Lesson: Defining Disability

Authors: Natalie Shaheen 

Class Size 

  • Originally taught with a group of 30 students but could be scaled to any size the instructor is comfortable managing. 

Lesson Structure 

60 minutes 

  • Intro: 5 minutes 
  • Body of lesson: 50 minutes 
    • Definitions: 15 minutes 
    • TED talk: 25 minutes 
    • Refining definition: 10 minutes 
  • Conclusion: 5 minutes 


Participants will be able to: 

  • Identify and explain some of their beliefs/ideas about blindness/disability. (2A.3.2 (a)) 
  • Identify and explain some of the new beliefs/ideas about blindness/disability to which they were introduced at the program. (2A.3.2 (b)) 
  • Articulate their conception of their own identity, particularly the aspects of which relate to their blindness. (2A.3.4 (a)) 

Prerequisite Knowledge 

  • None 


  • Description of speaker prior to starting the video 
  • Accessible copies of the handout 
  • Accessible writing tools  



  1. Cue up video, "I Am Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much”, and prepare for projection. 


  1. Introduction. 
    • Tell. “Words shape what we know and how we interact. Often our life experience as well as what we believe about the world and life impacts the words we choose to use or the way we choose to use words. Because words are so powerful, it is useful to examine the words we use and the way that we define those words. Today we are going to take time to examine a word that is used regularly in our culture and how we each define that word. The word we are going to focus on this afternoon is ‘disability’.” 
  2. Different Definitions. 
    • Tell. “Because our lived experience and belief systems impact the words we use and what we understand about those words, we are likely to have different ideas about what the word disability means. Our goal for today is not to agree on a single definition of the word, but, rather, to examine and refine our individual definitions and learn how other people define the word disability.” 
  3. Ground Rules. 
    • Tell. ”In order for us to have an effective conversation where everyone feels comfortable participating, we need to set a couple of quick ground rules. What ground rules would you all like to put in place for this conversation? What ground rules would help you feel comfortable participating?” 
    • Students Do. Offer a few ground rules based on the instructor’s questions. 
    • Tell. “Ok, great. I’d like to propose one that comes to my mind. In this conversation there aren’t right or wrong answers. If someone offers an idea that is quite different from yours, instead of telling them they are wrong, you might say something like ‘that is interesting, I think of it differently…’” 
  4. Initial definitions.  
    • Tell. “To start, I’d like everyone to take 2-3 minutes to think about how you define the word ‘disability.’ You can write the definition down; you can draw a picture; however you want to document your definition is fine with me.” 
    • Students Do. Students work independently to document their definition of the word ‘disability.’ Next, students share their definition with 2 or 3 people sitting near them. Lastly, a few students share their definitions with the large group. 
  5. TED Talk. 
    • Tell. “Now we are going to watch a TED Talk by a woman named Stella Young. Stella was a well-known disability rights advocate in Australia. She passed away a few years ago. Stella was a disabled woman who used a wheelchair. Stella was born in the early 80s. The TED Talk is called I Am Not Your Inspiration Thank You Very Much. While we are watching this video, I want you to (1) pay attention to the language that she uses and (2) think about how Stella defines disability.” 
    • Do. Play the TED Talk: "I Am Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much”
    • Students Do. Have students talk in small groups about the following questions:
      • How would Stella define the word disability? 
      • What language did Stella use that revealed her beliefs about disability? 
      • If students need some prompts or supports to start the conversation, you could offer the following quotes: 
        • “I want to live in a world where we don't have such low expectations of disabled people that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our own names in the morning. I want to live in a world where we value genuine achievement for disabled people.” ~ Stella 
        • “I started calling myself a disabled woman, and a crip. A good 13 years after 17-year-old me started saying crip, it still horrifies people. I do it because it's a word that makes me feel strong and powerful.” ~ Stella 
        • “These images - there are lots of them out there - they are what we call inspiration porn. And I use the term porn deliberately because they objectify one group of people for the benefit of another group of people.” ~ Stella 
  6. Refining disability definition.  
    • Tell. “Now that we have spent some time talking about the word disability and learning from others how they define the term, take a moment to look back at your definition and see if there is anything you would want to refine about your definition.” 
    • Students Do. Give students a few minutes to refine their definition and share their refined definition with 2 or 3 of their peers.  
  7. Conclusion. 
    • Do. Take any questions students may have, collect the definitions students wrote if they are willing to share them. If there is time to spare, 
      • Facilitate a conversation about defining the term “abled” and see what connections students can draw between their definitions of the two terms. Can you define one term without defining the other? 
      • Offer other perspectives on disability and facilitate a conversation: 
        • Deaf culture and its rejection of the term disability: Deaf and Disability Intersectionality (YouTube video)
        • “As to the exposure and rearing of children, let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.”  ~ Aristotle 
        • Read them Jim Ferris’s poem Tell Aristotle.  

Standards Alignment 

NGSS Standards Alignment:

  • N/A 

CCSS Standards Alignment:

  • CC.9-10.R.ST.3,  
  • CC.9-10.R.ST.5, CC.9-10.R.ST.7,  
  • CC.9-10.SL.1, CC.11-12.R.ST.3, CC.11-12.R.ST.5, CC.11-12.R.ST.7, CC.11-12.LS.1, CC.9-12.S.IC.4, CC.9-12.S.ID.3 

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