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Disability Workshop for Adults: Disability Through an Anti-Oppression Lens Workshop
Disability Workshop for Adults: Disability Through an Anti-Oppression Lens Workshop
Disability & Accessibility

Workshop Overview


People interested in anti-racism/anti-oppression/multicultural thinking.


People with disabilities and their families are largely absent from most congregations. This program uses anti-oppression tools to challenge us to question where the real barriers to inclusion of people with disability are. This perspective opens the possibility for creative approaches to stretch beyond those boundaries.

Pivotal Notions:

  • Society uses similar (not exactly the same) mechanisms to create social identities based on difference.
  • Privilege works similarly (not the exact same way) regardless of the basis of privilege.
  • Anti-oppression tools may be useful across oppressions.

Goals and Learning Objectives

  • To understand the distinction between socially created identity and personally created identity.
  • To recognize ableist privilege.
  • To begin to incorporate anti-ableism in notions of Beloved Community.

Materials and Handouts

  • You will need: a chalice; a flipchart and markers or other way to post for the group.
  • Parts of this workshop are designed for journaling. Provide paper for participants. Also, provide a journaling alternative—a quiet space where someone may dictate if they have their own technology, or to dictate in confidence to a facilitator, for example.
  • Make copies of the Handout: Examples of Ableist Privilege(PDF).


  • Review
  • Read the workshop plan and explore the suggested readings. Decide how you might want to alter or augment the workshop.
  • For Activity 1: Choose three or four things to describe you that are independent of categories of identity, including disability. Also, decide what, if any, identity labels for yourself you are willing to disclose.
  • In Activity 2, the notion that gender is not binary may come up. You may have to explain that gender is about who you understand yourself to be while sexual orientation is about to whom you are attracted.
  • The Handout: Examples of Ableist Privilege (PDF) is drawn from a resource that emphasizes parallels between white privilege and ableist privilege. You might choose to modify the handout using examples from other lists (see resources) or examples of your own.
  • Post the prompts for the activities on newsprint or slides.
  • You may want to make a handout of additional resources for people who want to do independent reading after the workshop, and/or email additional resources to interested participants. A list of such resources is provided at the end of the description of this workshop.

Spiritual Preparation

Set aside time for journaling, reflection, or other form of contemplation, using the following focus questions:

  • How or when did you become aware of various identities that are ascribed to you? That you claim?
  • Consider your own experience with ableist privilege, and with other types of privilege. If you had ableist privilege, how did you become aware of it? If you did not have ableist privilege, how did you become aware that people who had it might not be aware of it?
  • What is the relationship for you between identity, privilege, and pride?
  • There may be varying levels of experience and comfort talking about identity and privilege among the participants. Do what you can to prepare so that you can allow discomfort in the room.


Read the Handout: Extending the Conversation (PDF).

This workshop is one of several that could link to your congregation’s social justice programs, particularly those with an anti-oppression basis. In addition to observations these leaders may have arising from this workshop, consider using some of the following questions to fuel conversation and/or create your own:

  • What calls us to do this work?
  • How can we build relationships that further the anti-oppression work of our congregation? How can we be strong allies across oppressions?
  • How do our goals for our Accessibility and Inclusion Ministry program fit with an anti-oppression approach to social justice?
  • How can we marshal our energy to make a difference in our community beyond the congregation? What are some opportunities to build sustainable partnerships?

Workshop Plan

Welcoming and Entering


Chalice Lighting

We kindle this light in the chalice of our community, to remind us that we are the change we’ve been waiting for.

Opening Reading

Introduce this activity with the following reading about human variation, and about ableism. [The reading is excerpted from A Disability History of the United States, by Kim E. Nielsen. Boston: Beacon Press, 2012, pp. xvi-xvii.] Explain that we will be exploring these ideas in this workshop.

Ideologies and practices that belittle and/or limit people with disabilities arise from ableist attitudes. Ableist attitudes are those that reflect at fear of, and aversion to, or discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities. They can be as blatant as a refusal to hire someone with an apparent disability, or as subtle as the assumption that everyone attending a concert can stand for two hours. Like racism, sexism, or homophobia, ableism is directed at individuals and built into social structures; it is lived out purposefully, accidentally, and unknowingly. Ableist ideologies shape our media, for example, when people with disabilities are either completely absent or portrayed only as tragic and sad figures. They permeate our dominant standards of beauty and sexiness, definitions of what it means to dance, and measures of healthfulness. They also shape our expectations for leadership and success.

Human variability is immense. We see and hear in varying degrees, our limbs are of different lengths and strengths, our minds process information differently, we communicate using different methods and speeds, we move from place to place via diverse methods, and our eye colors are not the same. Some of us can soothe children, some have spiritual insight, and some discern the emotions of others with astounding skill. Which bodily and mental variabilities are considered inconsequential, which are charming, and which are stigmatized, changes over time—and that is the history of disability.—Kim E. Nielsen


Activity 1: Whose Identity Is It? (25 minutes)

This activity introduces concepts of identity and normative/“marginalized” identities. If the group is small, allow discussion at each step; in larger groups, pause for questions or clarification. Introduce the activity by saying the following or similar words:

We’re going to talk about putting people in categories, but before we talk about groups, let’s think about individuals. Each of us is unique. Our personalities are complex and we have lots of interests. It’s actually hard to sum up a person.

Post the following question:

  • Who are you?
  • The facilitator responds to the question: How do you think of yourself? Important: Do NOT refer to categories of identity, including disability. Use things that may cut across identity lines: good listener, type of humor, hobbies, etc.

