Voices from the Idaho EdNews Community

This is how social justice works

Waaaaaay back in the 1990s, I had a Boise State University seminar class.  It was in the education department, and our small class was learning how to do a comprehensive review of the literature on best practices for working with English language learners in content area secondary classes.

So, the issue…..whether or not to put the acknowledged inequities of society down to misogyny, racism, or classism/poverty–or all of these things.  In fact, that’s not what we were supposed to be focused on, but it’s where our discussion stagnated. We were ostensibly talking about whether or not it was important for teachers to understand the concept of “cultural competence”.  Google it!

But this man objected.  He was adamant cultural competence was wrong.  He insisted it minimized the real issues and divisions in society, which had to do with class, only.  He told us personal stories of growing up poor and suffering for it.  When this man totally rejected any other viewpoints and his voice rose in volume and aggression, our professor didn’t let things get out of hand. I remember her intervening, “You know, we’re listening to you.  You don’t need to yell.”

After that evening’s discussion, classes remained calm, but with an undercurrent of seething defiance emanating from the man. It was a relief when the course ended because he brought this “I’m personally under attack” tension in the room with him every time.  A lot of discussions were like walking on his eggshell emotions.

What is the threat “cultural competence” poses to some people?  Why are some people angered by social justice or civil rights issues?  What is it about the history of Whites” relationship with Native Americans, or the history of slavery, or the history of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust that triggers so much resentment and fear in some people?

People like BSU’s Professor Scott Yenor believe that teaching these things undermines the seamless fabric of society–teaching these things makes us more divided and more angry at each other.  He’d say that by not broaching historical or current social justice issues, teachers are not indoctrinating students. In other words, muting questions about why things are the way they are, and not delving into our shared history from multiple perspectives, will keep us all happier and better citizens.

Who’s happier?

Who’s satisfied with that superficial smoothing-over?

As an educator, I have not only had the opportunity to study how to better serve students who come from many cultures and marginalized groups. I’ve also learned about the Americans With Disabilities Act and IDEA. I’m a better teacher for it.

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law on July 26, 1990, by President George H.W. Bush. The ADA is one of America’s most comprehensive pieces of civil rights legislation that prohibits discrimination and guarantees that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else to participate in the mainstream of American life — to enjoy employment opportunities, to purchase goods and services, and to participate in State and local government programs and services. Modeled after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin – and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 — the ADA is an “equal opportunity” law for people with disabilities. Introduction to the ADA  

In the law, Congress states:  Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.  About IDEA – Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 

The story of how/why the ADA and IDEA came to be, and how/why it has made public education better for all students and for our entire society is powerful.

The right wing has appropriated the flag and patriotism and set them squarely in opposition to social justice based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation…..but not disability.

Disabled people now have the full established protection of the law…and the laws have social acceptance all over the US. But it was a struggle.

Here’s how Social justice ideology in Idaho higher education, Boise State University – Idaho Freedom (Prof. Yenor’s original) on the “threat of social justice” would read if it focused on social justice for those with disabilities.

Social justice education (in the form of the Americans With Disabilities Act) poses a threat to education in America and to the American way of life.

Social justice (and ADA) education divides the world into aggrieved (disabled) minorities and oppressive (able-bodied) majorities. Wherever it (accommodating for disabled students or staff) is practiced, it compromises the achievement of truth, the free exchange of ideas, and the aspiration for assimilating (disabled) people into the great American melting pot. It (The ADA) cultivates anger and resentment among the supposedly (disabled) and aggrieved, while undermining the stability and mutual toleration of (disabled and able-bodied people) that contributes to individual happiness and good citizenship. 

Universities are slowly building up an (ADA) apparatus where social justice ideology (and accommodations for the disabled) is displacing education toward professions and general education (that able-bodied people access without support). Some universities like Ohio State University have over 100 administrators dedicated to social justice (who focus on making all aspects of higher education leading to all professions accessible to the disabled). But all universities including Boise State University have adopted an ideology (that believes the disabled among us are equally capable, with supports) that demands a built out (and expensive) apparatus.

Social Justice (ADA) education at BSU is no longer in its infancy. It (Equal-access for the disabled) is heading toward maturity, spreading into hiring, policies, curriculum, and student life. BSU is adding to its social justice (ADA) mission every year. We show this in several ways:

  • Administrators at BSU have repeatedly stated their commitment to developing a mature apparatus pushing social justice activism (advocating for ADA standards).
  • BSU has hired several administrators to push such initiatives since beginning its intentions to transform the university in Summer 2017.
  • Administrators have adopted policies in hiring and student experience to further the social justice cause and have announced a new emphasis on “inclusion and equity (for the disabled)” throughout its colleges.
  • Social justice education (ADA accommodations )has a significant presence in the General Education requirements at BSU.
  • Social justice (ADA) ideology plays a significant part in at least 14 departments at BSU.
  • The Residence Hall experience is infused with social justice ideology (and ADA accommodations), as is the Writing Center.

BSU is on the same path as universities like Ohio State University and it will continue on the path unless the political institutions of Idaho force change. We suggest budgetary and administrative ways of putting our universities back on the right track.

Before the ADA laws, disabled people were barred from fully developing their potential and engaging and contributing. They were deemed somehow deficient (or worse). The ADA has provided opportunity, insight and understanding leading to more success and stability in our society as a whole.

Does the ADA cost money and need many people overseeing it? Lots!  Does it require a full “apparatus” and “ideology” to maintain it?  Those aren’t the words I’d use, but …..heck, yes!  And yet, we’ve come to the conclusion as a country that it’s fair and just to spend money and manpower on supports for the disabled.  Net loss? No way.

People who are unafraid of learning about the need for civil rights and social justice don’t view rights gained for some as rights lost for others. A special education teacher who I respect very much always uses the term differently-abled, rather than disabled.

Disabled really means differently-abled now, thanks to the ADA and IDEA.

This is how social justice works.  It’s based on the idea that real barriers exist and have historically existed. By understanding as much as we can about those barriers, society can address them so they are no longer a hindrance. It’s based on the idea of balancing the scales in the form of carefully designed supports, and legal teeth to enforce them, for people who face those barriers, for whatever reason.  It continues to be a work in progress.  And when the path is more barrier-free, people can better access, engage in, and contribute back to society.




Hester Comstock

Hester Comstock is a teacher in the Boise School District.

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