Towards a more inclusive University–

Preventing ableism and micro-aggressions in the classroom and in teams

“We live in a society designed with the expectation that people are able, neurotypical. Most people never consider how those of us with disability, chronic illness or neurodiversity interact with the world around us,” said Ellen Fraser-Barbour in her ABC EveryDay blog post “We need to talk about ableism”. 

I found Ellen’s words when I was searching for a relatable way for people to understand ableist micro-aggressions also known as micro-assaults. They are made by people who are well intentioned as well as those who aren’t, but the impact on people on the receiving end is immense. Ableism perpetuates micro-aggression through various comments exchanged, imagery including ‘inspiration porn’, non-verbal actions and the use of specific language that objectifies disabled people or other disadvantaged groups. Whilst an occasional micro-aggression is manageable, a constant stream of them can wear down the strongest person on a good day. Micro-aggressions aren’t limited to ableism, they extend to race and other forms of marginalisation.  

For staff and students in higher education who are intersectional, this can be doubly problematic. For example, in 2020, ABC News America wrote a piece about how young black women feel about their experiences of micro-aggression and a US based study suggests that black US teenagers experience an average of over five incidents of discrimination a day, and daily racial discrimination predicts short-term increases in depressive symptoms. For a sneak peek into how that can feel, this video by Fusion Comedy likens micro-aggressions to mosquito bites. One bite occasionally is ok, but constant attacks… Or in the words of Ellen Fraser-Barbour, “I am powerless and grief stricken. I am not grieving about my body, though – I am grieving about how society treats me and my peers.” 

The disability and diverse communities are conscious that the comments are often well intentioned and it makes it very difficult at times for individuals to stand their ground and rebuke someone for their micro-aggression.  

Being inclusive means considering everyone in the team or tutorial as if they have a right to be there. Stella Young wrote and spoke eloquently on this and some of it resonates strongly with my own life experience, even sadly here at ANU. “In a nutshell, the social model (of disability) tells us that we are far more disabled by inaccessible environments and hostile attitudes than we are by our physicality. My disability comes not from the fact that I’m unable to walk, but from the presence of the stairs,” said Stella in her ABC Everyday blog post “Stella Young on practising pride in the face of exclusion”. Watch Stella’s TedEX talk “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much” for more on ableism, exclusion and micro-aggressions. 

The world, and this includes higher education campuses, are designed for abled bodied neurotypicals and not for disabled people, or those with neurodiversity. Here at ANU we are working on it. We have a Disability Access and Inclusion Working Group of which I am a member. But we still have a long way to go. We need all our staff, professional and academic, to reconsider how they design and implement activities such as tutorials, workshops, field trips, social events and meetings to be far more inclusive than in the past. 

As we begin to emerge from COVID, some people are immediately drawn back into the old way of doing things without examining the benefits of the new and often far more accessible and inclusive ways of working that emerged during COVID lockdowns. Remember that the old ways weren’t always accessible and inclusive for everyone, they were just comfortable for the majority. Let’s stop forgetting about the stairs and start creating spaces, both physical and virtual, where no-one can see the ramps. 

Tips for being proactive and preventing ableism and micro-aggressions in your class and or team 

Here’s a small sample of ways to be proactive learners about ableism. 

Non-verbal behaviours 

  • Design courses and then write inherent requirement statements in a way that includes disabled students so that they don’t have to ask for reasonable adjustments. Take a look at this degree example and field trip example from the ANU Colleges of Health and Medicine and Science, respectively. 
  • Be proactive and think ahead about alternatives or reasonable adjustments when teaching older courses for students and job roles for staff and write those ideas down for the next course review. 
  • At the start of each semester, be proactive when your students’ Education Adjustment Plans (EAP) arrive in your inbox and increase your awareness and knowledge about reasonable adjustments for different kinds of disability. The ADCET site has a great reference list
  • Hold social events in locations that are inclusive of everyone in your team or class irrespective of disability; physical or neurodivergence. The Silent Winter Formal in Series 1 of Atypical on Netflix is a creative and great way of including everyone in the event. It was based on the historic silent disco
  • Prepare technology for meetings or Dual Delivery prior to the start of meetings or classes. This sends a message to staff and students that they are NOT ‘out of sight, out of mind’ and are as important as the others in the room. 
  • Include interview questions in the confirmation email for the interview. This reduces the anxiety of a potentially great employee.  

Verbal comments 

Many of us raised in earlier eras, find ourselves with the challenging task of thinking before we speak. Working in higher education we should become familiar with the current language and try very hard to avoid the following types of comments or inferences whether talking with staff or students: 

July 2021


Scott Rickard is autistic, an Educational Designer at the Centre for Learning and Teaching and the Chair of the ANU Disability Action Plan Education Provider of Choice Action Group.  

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