Now say the following or similar words:

It’s easy to lose some of the nuances when we describe people or when we think of them. Many of the ways other people describe you may be different from the things you would point to as important about who you are.

Post the following question:Who do “they” say that you are?

Note that one telephone polling company uses the following when collecting demographic information about respondents: “The media typically describe people according to certain categories. How would the media categorize you?”

Allow a few moments for people to think about that question. You may respond about yourself.

Post the following question:What categories does our society typically use to identify people?

Have the group brainstorm and record their responses.

Be prepared to prime the responses: gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, physical/mental ability, age, class, etc.

There are other categories that describe people: likes to do crossword puzzles, or likes to put ketchup on hot dogs. But pollsters don’t use those demographic questions (unless the poll is about crossword puzzles or ketchup).

Talk about the concept of the social construction of identity using the following or similar words:

We didn’t each, individually, decide “these are the categories that matter.” We live in a time and place where certain characteristics are noticed, and which identity you are ascribed in each category matters.

Post the following prompt:

  • “Social construction means that society tends to divide people into arbitrary groups…. These categories become so taken for granted that it is assumed that they represent absolute reality. The categories can divide groups into those viewed positively and those negatively stereotyped….”—Rev. Laurie Thomas

Sometimes people use “dominant group” and “non-dominant group” or “normative group” and “marginalized group,” instead of saying that some groups are viewed positively and some groups are negatively stereotyped.

Talk about multiple identities using these or similar words:

Many people are part of the dominant group for some identities and the non-dominant group for others. Often we are more aware of the identities where we experience marginalization than we are of our normative identities.

Activity 2: “How Would My Life Have Been Different?” (20 minutes)

This exercise is from the Beyond Categorical Thinking program of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and is used with permission.

Introduce the next exercise using these or similar words

We’re going to pay some attention to how identity affects how we experience the world and how the world experiences us.

Have people count off from 1 to 4. Do not have them group themselves by number.

Tell the participants to think about their lives—their childhood, their schooling, their work opportunities, their family, their friends, where they’ve lived. But think about these things with one change, as follows:

  • The 1’s should think about their life and reflect on how their life would have been different if they had been born a different gender from the one they are now.
  • The 2’s should think about their life and reflect on how their life would have been different if they had been born a different race/ethnicity from the one they are now.
  • The 3’s should think about their life and reflect on how their life would have been different if they had been born a different sexual orientation from the one they are now.
  • The 4’s should think about their life and reflect on how their life would have been different if they had been born differently abled from the way they are abled now.

Ask them to think about how their life would have been different with this one change. Also ask how they would have been perceived by others, and how that perception would have made their life different.

Have them talk in pairs about this with someone sitting near them. They should not have the same number (although it’s okay if they do). Allow 5 minutes.

Gather again as a large group. Ask for the 1’s to report back. Allow for 4-5 responses. Repeat with the other three groups.


  • For how many of you would this one change have made your life easier?
  • For how many of you would this one change have made your life more difficult?
  • For how many of you would this one change have not made your life either easier or more difficult?
Activity 3: Notions of Privilege (25 minutes)

Introduce this activity with these or similar words:

There are benefits and advantages in society to having some identities and disadvantages from having other identities. Benefits you get for having a certain identity are what is meant by “privilege.” You may have encountered this idea before in other anti-oppression work. Talking about privilege can be uncomfortable; that’s part of the power it has in our lives.

Post the following:

“White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.”
—Peggy McIntosh

Any normative identity comes with a knapsack of its own.

Read the following examples of ableist privilege one by one, and allow for reactions.

  • Television, movies, and advertisements often show people who look like me.
  • I can dress in a hurry or talk to myself without people attributing it to the pitifulness of my disability.
  • I can do well in a challenging situation without being called courageous.
  • I can be fairly sure that people don’t assume that I’m a burden to myself or others.

Distribute the Handout: Examples of Ableist Privilege, and say these or similar words:

Take some time to read through the list. What feelings or questions does this raise for you? How does ableist privilege appear in your life?

Invite participants to write or draw in their journal; provide a journaling alternative. Allow 5 minutes for reflection and journaling.

Divide into small groups. Give each group newsprint and markers to record their work. Allow 10 minutes for the following exercise:

Think about different areas of our congregational life: worship, music, religious education, governance, social justice, social activities, and more. What examples of ableist privilege can you identify?

Post the newsprint from the groups. Gather the large group together again. Have spokespersons read their groups’ lists. Ask:

  • What have you found out about ableist privilege in our congregation?
Activity 4: Empowering Change (25 minutes)

Introduce the activity with these or similar words:

There’s a process for undoing privilege. It starts with becoming aware of it.

Post the following:

“To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimension.” ~ Peggy McIntosh

We tend not to notice where we have privilege. In fact, systems of privilege work best when we don’t think about them and are unaware of them. Usually, being in the dominant group means you get to think that your experience is universal. Recognize it and how it works in daily life.

The next thing is to unmask it! Don’t just let it remain hidden. Object.

And then, the thing to do is counteract it—cultivate relationships, and create new ways of being together.

We’ve done some work on becoming aware of ableist privilege (indicate lists from previous exercise).

Divide into small groups, the same or new ones. Ask the groups to pick an example of privilege they identified or that came from another group. Tell them to pick another example if they have time. Ask:

  • What can we do to unmask this privilege we are aware of? (Allow 10 minutes.)

Then ask:

  • What new practices can we create, what new values can we embrace, and what relationships can we cultivate—to counteract this privilege? (Allow 10 minute.)

Gather the large group together again, and ask people to share their strategies.


Additional Resources

Resources on Identity

Resources on Privilege

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