People First


Unfortunately, discrimination is a large part of our country’s history. Most of us are aware of the abuse and unethical treatment African-Americans suffered prior to and during the Civil Rights movement. What many don’t know is that people with disabilities were also segregated and treated as “second-class citizens.” It wasn’t so long ago that children with disabilities were considered “un-teachable” and “un-trainable.” They were either institutionalized in large state hospitals or hidden in their parents’ homes away from the community. In most cases, public education was not even an option.

When public education did become a reality, with the passage of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975, the right to a free, appropriate, public education was still being violated for many students with disabilities. While many students with disabilities were able to attend public schools before this law was passed, they often did not receive an appropriate education alongside their peers without disabilities. Moreover, before the passage of this national law, some students, especially students with the most significant disabilities, were excluded from public school altogether.

Many teachers considered students with disabilities a distraction to the learning of the rest of the class. Or they still believed, law or no law, that these students were un-teachable. In turn, many students with disabilities, although given access to public schools, were simply placed in the back of the classroom and ignored for the duration of the school day. Students with disabilities were not being taught the skills they needed.

To get an idea of how individuals with the most severe disabilities were treated, visit the following website and click through images taken in 1965 at the Willowbrook State School, an institution for people with intellectual disabilities. Nobody believed that public school could ever be a place for the students in these photos, and they are vivid images of a terrible national neglect for their basic needs.

We have come a long way in acknowledging and honoring the rights of individuals with disabilities in the last several decades. However, more progress must still be made. We can do our part by keeping an open mind, advocating for the rights of individuals with disabilities, and seeing people for who they are and the gifts they have to contribute. Whether we intend to or not, many of us do have hidden, biased beliefs about people with disabilities. Our beliefs may have been shaped by our upbringing, our peers, or our society and we may not even be aware that we have them.

Think about the types of discrimination (if any) that you witness in your school or community. Identify some of those biases. Now think about your own hidden biases. After some consideration, make a list of any stereotypes or biases that you feel you still have.
  • Where do these biases come from?
  • How can you rid yourself of them?
  • Jot your ideas down along with your list

Now think about any biases or stereotypes that you used to hold, but don’t believe anymore.
  • What happened to change your mind?
  • What kind of information or experiences do you think would be helpful in eliminating the biases you still have?