scholarship points to how notions of ability have been primarily used in schools for the purpose of ranking students (Ladwig & McPherson, 2017) to perpetuate class and racial inequity (see Archer, et al., 2018; Domina et al., 2017; Reid & Knight, 2006), and challenge the notion of neutrality of ability-based measures  (Parekh et al., 2018).

When thinking about disability in education, special education is often a key theme to emerge. Special education, as a system of services, programs and supports, exists as a support to disabled students. However, to access services and accommodations, families are often required to navigate heavily bureaucratic systems where both disability, and potentially students, are approached through a deficit lens. Critical disability studies examines how disability is constructed in contrast to dominant norms and ideals. This work includes investigating how norms are, themselves, informed by relational identities, social locations, and intersecting forms of discrimination. It argues that raced, gendered, and classed perceptions of normative ability are reproduced to uphold the ideologies of white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and capitalism and that disability is not a singular experience. Disability studies in education also examines what and who are pathologized (Connor, 2017), who benefits from such pathologization (Brantlinger, 2006), as well as how racism, classism, and other forms of discrimination impact the outcomes of ability-based systems (Annamma, et al, 2013; Erevelles, et al. 2006).

Disability justice activists often underscore how notions of ability are evoked to determine who is valued and who is rendered disposable (Mingus, 2022). Over the last number of decades, the disability rights movement has made tremendous gains. However, many communities continue to be excluded from equitable access and representation. As a response to ongoing inequity, Disability Justice was born in community, primarily by disabled, queer people of colour, and has since offered essential principles for action, recognition and solidarity. Sins Invalid is a foundational disability justice organization within the disability justice movement and has produced a list of ten principles that support a disability justice framework:

1) Intersectionality

2) Leadership of those most impacted

3) Anti-capitalist politics

4) Cross-movement solidarity

5) Recognizing wholeness

6) Sustainability

7) Commitment to cross-disability solidarity

8) Interdependence

9) Collective access

10) Collective liberation

(Sins Invalid, Skin, Tooth, and Bone: The basis of movement is our people. A disability justice primer. Second edition, 2019). Organization link:

As education leaders, it is important to hold these principles within our collective work with families, communities and schools. This includes:

  • Adopting an intersectional approach to understanding the experience of disability, 
  • Ensuring leadership includes and draws on the knowledge of those who have had the most engagement with ability-based systems
  • Recognizing how achieving disability justice is not possible without racial, Indigenous, environmental, and economic justice.

These principles offer important ideological and practical shifts for leaders in practice. In education, disability, or exceptionalities, are often discussed in isolation and hold different histories and proximities to power (e.g. learning disability, mild intellectual disability, etc.). A commitment to cross-disability solidarity would be a powerful resistance to the divisions that can occur when we recognize the interconnectedness between systems of oppression   If we are focusing on dismantling ableism without a focus on racial justice, we are perpetuating ableism. Similarly, if we are focused on anti-racism without attention to disability justice, we are in fact perpetuating racism. Recognizing wholeness challenges the hyper focus on ability and meritocracy in education and reminds us that students and educators bring their all to school, and are the fabric/makeup/essence/foundation/manifestation of the school community. 

Reflection Questions: 

  1. How has the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated challenges for disabled people and highlighted the urgent need for disability justice? 
  2. What does it mean to center disability justice in our thinking, in our practice, in our relations, in our structures?  
  3. What would schools and communities look like if they were designed around principles of disability and transformative justice?
  4. Who do we need to be as leaders to lead for disability justice?
  5. How might we apply this understanding to the work we do in communities, schools, and academies?


Annamma, S. A., Connor, D., & Ferri, B. (2013). Dis/ability critical race studies (DisCrit):  Theorizing at the intersections of race and dis/ability. Race Ethnicity and Education, 16, 1-31.d

Archer, L., Francis, B., Miller, S., Taylor, B., Tereshchenko, A., Mazenod, A., Pepper, D., & Travers, M-C. (2018). The symbolic violence of setting: A Bourdieusian analysis of mixed methods data on secondary students’ views about setting. British Educational Research Journal, 44(1), 119–140.

Connor, D. J. (2017). Who is responsible for the racialized practices evidenced within (special) education and what can be done to change them? Theory into Practice, 56(3).

Domina, T., Penner, A., & Penner, E. (2017). Categorical inequality: Schools as sorting machines. Annual Review of Sociology, 43, 311-330.  

Erevelles, N. Kanga, A., & Middleton, R. (2006). How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Race, Disability, and Exclusion in Educational Policy. In Ellen A. Brantlinger (Ed)’s Who benefits from special education? Remediating (Fixing) Other People’s Children, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 77-100

Ladwig, J. G. & McPherson, A. (2017). The anatomy of ability, Curriculum Inquiry, DOI: 10.1080/03626784.2017.1368352

Mingus, M. (2022, January 16). You are not entitled to our deaths: COVID, Abled Supremacy & Interdependence. Leaving evidence. Retrieved from:

Parekh, G. Brown, R.S., & Zheng, S. (2018). Learning skills, system equity and implicit bias within Ontario, Canada. Educational Policy, 35(3), 395-321.

