Microaggressions are subtle, everyday exchanges that subject individuals in a minority community to hostile indignities (Solórzano, Ceja, & Yossa, 2000).  First described in the context of race by Chester M. Pierce in the 1970s (as cited in Sue et al., 2008), microaggressions occur in response to a marginalized status in society, and can be based on, but are not exclusive to, race, gender identity, religion, socio-economic status, and perceived and/or diagnosed disability (Sue, 2010).  Microaggressions have deleterious effects on student well-being and student achievement (Sue, Lin, Torino, Capodilupo, & Rivera, 2009).  There is a gap in the literature on the impact of microaggressions on students with disabilities who are school-aged; however, in a recent survey of students with disabilities in university contexts, Harris (2017) found higher rates of disability-related microaggressions were significantly associated with lower rates of (a) willingness to engage in class, (b) sense of belonging, and (c) psychological comfort.

For individuals with disabilities, microaggressions can be verbal, behavioral, and/or environmental (Sue, 2010).  An example of a verbal microaggression is defining a student by their disability or by an intervention they receive; e.g., calling a student a “special education student” or “tier-3 kid”.  Defining people by traits, positive or negative, intentional or unintentional, perpetuates stereotypes and yields predetermined outcomes (Dweck, 2006); for instance, student achievement can be obstructed by the way educators think, and communicate.  An example of a behavioral microaggression is helping a student with a physical disability to climb stairs without first asking if they’d like help.  This can make the student believe they can’t function independently.  Lastly, an example of an environmental microaggression is teaching curricula devoid of people with disabilities and their stories.  This can make a student feel like an outsider, someone who doesn’t exist, and someone who doesn’t matter in that classroom or school.

The first guiding principle of the New York State Blueprint for Improved Results for Students with Disabilities is: “Students engage in self-advocacy and are involved in determining their own education goals and plan” (New York State Education Department, Office of Special Education, 2015).  Self-advocacy is integral to school and lifelong success of students with disabilities (Test et al., 2004).  Our language reflects and shapes our beliefs and behavior (Steele & Aronson, 1995).  Defining students by disability, classification, service, or any marginalizing label is antithetical to student self-advocacy and deprives students of their opportunity to define themselves.

What can we do?  Behavioral and environmental changes take time.  A first step might be to focus on language. People-first language emphasizes the person not the disability; e.g., instead of saying “an emotionally disturbed student”, say “a student diagnosed with a mental health condition”.  People-first language is a respectful and objective way to acknowledge and communicate with, and about, people with disabilities.  Using people-first language reflects an inclusive belief system, models and shapes inclusive behavior, and promotes self-advocacy.  Let’s make people-first language the norm in 2018.  Here are a few resources to help with communicating with, and about, people with disabilities, and a resource to help when developing a new habit:

Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Balantine Books: New York, NY

Harris, L. (2017). Exploring the effect of disability microaggressions on sense of belonging and participation in college classrooms (Graduate thesis). Retrieved from Graduate Studies at DigitalCommons@USU. (6712)

New York State Education Department, Office of Special Education. (2015). Blueprint for improved results for students with disabilities. Retrieved from http://www.p12.nysed.gov/specialed/publications/2015-memos/blueprint-for-improved-results-for-students-with-disabilities.html.

Solórzano, D., Ceja, M., & Yosso, T. (2000). Critical race theory, racial microaggressions, and campus racial climate: The experiences of African American college students. Journal of Negro Education, 69(1/2), 60-73.

Steele C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 69(5), 797-811.

Sue, D. W. (Ed.). (2010) Microaggressions and marginality: Manifestation, dynamics, and impact. Wiley: Hoboken, NJ.

Sue, D. W., Lin, A. I., Torino, G., Capodilupo, C. M., & Rivera, D. P. (2009). Racial

microaggressions and difficult dialogues on race in the classroom. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 15(2), 183-190. doi:10.1037/a0014191

Sue, D. W., Nadal, K. L., Capodilupo, C. M., Lin, A. I., Torino, G. C., & Rivera, D. P. (2008). Racial microaggressions against Black Americans: Implications for counseling. Journal of Counseling & Development, 86(3), 330-338. doi: 10.1002/j.1556-6678.2008.tb00517.x

Test, D. W., Mason, C., Hughes, C., Konrad, M., Neale, M., & Wood, W. (2004). Student involvement in individual education program meetings. Exceptional Children. 70, 391-412.