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Disability justice in action: Changing the game

Photo provided by Jessica Ramsey.

By Nikitha Fester (she/her), BCTF staff


From May 25 to June 1 Canada will recognize and celebrate the contributions of Canadians with disabilities during National Accessibility Week. Then in July, Canada celebrates Disability Pride Month, which celebrates people who experience disabilities, their identities and cultures, and their contributions to society. According to Stats Canada, the number of youth living with disabilities has increased significantly since 2017, with 20% of Canadians aged 15–24 experiencing disabilities. (1) As teachers working on the frontlines, this increase comes as no surprise. Each year, while our students rise to the challenge of social and academic expectations, we’re right along side them providing and modifying the tools and skills they need to thrive.


For Jessica Ramsey, a Grades 6 and 7 teacher in Surrey BC, this meant changing the game—literally. Sports have been one of the ways Jessica connects with her students beyond her classroom, and she has been a dedicated track and field co-ordinator and basketball coach for the duration of her teaching career. Last year, during her recess supervision, she saw one of her students who uses a wheelchair shooting hoops, and she asked him why didn’t he try out for the basketball team. He replied, “I didn’t know that I could.”


Disability justice is defined as a way to organize around and think about disability that centres the lives and leadership of disabled Black, Indigenous, and people of colour and/or queer, trans, Two-Spirit, and gender non-conforming people. (2) Jessica adds that disability justice includes removing barriers and providing opportunities so students can be their full selves. “Just because something has always been the way it’s been, doesn’t mean it can’t change,” said Jessica. With that guiding principle, Jessica and her vice-principal contacted Wheelchair Basketball BC and began organizing so that her student could not only join the team but also get minutes on the court as well. 


Wheelchair Basketball BC brought in chairs, coaches, and taught lessons throughout a one-week showcase. At the end of their stay, they hosted a friendly match for the whole school. Jessica’s student saw what he could achieve as a basketball player, and all students were reminded of the ability in disability.

Working with community partners can enrich school experiences for students and staff; however, it can also be challenging to co-ordinate all the pieces involved in bringing outside partners into schools. For Jessica, working with Wheelchair Basketball BC was effortless. The easy process allowed the school to create opportunities for all classes to participate, recognizing the vital role school activities play in students’ lives and the importance of inclusion.


Today, Jessica’s student is getting quality minutes on the basketball court, contributing to the success of his team, and showing other schools what is possible. Opposing schools are even requesting chairs be brought in so that their players can also experience playing in a chair. For Jessica, watching her student score his first game basket and seeing the smile on his face while his friends, and the opposing team, cheered is a memory she won’t soon forget. It also reminds her of her “why.” “Seeing students thrive, meet their learning goals, and pursue their passions is the reason why I am in the classroom. Seeing a student express themselves and come into their own is why I do what I do.”


To learn more about Wheelchair Basketball BC, visit their website

The lesson below can help kick-start disability justice action at your school and is suitable for Grades 5 to 9.


Disability justice lesson plan (suitable for Grades 5 to 9)


Part—1 Accessibility audit


Time: One 40-minute period

  1. Discuss with your students the different categories of disability. Work through the language as needed.

  2. Explain to students that with this new/improved understanding they are going to assess how accessible the school is for people with different types of needs.

  3. Assign an area, or the entire school, to groups of students; have them evaluate how accessible their assigned area is for students. a.  Remind them to remember the discussed definitions. b.  As a class you can create a rating scale, or have each group create their own evaluation scheme.

  4. After the audit, gather as a class and discuss what they noticed and how they evaluated the school.


Critical questions that could be asked

  • Why do you think some areas of the school are inaccessible for students?

  • Who should be included/consulted in the design of schools?

  • Why is it important for schools and other places to be accessible to all?


Part 2—Ideal learning environment

Time: Approx. two 40-minute periods


  • paper

  • pencils

  • erasers

  • coloured pencils/markers.


  1. In the same groups, and considering the same area, students will design an accessible space. a.  Have students sketch a draft before doing a good copy in colour. b.  Remind students to pay attention to details; spaces become inaccessible when small details are forgotten. c.  For each decision they’ve made, have them write one or two sentences justifying the choice.

  2. Once all groups have completed their redesign, have them present to the class.


Possible extension

Accessibility considerations are ways to respond to the needs of differently abled folks, but that is only one aspect of their identity. Explain Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality to your students. With that definition in mind, discuss with them what else needs to be included in their school redesign, so that their school space is responsive to the whole student, not just part of them.


Glossary of terms necessary to this lesson

Accessibility The combination of aspects that influence a person’s ability to function within an environment and to access it with ease. (3) 


Agency The awareness that one has power over one’s own actions in the world, independent of the external world.


Barrier Anything—including anything physical, architectural, technological, or attitudinal, anything that is based on information or communications, or anything that is the result of a policy or a practice—that hinders the full and equal participation in society of persons with an impairment, including a physical, mental, intellectual, cognitive, learning, communication, or sensory impairment or a functional limitation. (4)


Disabled (adjective) The inability to function or be like others; physical, emotional, or neurological differences that limit activity or performance, generally with respect to work or education. (5)


Disability justice A term and a movement-building framework (i.e., a way of envisioning the ways people can organize around and think about disability) that centres the lives and leadership of disabled Black, Indigenous, and people of colour and/or queer, trans, Two-Spirit, and gender non-conforming people. (6)


Disability tax An experience persons with disabilities have when completing additional daily tasks because of their disability and/or inaccessibility that takes time away from their work.


Equality Refers to equal rights, responsibilities, and opportunities for different groups of people.


Invisible disability A disability that cannot be easily seen or measured and is often discounted or not respected.


Intersectionality The combination of different identities that make up a whole individual. Just like a puzzle, each person is made up of lots of different pieces, like their race, gender, and religion. It’s impossible to understand the full picture until you put all the pieces together.


A key component of social justice work is to recognize that all forms of inequality are mutually reinforcing and must therefore be analyzed and addressed simultaneously to prevent one form of inequality from reinforcing another. For example, tackling the gender pay gap alone—without including other dimensions such as race, socio-economic status, and immigration status—will likely reinforce inequalities among women. This example highlights why intersectionality is important to address in all social justice work. (7)


Neurodiversity Refers to the variation in the human brain regarding sociability, learning, attention, mood, and other mental functions. 



2 Leah Lakshmi, et al., “Disability Justice: An Audit Tool,” Northwest Health Foundation, Portland, OR: 

6 Lakshmi, et al. 


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