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Disabling the Environment:
A Classroom Activity to Help Students Understand the Social Model of Disability

"Beez" Lea Ann Schell

Department of Kinesiology
Sonoma State University


The task of addressing the historical, political, and social issues pertaining to individuals with disabilities may be somewhat intimidating for many instructors. Without direct work experience or schooling in the area of disabilities, many may feel unprepared to delve into the complex issues surrounding equal access, mainstreaming, and legislation. The purpose of this article is to share a simple classroom activity that allows instructors to expose their students to a "disabling" environment, thus helping to facilitate discussion and reflection about disabilities and, hopefully, to change students' preconceived notions about individuals with disabilities.

I have used this activity in my Elementary Physical Education, Lifespan Motor Development, and women's studies classes. This activity may also be used in any course that includes discussion about disabilities. I must emphasize that this activity does not imply that students will know or feel what it is like to be an individual with a disability (one can never know what it is like to be someone else), nor does it mean to simplify the multifarious nature of disability. Rather, this activity is meant to serve as a tool to help instructors introduce basic concepts and to foster a deeper understanding of disability. Because this activity directly involves the students in the experience, it is imperative that instructors understand that students may have different feelings and reactions to this activity. I address these issues by moving the students quickly through the activity (which usually takes 10 minutes), acknowledging their feelings during the processing period and lecture, and making the activity fun rather than threatening.

I created this class activity after taking the Women with Disabilities graduate course at Texas Woman's University. In that class, I became interested in the Disability Rights Movement and in the Social Model of Disability, especially with regard to disability sport. Disability has traditionally been viewed through the lens of the medical model. According to this view, a disability is caused by a physical or mental impairment. Something is believed to be wrong with the disabled person, and he/she is seen as needing "fixing" in order to fit into the able-bodied world. Conversely, the Social Model of Disability begins with the premise that disability is not an individual problem. In this model, society disables some people by creating physical barriers, by not providing accessible facilities, and by fostering inaccurate, discriminatory notions about individuals with disabilities. The disabled people's movement believes the "cure" does not lie in fixing people; rather, solutions lie in the restructuring of society and the changing of people's negative views of individuals with disabilities.

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Posted April 25, 2002
Modified June 16, 2003

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board.
©2002 by "Beez" Lea Ann Schell.

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