Colored pencils in a row. The pencils are different colors and heights.

Beyond Accommodating Disability in the Classroom: Should Our Goal be Embodiment, Disembodiment, or Something In-Between? 

By Andrea Avery

October 19, 2022 

When we think about “accommodating” disability in the classroom, our objective should not be pure disembodiment—where the body you show up in, to teach or to learn, is irrelevant—but embodiment: learning environments and experiences that have been constructed to invite, see, and explicitly affirm all bodies. This is true in both physical classrooms and online learning environments. Several years ago, I began exploring my identity and experiences as a disabled classroom teacher, leaning heavily on “embodied vulnerability” as conceptualized by Dominique C. Hill. However, never had I felt as embodied, or as vulnerable, as when the COVID-19 pandemic began. Suddenly, though my disability was known to my colleagues and students, the school’s policies around COVID-19 caused me (and disabled and chronically ill colleagues and students) to experience a new “discrepancy between body and world,” what Rosemarie Garland-Thomson calls “misfitting”: like the college students described by Parsloe and Smith, we were marked as Other and “less-than-ideal,” with our needs for accommodation framed as “problem[s] of [our] individual bodies.” 
 
Consider Buckley’s (1997) compelling argument that online teaching can offer disabled teachers freedom from physical constraints, as well as from biases presented by sharing physical space with one’s students. On the other hand, Lambert takes up the disabled student perspective and calls for a renewed attention to the body in the learning environment, (in this case, the math classroom,) calling for “complex embodiment” and for the necessity of “taking experience and embodiment seriously.” 
 
COVID-19 (rather, what it revealed about school leaders’ attitudes toward disability—my own, my colleagues’, students’, and in the abstract) caused me to leave the classroom; I now work in a remote capacity where the people I work with known basically nothing about my disabled body. I am quite happily disembodied. And yet, I remain deeply interested in the idea of embodied vulnerability, which Hill defines as “the intentional practice of offering the body up as a tool in a dialogic process intended to incite critical, personal, and collective reflection.” 
 
COVID-19 required large-scale reconsideration of what student engagement and teacher performance look like and, in some cases, revealed new possibilities for inclusive, accessible education with relevance for disabled and abled people alike. As we continue to teach and learn in pandemic-shaped classrooms, and if we return to “normal,” we should keep asking these questions about dis/embodiment in learning spaces: 

  • To what extent do current in-person (embodied) and remote (disembodied) school policies and practices result in “misfitting” of disabled students and teachers? 
  • What aspects of remote (disembodied) learning can be carried back into face-to-face (embodied) learning to minimize or eradicate this misfitting? 
  • Conversely, how could even remote (disembodied) learning environments be spaces where disabled students and teachers could bring to bear their embodied, lived experiences of disability? 
  • How and to what extent can disabled teachers and students have a choice about their disembodiment/embodiment in learning spaces? 
  • It has always been safer for some people to “offer up” their bodies than for others; how can schools, remote or in person, be places where queer, disabled, and BIPOC teachers can practice embodied vulnerability without fear or penalty or violence? 

About the Author:

Andrea Avery (https://orcid.org/0000-0002-6482-7539) is an educational designer at reDesign, an education design lab and consultancy specializing in learner-centered design, change leadership, and adult development. She has twenty years’ experience in secondary and postsecondary teaching, school leadership, and curriculum design. She earned a doctorate from Arizona State University, where she focused on agentic writer identity, behavior, and beliefs in tenth-grade writers. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Research on Leadership Education and Radical Teacher, and in The Politics of Women’s Bodies: Sexuality, Appearance, and Behavior, Third Edition (Oxford University Press (2010). She is the author of “A Face for My Autobiography” in the Fall 2022 issue of Harvard Educational Review