Challenging ableism

Issue: Volume 98, Number 16

Posted: 12 September 2019
Reference #: 1H9yYp

Pervasive ableist attitudes have been identified by young disabled New Zealanders as the biggest barrier to their participation in schools and communities.

Ableism is a system of privilege that defines and divides people according to their bodies and functional capacities, and judges people with impairments as inferior, incapable or in need of saving. 

Karen Witten, Penelope Carroll and Octavia Calder-Dawe were researchers for a three-year project on the subject and have written this article for the Education Gazette.

Enabling Participation of Disabled Young People, was a Massey University research project funded by the Health Research Council of New Zealand. The three year study explored the everyday lives of disabled young people with mobility, vision and hearing impairments and examined the factors that enabled or constrained their opportunities to fully participate in community life – in education, employment, recreation and a range of other settings.

Understanding what supports full participation in school and community life is important because participation is a cornerstone of youth wellbeing, helping to build a sense of belonging and collective identity, developing networks of support, and enhancing their social and economic opportunities into the future. 

In Aotearoa New Zealand, one in four people are disabled and evidence indicates this group has lower levels of community participation and experiences greater social exclusion than non-disabled peers. 

The young people we worked with throughout our research project identified a range of factors that affected their participation in school and community life. This included elements of the built environment and public transport systems that worked well for those who fit hypothetical norms of movement, sight and hearing but excluded or inconvenienced the young people we worked with, limiting their mobility and access to information, people and places. 

Social barriers most significant

Most significant of all for research participants were the social barriers they encountered on a regular basis. This ableist discrimination could take a range of forms, from overt exclusion and prejudice to staring, unwelcome touching and inappropriate questions. 

Saamir echoed the perspectives of many participants when he said, “It’s always like more a social barrier than an actual physical barrier.” 

In classroom and recreational settings, many participants felt they were put in the ‘too hard’ basket. On the other hand, when leaders and facilitators were willing to work flexibly and creatively with young people to get them involved, genuine participation and inclusion was possible. School sports and physical education highlighted some of the best and worst school-based experiences of inclusion and exclusion. 


BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 11:35 am, 12 September 2019

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