Parekh, G. (2022). Ableism in Education: Rethinking school practices and policies. Education and Justice in Education Series. W. W. Norton & Company.

Pugach, M.C., Matewos, A. M., & Gomez-Najarro, J. (2020). Disability and the meaning of social justice in teacher education research: A precarious guest at the table? Journal of Teacher Education. 72(2), 237-250.

Reid, D. K. & Knight, M. G. (2006) Disability Justifies Exclusion of Minority Students: A Critical History Grounded in Disability Studies, Educational Researcher, 35(6), 18-23.

Sins Invalid (2019). Skin, Tooth, and Bone: The basis of movement is our people. A disability justice primer. Second edition. Berkeley: California

Additional Recommended Resources:

Bornstein, J., & Manaseri, H. (2018). Disability Studies and Educational Leadership Preparation: The Moral Imperative. Review of Disability Studies: An InternationalJournal, 14(3).

O’Brien, & Bishop, P. (2022). Who decides? : power, disability, and educational leadership (O’Brien, Ed.). Information Age Publishing, Inc.

Parekh, G., Cameron, D., Gaymes San Vicente, A., Gordon, A., IneeseNash, N., James, C.E., Murray, K., Reid, L., To, J., & Underwood, K. (2022). Equity and Human Rights in Special Education: Critical Reflective Practice Guide. Toronto: York University. (Project lead followed by co-authors in alphabetical order). 

Theoharis, G., & Causton, J. (2016). “He Won’t Get Anything Out of This!” Intersections of Race, Disability, and Access. Journal of Cases in Educational Leadership, 19(1), 40–50.


Gillian Parekh

Dr. Gillian Parekh is an Associate Professor and Canada Research Chair in Disability Studies in Education (Tier 2) within the Faculty of Education at York University. Gillian is cross-appointed with York's graduate program in Critical Disability Studies. As a previous teacher in special education and research coordinator with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Gillian has conducted extensive system and school-based research in Toronto in the areas of structural equity, special education, and academic streaming. In particular, her work explores how schools construct and respond to disability as well as how students are organized across programs and systems. Her latest book, Ableism in Education: Rethinking School Practices and Policies, examines how the structure and organisation of schooling can be deeply influenced by ableism and offers strategies on how to think through inclusive pedagogy and design. For an interactive critical reflective practice guide addressing human rights and equity in special education, please check our collaborative project, offering resources for educators and system leaders:

Nirmala Erevelles

Nirmala Erevelles is Professor of Social and Cultural Studies in Education at the University of Alabama. Her teaching and research interests lie in the areas of disability studies, critical race theory, transnational feminism, sociology of education, and postcolonial studies. Erevelles uses an intersectional analysis to foreground the dialectical relationships between disability and race, class, gender, and sexuality and its brutal implications for (disabled) students in U.S. public schools and (disabled) citizens in transnational contexts.

Erevelles has published numerous articles in the per-reviewed journals in education and in the humanities. Her book, Disability and Difference in Global Contexts: Towards a Transformative Body Politic was published by Palgrave in November 2012 and was awarded the Critic’s Choice Award from the American Educational Studies Association. She is currently working on a book-length manuscript tentatively entitled Cripping Empire: Theorizing Intersectionality as if Black/Brown/Disabled Lives Matter.

Erevelles has twice been the finalist for the Last Lecture Award (2009, 2015) at the University of Alabama. She was awarded the Nelly Rose McCrory Faculty Excellence Award for Exemplary Research in the College of Education in April 2015 and the University of Alabama President’s Research Award in January 2016. She was also awarded the Senior Scholar Award by the Society of Disability Studies in 2017.

Yasmine Simone Gray

Yasmine Simone Gray (she/her) is a writer, artist, educator, and public speaker based in Toronto, Ontario. Yasmine has designed and delivered over 100 workshops and trainings covering topics such as critical mental health work for social service professionals, gender-based violence, and anti-Black racism. In 2020, Yasmine was awarded the Women Champions of Diversity Award from Ryerson University, in recognition of her community service and academic achievement. Currently, Yasmine is a Master’s student in York University’s Critical Disability Studies program. Yasmine works as a Research Assistant on a project called the “Anti-Black Racism Curriculum Review” supported by Toronto Metropolitan University and C.A.R.E. (The Child and Youth Care Alliance for Racial Equity). Yasmine has also worked as an Arts Educator, After School Program Coordinator, Camp Director, and Poetry Mentor. Additionally, Yasmine is a member of the Disability Justice Network of Ontario Youth Action Council. Yasmine is passionate about advancing and promoting disability justice in education and health care. She uses humour, art, and storytelling to make disability justice accessible, relevant, and fun for diverse audiences. 

Jeff Hall

Jeff Hall is an educator and administrator with the Peel District School Board and a PhD student in the Department of Social Justice Education at OISE University of Toronto focusing on Critical Disability Studies. His interests include intersections of ableism and racism in education and health policy, race and disability in school discipline, and crip resistance in education and health care. He lives in Brampton, Ontario.