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Back to School Mindset Makeover for DEI & Disability Work

As my educator friends are hopefully recovering and feeling refreshed from last year’s teaching journey, I know many of you on summer break will soon have to shift back to your professional realms of planning, organizing, creating, teaching, coaching, and so much more, while at the same time, preparing your families for this transition back into your work and school realities.

So I thought today, I’d give you some of my thoughts on getting ready for back to school.

To start off, here’s a quote from Abraham Lincoln:

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax.”

So sharpening the ax. What does that mean in terms of disability awareness, diversity, equity, inclusion, access, and belonging? In order to answer this, I’ve been really thinking about not what I do as an educator, but more about who I be as an educator.

What we do, teaching, is the chopping down the tree, metaphorically speaking. All the prep work that I mentioned before, they are the tasks (like chopping down a tree is a task).

But sharpening the ax…that is the prep work…that is the mindset work. That is going within. That is generative self-reflection. And no matter your goals or passions or your job, I would encourage us all to practice mindfulness as a way of life, both personally and professionally. In my experience, this soul-searching work can often be uncomfortable, and sometimes even scary.

This is why Amanda Gorman, in her presidential inaugural speech said, “For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.”

So there is light when it comes to DEI work that includes disability. But seeing it, and being it, requires courage.

So now back to sharpening the ax.

As a teacher, having the courage, and doing the self-reflection, has always brought me to a place where I can deeply connect with my students, even my most difficult students, and with their parents, even the most difficult of them, and with my colleagues and administrators, and yes, even the most difficult of them as well.

But mindfulness and self-reflection has also opened me up not only to the experiences of others, and appreciating their journeys, and therefore being able to have positive nonjudgmental relationships with them…

But it has also opened my eyes to new ways of thinking about concepts that have been culturally ingrained in me by default.

For instance, let’s take the idea of disability and what it means to me. I ask myself: Do I perceive disability as a flaw, a defect, a tragedy, a drain on society, a negative? Do I pity disabled people? Or do I celebrate them? Do I see disability as normal, as a natural part of the human experience, as a valuable part of diversity to be celebrated?

If I perceive disability as a negative, then what does that do to my energy and interactions with students with disabilities? How does that affect my relationships with them? What effects does that have on my nondisabled students and how they treat people with disabilities? How does it impact my teaching strategies? My attitude toward proactive inclusion? Toward universal design for learning?

I can assure you that if I have a foundational understanding of disability as a negative concept, this will likely have a negative effect on my students with disabilities. For example:

  • I may not see all that is possible for them (academically, socially, physically, long-term)

  • That lack of vision will prevent me from creating success for them in

    • how I teach them

    • how I empower them to communicate with me and with others

    • what expectations I have for inclusivity by me, by their classmates, and by other campus staff

    • how committed I am to knowing and protecting their rights

    • and how committed I am to having them know and protect their own rights

  • Furthermore, I might take pity on them, or unknowingly use them as a tool for inspiration, not realizing how dehumanizing and disrespectful this actually is. And as an educator influencer, I will pass that ableist mindset on to my other students as well.

Those are just a few general examples of what can go wrong when we view disability in a negative light.

But what if I perceive disability as normal, nothing wrong, as a natural part of the human experience, and as a valuable part of our diverse humanity? What does that do to my energy and interactions with my students with disabilities? How might my enlightened perspective affect my relationships with them? And how about my nondisabled students…as a role model and educator influencer, how does my attitude toward disability affect them and how they treat people with disabilities…how they’re expected to treat people with disabilities? How does it affect my teaching style? My teaching strategies? My commitment to inclusivity for all students? My commitment to universal design and creating access for all students?

When I shift my mindset over to a new understanding of disability as a normal and natural part of the human experience and a valuable part of diversity, a whole new world can open up, not just for me, not just for a few students with disabilities I may have in my class, and not just for this year. But my mindset makeover can lead to a happier and healthier group of students who will remember (consciously or unconsciously) what I said and did, but also who I be’d, or who I was. And from that, my students with disabilities will be empowered to see themselves as valuable, as worthy, as lovable, in my classroom this year, and for years to come. My nondisabled students will see the value of everyone, and the value of including everyone, not only this year, but also for years to come.

So I encourage you to take some time to sharpen your ax. And to be courageous in your introspection so that you can benefit from the light available to you.

One way that you can sharpen your ax and keep your mind growing around the topic of disability is by listening to my Beyond Awareness: Disability Awareness That Matters Podcast, and many others of my favorite podcasts that I’ll put into the show notes for you. What I love about growing through podcasts is that you can listen while driving, while sitting poolside, or while decorating your classroom walls. Another way to sharpen your ax to prepare for this upcoming school year is to read books by disabled authors. I’ll also put some of my favorites, including my own, in the show notes.

And if you’re saying, Diana, I just need to cut to the chase and get myself quickly immersed and educated in disability awareness from a research-based, Disability Studies in Education perspective so I can powerfully and effectively lead my school in disability awareness that actually matters, then for you, my friend, I have what you need. All you have to do is go to for my digital Beyond Awareness Course.

Whatever you do, remember, sharpen your ax. Reflect. Renew. Replenish. So that you can see the light. So that you can be the light.


Do you have a burning desire to have a more equitable and inclusive school culture?

Are you a person who understands the importance of DEI (Diversity Equity & Inclusion) work in schools, but when it comes to disability, you want to make sure you know what you’re talking about!

Maybe you’re a special education teacher, or a general education teacher, or an administrator, and you may know a lot about disabilities, but not necessarily about the experience of being disabled by society. You’re interested in disability awareness that will actually make a difference, but you feel stuck.

You’re still experiencing

  • Lack of guidance and lack of research-based disability awareness materials and strategies

  • There is still segregation on your campus, and a lack of belonging for all students. So diversity, equity, and inclusion is not a priority.

  • You feel frustrated due to district resistance to inclusion

  • And you’re afraid that you are not qualified to lead the charge for disability inclusion in your DEI work

  • You know there’s got to be a better way, but you aren’t sure what it is.

If this is you, then I invite you to take advantage of my free resource called “The 5 Keys to Going Beyond Awareness.” All you have to do is go to and I’ll send you my important tips for starting your journey toward a more inclusive school.

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