Microaggressions have been getting a lot more attention recently, and with good cause. But not many adults pause to think about these microaggression examples in schools that our kids experience every day.

It’s very easy to spot someone who is openly hateful, racist, or ableist. But common microaggressions in schools aren’t usually that blatant.

A set of green chess pieces on a wooden table.

I mean, I think we can all agree that if you call someone the R word, that’s ableist.

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But ableism takes many different forms and shapes. And, I’m of the opinion that we should be much more worried about the microaggressions from people who have power to make decisions (lawmakers, education administrators, etc.) than the person who might be openly ableist but has no power. Yes, it all matters.

Most of you know I’m all in, as far as working harder to educate others and my own personal biases as far as racism. And I have a platform. I have been using that platform and will continue to do so.

I’m personally trying to slow down in my interactions and be more intentional. My own ‘issues’ make me impulsive at times. I’m trying harder at ‘think before you speak.’

A collection of white pencils against a white backdrop.

Racial Microaggressions in School

A few years ago, I hosted a series on Race and IEPs on my site. One main goal of the series was to encourage white people, particularly those on IEP teams, to listen, learn, and examine their personal biases and (hopefully) eliminate them from future encounters.

I wanted the listener to have concrete, actionable items to examine. So I combed through the videos and the comments left by some Black parents on the videos and came up with this list.

I added in that preface because of this—I am expecting pushback from readers. Accountability feels like a personal attack when you’re not ready to deal with being held accountable.

I get that. Been there! But the bottom line is this, don’t email me and tell me that disabled students experience this too. Of course they do which is why the second list is disability microaggressions at school.

Read the list, or don’t. But this is for those who are interested in the journey to examine their own biases. Do not email me and say, “Hey, I’m white, and my son was denied an FBA too!”

I know this. I know white people have IEP struggles. However, the statistics don’t lie–

Black children are suspended, expelled, etc. at much higher rates than their white peers. Yes, white families are denied support and services. But it happens to Black families much more frequently, and only because they are Black/Brown.

  • microassault is a “verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior, or purposeful discriminatory actions.” Example: Students wear Confederate flag clothing.
  • microinsult is an insensitive communication that demeans someone’s racial identity, signaling to people of color that “their contributions are unimportant.” Example: A teacher corrects the grammar of only Hispanic children.
  • microinvalidation involves negating or ignoring the “psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of color.” Example: An Asian American student from the U.S. is asked where she was born, which conveys the message that she is not really an American.
Two individuals showing a peace sign gesture.

Racial Microaggression Examples at School

These are actual microinvalidation examples that parents have experienced.

  1. Acting surprised when a Father shows up to an IEP Meeting.
  2. If Mom arrives first, assume that Dad will not be joining her or that Dad is not in the child’s life.
  3. Assuming that the child is not on a traditional diploma path, regardless of age or disability.
  4. Assuming that the child is not interested in working but instead will live off of SSDI.
  5. This one is huge: Assuming WON’T instead of thinking “can’t.”
  6. Denying FBAs when a parent asks for them.
  7. Black students, males, in particular, are diagnosed with IDD in very disproportionate numbers.
  8. Black students are more likely to be assigned to the Emotional Disturbance eligibility category incorrectly.
  9. Are you presuming competence? Or are you presuming incompetence?
  10. Black students tend to receive fewer and less thorough evaluations and assessments than their white peers. Why are you denying an evaluation?
  11. Black students receive fewer supports and services than their white peers. Think of a white student that is similarly situated as the Black student’s IEP you are looking at. Are the supports and services the same?
  12. Black students are disproportionately treated with punitive results (suspensions, expulsions) for behaviors compared to their white peers. Have you considered supportive alternatives?
  13. Assuming that the Black parent(s) is not interested in PTA, parent training, parent networking, volunteering, or other school involvement opportunities.
  14. Assuming that the child gets a free/reduced lunch.
  15. Otherwise, assuming that the family is poor and needs handouts.
  16. Well-intended, but condescending or patronizing comments (and no touching!) about the child’s appearance, particularly hair.
  17. Assuming a religion (not all Black people are Muslim)
  18. Assuming an ethnicity (Like a Latina mom is automatically Mexican or from Puerto Rico)
  19. Assigning learning disabilities to not knowing the English language; many times, English is the child’s primary language.
  20. Assuming the parent’s profession (IE, not all Mexican men pick mushrooms and the women don’t all clean hotel rooms).
  21. Assuming that parents are heterosexual (yes, all colors can identify with all sexualities!).
  22. Asking about skin or race, IE, “Why are you so light and your sister is so dark?” or assuming that all Muslims are very dark, etc.
  23. Pointing out errors to Black or Brown students more frequently than white students.
  24. Making white students “leaders” more often than Black students.
  25. Making assumptions such as ‘all Black students excel at sports’ or ‘all Asian students excel at math.’
  26. Assuming that the Black student lives in a city.

Disability Microaggressions

Sometimes I find that parents are some of the worst offenders when it comes to ableism. I get it, mind you, been there myself. It’s because society tells us how to feel about raising a disabled child.

We absorb societal ableist messages, often from something like ableism in movies, before our kids are even born.

And, for some of us, and yes that includes me, we don’t see our ableism until we’re living this life. Still, it’s weird to me what some people will dig their heels in about. Often when I call out ableism, there’s no shortage of moms who will come and “save” the mom who I asked to change her language.

Two girls walking down an empty street, experiencing microaggressions.

