GSEHD Lecture Centered on Stories of Disabled Teachers

The 2024 MLK Jr. Lecture at GSEHD focused on the experiences of disabled teachers and the unique insights they bring to their students.

February 1, 2024

Elisabeth Kutscher

Elisabeth Kutscher, assistant professor of special education and disability studies at GSEHD.

The idea behind the phrase “representation matters” is that there is power in seeing others who share your identity and experiences platformed in positive and genuine ways.

That was the theme of the fourth annual Martin Luther King Jr. Lecture, sponsored by the Graduate School of Education and Human Development (GSEHD) at George Washington University, which focused on the experiences of disabled teachers.  

Dwayne Kwaysee Wright, an assistant professor of higher education administration and the director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Initiatives at GSEHD, said the annual lecture showcases a junior faculty member whose research agenda follows the legacy of MLK. 

“I think today's presentation falls appropriately at the intersection of two identities,” Wright said. “The first identity is that of a teacher. The other identity is that of those who may live with disabilities. And if we think about the intersection of those two identities, the stories that come from that intersection need to be lifted.” 

Elisabeth Kutscher, an assistant professor of special education and disability studies at GSEHD, worked on a study centered on disabled teachers together with research team members, Matthew Flanagan, Chloe Massey and Jennifer Lillis. 

The team designed a study aimed at developing an understanding of professional identity for teachers with disabilities. Four participants were asked questions in interviews that lasted about 60 to 90 minutes. 

Kutscher focused the discussion on three themes that became apparent from the study. 

“So the first thing that I will discuss is disability providing a unique perspective,” Kutscher said. “This unique perspective could be seen at multiple levels, including when interacting with individual students, building classroom communities or sharing perspectives with other teachers or school leaders.” 

One participant shared a story about working with a student who was experiencing a lot of anxiety about his health once he returned to school following pandemic-related school closures. 

The teacher used a visual aid to help the student independently determine whether a situation was healthy. In the interview, the teacher explained, she was able to help the student because she has anxiety and knew that if it were her at that moment, she would want a visual aid. 

“She saw her own experiences as a disabled educator as directly providing her with insights that could more effectively support her students’ needs,” Kutscher said. 

A second theme Kutscher highlighted from the study was the issue of the burden of accommodations. The participants shared that requesting or receiving accommodations required that they take on the burden. Some participants described a hesitation to request accommodations because of concerns about how their requests might be received and others described interacting with a system that lacked processes to protect their rights and needs.  

Kutscher concluded her remarks by identifying three main implications of her research. 

First, there is a pressing need for additional research that investigates the potential impact of teachers with disabilities on students. 

“Given that teachers with disabilities in this study describe using innovative instructional approaches, it seems possible that this group of teachers might be uniquely equipped to connect with and meet the diverse needs of their students, but we have yet to investigate this possibility,” Kutscher said. 

Kutscher also said there's a need to rethink the workplace accommodation process as a partnership rather than the sole responsibility of the person requesting the accommodations. 

Lastly, Kutscher said there's a need to consider what schools might look like if they were designed to be supportive of all teachers from the very beginning.

“So the approach of universal learning design is often used in classrooms to design instruction in ways that are accessible to all learners,” Kutscher said. “And I would argue that we need to extend the principles of universal design across the entire school community. We need additional research to understand what universal design might look like at a school and systems level and how that might support all teachers who are doing that important work of preparing the next generation of students to contribute thoughtfully to society.” 

A response to Kutscher’s talk was given by Elisabeth Rice, an associate professor of special education and disability studies. Rice said she appreciated that Kutscher’s work situated the disability rights movement, rather than a deficit model of intervention. 

“We all deserve to have our strengths recognized, and we need to better understand the experiences and thoughts of all teachers,” Rice said. 

Rice also commended Kutscher's methodology for highlighting the voices of people with disabilities and including people with disabilities as equal members of the research team.

“You interviewed individuals and shared their words, seeking meaning and insight,” Rice said. “And I look forward to hearing more about the expansion of your work and interviews. As I think about your work, I feel very hopeful for the future. Your work showcases many of the ideas that are shaking up the field of education and disability rights today.”