Minnesota leads the way in addressing ableism through teacher training

Minnesota is set to implement a groundbreaking law focused on enhancing teacher training in ableism and the disability justice movement. The aim is to foster cultural competence among educators, similar to efforts made to create inclusive environments for students of color.

Initially, the professional development program will be recommended rather than mandatory and will be developed and delivered by individuals with disabilities. Supporters anticipate that this law will be the first in the nation to empower those who have faced ableism to educate teachers on the subject.

The bill was conceived by a coalition of individuals with disabilities, parents, and advocates who recognized the prevalence of ableism in schools, including classrooms designated for students with disabilities. The Multicultural Autism Action Network, established by a group of immigrant parents, took the lead in including disability education in teachers’ professional development. The proposed legislation is on track to be one of the last measures passed before the legislative session concludes on May 20.

Jillian Nelson, a community resource and policy advocate at the Autism Society of Minnesota, played a crucial role as a lobbyist in advocating for the bill. In a recent interview with The 74’s Beth Hawkins, she discussed her personal journey of being diagnosed with autism, experiences with ableism in school, and the unique position she now holds.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Not too long ago, the very idea of an autistic lobbyist was hard to fathom. How did you end up breaking that barrier?

Struggling as an autistic individual was a significant challenge for me, especially in employment and obtaining necessary accommodations throughout school and college. The Autism Society of Minnesota has provided the platform for me to engage in work that was once a distant dream. Recognizing my strengths, our leadership team created a role that allows me to serve our community effectively.

My responsibilities include running our information resource hotline to guide individuals facing challenges or newly diagnosed cases, as well as conducting outreach at resource fairs to connect with people in the community.

These conversations inform my advocacy work at Capitol Hill, collaborating with organizations to advance disability laws and create an equitable environment in Minnesota for individuals with disabilities to thrive and access the same opportunities as others.

Working in an environment where everyone either shares my autistic identity or understands it has allowed me to be authentic without needing to mask or conform to societal expectations.

Can you explain the term “mask”?

Masking refers to the emotionally draining process of concealing one’s neurodivergence to appear neurotypical or blend in with others seamlessly. Individuals who mask make strenuous efforts to hide their disabilities or challenges to fit societal norms. This continuous performance of masking to navigate social interactions can be exhausting and challenging, as it requires constant monitoring of behaviors and responses to conform to expected norms.

This year, you and your colleagues seem to have gotten a lot right. In less than two months you shepherded a bill addressing issues many people aren’t even aware of through a complicated legislative process where good ideas often go to die.

Our recent success stems from a collaborative effort that began with a group of individuals with various disabilities sharing their educational experiences with the Minnesota Department of Education. The discussions highlighted the prevalence of ableism in schools and the lack of awareness among educators regarding this issue.

The overwhelming response from teachers expressing their lack of prior knowledge about ableism and their desire to have been informed earlier emphasized the urgent need for enhancing disability awareness in education. By fostering inclusive environments, we aim to provide children with disabilities the opportunity to thrive without being confined by societal stigmas and limitations.

I think it’s going to surprise people that educators — especially special educators — aren’t routinely exposed to this information.

One of the main challenges lies in the perception of disability within the educational system, often viewed through a medical or qualifying lens rather than as a cultural identity. While educators are well-versed in the medical criteria and legal obligations in special education, there is a gap in understanding the cultural aspects of disability. Educators are knowledgeable about teaching strategies but lack training in comprehending the unique experiences and needs of individuals with disabilities.

Disability culture remains one of the few areas where teachers interact with a group of students without receiving cultural competency training. The proposed ableism and disability justice bill seeks to bridge this gap by instilling cultural awareness in teachers dealing with children from this diverse and enriching community.

Disability as a culture is a relatively new concept. You have described deaf culture as a model…

The recognition of disability as a cultural identity has gradually emerged, akin to the established Deaf culture model. The Deaf President Now protest in 1988 at Gallaudet University exemplified the demand for deaf leadership within their community, challenging misconceptions about hearing individuals’ perceived competency for leading deaf institutions.

This gradual shift toward inclusive practices, fueled by social media and technological advancements, has facilitated connections among individuals with disabilities worldwide. The shared experiences and solidarity among the disability community have empowered individuals to advocate for their rights and strive for fulfilling lives.

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