What is Ableism?

Ableism is to disabilities what racism is to people of color. Ableism is, in short, the expression of a discriminatory preference for someone without a disability. It might be outright and blatant, such as calling a person with Down Syndrome the r-word. Usually, it’s much more subtle.

Ableism assigns inferior worth to people who have developmental, emotional, physical, or psychiatric disabilities by devaluing their worth. This can limit their potential, particularly for the gatekeepers to access supports and services.

Ableism includes things like minimizing the need for mobility devices, accessible parking cards, assistive technology, sign language interpreters (can’t she just read lips?), the need to take medication, frequent appointments, or any other challenges that students with disabilities have to deal with that people without disabilities don’t experience.

A bingo card with the words 'free' and 'physical', highlighting common microaggressions in schools.
I found this on Tumblr.

Disability Microaggression Examples in Schools

You may witness these as a parent, student, or school personnel. I’m providing this in hopes that school personnel will examine their own personal biases.

  1. Not inviting students to the IEP meeting because of a perceived lack of ability to participate at any level (all kids can offer something, even just to say hi or send in a note or video!).
  2. Not being prepared for a disabled person’s attendance at the meeting if the team knew they were coming (not having a chair removed for wheelchair space, ASL interpreter, etc.).
  3. Talking about the person while in their presence, as if they weren’t there.
  4. Speaking to the parent rather than the student.
  5. Telling the student/parents how “inspiring” or “brave” they are (instead, work on eliminating an ableist system that requires bravery to attend public schools)
  6. Dismissing bullying (when it happens to over 80% of disabled students)
  7. Not allowing processing time for speaking for students with slower or delayed processing.
  8. Not allowing speaking time for students who stutter or otherwise talk slower than average.
  9. Speaking extra loud or extra slowly to someone who doesn’t need it.
  10. Baby talk or condescending high voice speak (good rule to live by-this should be eliminated once the child exits 0–3 services).
  11. Not offering things of age appropriate interest.
  12. Assuming that the child is not on a diploma track but on a life skills track, regardless of age.
  13. Predetermination of IEP placement, particularly for students with DS or intellectual disabilities.
  14. Not presuming competence, presuming incompetence
  15. asking personal questions about devices, orthotics, or whatever equipment the person uses
  16. Pushing a person’s wheelchair without asking them first.
  17. “You don’t look disabled.”
  18. Dismissing medical needs with phrases such as “Well, can’t you just…” (No, we can’t. We are going to do what our doctors tell us, thanks).
  19. For students who use wheelchairs or walkers, eliminating them from group photos because the photo site was not accessible.
  20. Assuming that because of a wheelchair or other device, that a student is not interested in XYZ (everyone can contribute something!).
  21. Not having all areas of a public school, including an accessible playground.
  22. Portraying the student or parent as the victim of some unfortunate circumstance, such as “I could never do what you do” or “I’d hate to be you.”
  23. Assuming that disability always means inability; it’s not, and certainly not in all areas.
  24. To piggyback on that–not recognizing the student strengths of a disabled individual.
  25. Fake praise, condescending praise.
  26. Sharing Inspiration Porn, just stop it.
  27. Minimizing a person’s diagnoses with phrases like “Ugh, I didn’t see that, I am so blind!” or “I’m really OCD about how I arrange my desk.”
  28. Assuming that the person’s disability is all negative, all the time. Yes, an IEP meeting is to discuss supports and services. But, if done right, you should be celebrating more successes than fixing IEP problems.
  29. Assuming “won’t” instead of “can’t” (and therefore denying supports that could possibly get them to “can!”)
  30. Using outdated language; it’s ok to say “disabled” and “autistic”
  31. Any negative assumption that you wouldn’t assume for a non-disabled student.
  32. Dismissing the disability because you witnessed the child succeed at something, “He can’t be that disabled….”
  33. Using victim language such as “suffers from….”
  34. Using powerless terms to describe the student, such as “confined to a wheelchair” or “wheelchair-bound.”
  35. Getting the student (whose IEP you are discussing) confused with another disabled student.
  36. Assuming that all autism/down sydrome/epilepsy families know each other.
  37. Interrupting or talking over the disabled student as they speak.
  38. Asking “why do you do/wear/eat that?”
  39. Offering unsolicited medical advice.
  40. Treating the whole meeting from a negative viewpoint (flip the narrative—this is actually a time to give a student what they need to be successful in life!) and treating it as a stressful burden (for staff) is ableist; it’s part of your job.
  41. Toxic positivity “Just get more sleep!” “You can choose to be happy!”

Ableist Microaggressions

I added this section a couple of years ago. I figured that this is not worthy of its own blog post, and this way I can just go in and delete this section when the pandemic is over. Or, I may keep them, because they still apply to the flu, RSV and other illnesses that are going around.

But if you’re saying these things during the pandemic, these are also ableist.

  1. “It only affects those who have pre-existing conditions.” Thanks, trust me, every mom who is in my situation is painfully aware of our kids’ high-risk status.
  2. Telling a parent that she is overreacting about the virus. (you don’t know their situation)
  3. Putting accommodations in place for COVID that should have been in place (and likely were declined to those who asked for them) for disabilities.
  4. Making distance learning not accessible to all.
  5. “He’s lucky he doesn’t have to wear a mask!”
  6. Fake positivity “Just get a good night’s sleep!” (yeah, I wish that just sleep could cure my kid’s ailments)
Four different colored eggs with protective masks on them.

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