Transforming Understandings About Who Can Teach: The Experiences and Approaches of Teachers with Disabilities

Date of Award

August 2019

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching and Leadership


Beth A. Ferri


ableism, disability studies in education, teachers with disabilities

Subject Categories



This dissertation is a qualitative exploration of the perspectives and lived experiences of 3 general education and 8 special education teachers of grades preschool through twelve (P-12) who self-identified as teachers with a disability(ies). Data were obtained through 11 questionnaires, 21 in-depth semi-structured interviews, and eight written letters from participants to future P-12 teachers with disabilities. Data analysis was conducted in a grounded theory approach, which included use of thematic narrative analysis as a second method for analyzing letter data.

Tensions continuously emerged throughout this study around identity, disclosure, and practice. Findings indicated that attitudinal and environmental barriers adversely affected teachers with disabilities as professionals. Teachers’ constructions of their professional identity were influenced by ableism, stigma, and workplace discrimination, and by issues of inequality, power, and politics that teachers experienced in different educational environments. Because ableism, as a construct, was often reflected in perceptions of being a good teacher, teachers in the study worked to counter that assumption. Although almost all teachers considered disability an aspect of their personal identity, only half considered disability an aspect of their professional identity. Complexities around identity and disclosure led teachers to manage stigma in purposeful and strategic ways.

Professional identity was a constant negotiation for teachers with disabilities in terms of navigating structural inequalities. Many experienced internalized ableism as a result of their experiences living in a highly oppressive system. Teachers’ preferred use of person-first language was complex, reflecting an anti-deficit framework, and perhaps revealing a gap between professional debates around language and lived experience. Teachers’ preferences for person-first language did not mean that they didn’t have a politicized identity. Few of the teachers in this group came from a disability studies background. Thus, their use of person-first language may reflect that participants have not been a part of this discourse. It may also reflect the influence of teacher education and special education discourses.

Although all teachers did not necessarily claim disability as part of their professional identity, disability was deeply influential in terms of teachers’ practice. Disability identity played out in their teacher identity in terms of attention to their students and centering students with disabilities. Teachers were intensely aware of how their disabilities served as a resource in working with students and they fought to normalize disability in their schools. Findings provide insight into the specific teaching strategies and approaches that teachers with disabilities employed as skillful teachers, and in order to advocate on behalf of students and with students with disabilities.

Another key finding of this study was the fact that teachers took on a considerable amount of additional work in order to ensure their access in schools, to educate others about disability, and to challenge ableism. Educating others required time and effort from teachers with disabilities in excess of their numerous professional responsibilities as teachers. Some chose to take on this role, but others did not have a choice about whether or not to take on this work because of risk to their professional reputation or career.

Findings also revealed numerous examples of how ableism operates in schools. The individual and collective experiences of educators with disabilities are important to expanding critical conversations about disability in education, the meaning of inclusive schooling, and the influence of disability on teachers’ professional practices. This study concludes with implications for future research on experiences of teachers with disabilities, as well as implications for school administrators, for providing professional accommodations, and for teacher education.


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