Disability Microaggressions in Education

This tool has been developed as part of the Inclusive School Communities Project, funded by the National Disability Insurance Agency. The project is led by JFA Purple Orange.

This tool assists educators to create a safe, cohesive, inclusive school culture by supporting educators to identify microaggressions and counteract these through proactive strategies. This tool can be implemented to support a social and emotional learning program or anti-bullying program in your school. The two handouts within this tool can form the basis of professional learning. 


Microaggressions, a term coined in 1970 by Chester Pierce in relation to racism, refers to remarks that are more than insensitive comments or insults.1 Rather, they are statements, questions, or actions that are painful and demeaning because they are directly connected to pervasive, institutionalised biases against people with devalued identities; in this case, negative disability stereotypes. Microaggressions are disconcerting as they happen casually and often without any harm intended as they are usually outside the perpetrator’s awareness of their own bias.2 The exact words or actions by themselves may not be offensive, but their underlying meaning reveals implicit prejudice toward students with disability.   


Why are Microaggressions Harmful?

Alarmingly, students with disability or their families often have to prove that microaggressions are offensive in the first place. Reports of micro-aggressions are considered to be subjective, where the perpetrator is considered to have ‘good intent’. Complainants may be labelled as ‘sensitive’, or part of a ‘victimhood culture’ or even accused of using political correctness to infringe on free speech. These responses are dismissive of the pain caused by micro-aggressions. Therefore, microaggressions differ from overt discriminatory remarks, which are conscious and intentional but are usually easier to manage. The ambiguity of microaggressions can result in students with disability attributing discriminatory behaviour to themselves rather than labelling it as discrimination.3 

What is the Effect of Microaggressions on Students with Disability?

Microaggressions are perpetrated by staff and students with adverse effects on students with disability. Even though harm is often not intended, microaggressions must be addressed for a positive, inclusive school culture to flourish.

Microaggressions are defined by the impact, not the intent. They can have long-lasting adverse effects for those on the receiving end, including low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and mental health problems. The cumulative impact of microaggressions is described by the metaphor  'death by a thousand cuts'. Other analogies include ‘shrapnel’4 and ‘toxic raindrops’.5 Another comparison for microaggressions is having your toes stepped on inadvertently. When this happens occasionally, it is easy to move on and forget, but if this occurs daily, the pain cannot be ignored. If we tell students with disability that the perpetrator has good intent, it absolves the perpetrator from any responsibility and silences the student by dismissing their pain. It also implies it is up to the student to overcome the discrimination rather than examining the role of the perpetrator in making the student feel unsafe. Minimising the effect of microaggressions is an act of microaggression in itself. Schools need to be places where all students feel safe.

The Iceberg Analogy

Jonathon Kanter6 uses the analogy of an iceberg to describe micro-aggressions. The tip of the iceberg is overt discrimination, which is visible and unmistakable. Overt discrimination can usually be addressed through legal processes, that is, through the Disability Standards of Education (2005). Micro-aggressions are the harder-to-see biases that wait under the surface, more common than overt discrimination, but less detectable. These are much harder to address through the legal processes, as they are subjective. The sea the iceberg floats in is the bias enabled by society and schools. Overt discrimination and microaggressions both cause trauma for students with disability, yet microaggressions have the potential to cause more harm, as students can feel powerless and overwhelmed. Often students who experience microaggressions are caught in a double bind, if they do nothing they experience a loss of self-integrity, but raising the issue can result in unintended consequences such as not being believed. 

Handout 1: The Iceberg Analogy

The iceberg analogy describes visible components of overt discrimination and the largely invisible microaggressions underneath. The key points to keep in mind are:
    1. This iceberg is a visual representation of the underlying structures  (microaggressions) that generate discrimination against students with disability.
    2. The tip of the iceberg symbolises visible behaviours, that fall into the category of overt discrimination. These are obvious and easily detected.
    3. Underneath the iceberg, the smaller, invisible microaggressions are listed. Unlike the visible behaviours of overt discrimination, microaggressions are subtle and are explored in further depth in Handout 2.
    4. When educators are aware of the negative aspects of school culture that work against the inclusion of students with disability, they can implement proactive strategies for change.

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Figure 1: The Iceberg Analogy 

Source: Author’s own
Picture of an iceberg with a line separating the smaller, visible part of the iceberg from the bottom of the iceberg that sits below the sea. The top is labelled as ‘Overt Discrimination’ and the words ‘neglect’, ‘abuse’, ‘violence’ and ‘hate speech’ are beside it. The bottom is labelled as ‘Micro-aggressions’ and lists ‘Using ableist language’, ‘Assuming inherent qualities or abilities’, ‘Myth of meritocracy’, ‘Being treated as a second-class citizen’, ‘Ignoring/denying differences’, ‘Denying personal bias’, ‘Assuming homogeneity’, ‘Assuming the normality and superiority of non-disabled people’, ‘Refusing to acknowledge lived experience’, ‘Inferiority or pathology of marginalised disability identity/ culture’ and ‘Ascription of intelligence.’


What Causes Microaggressions? 

Ableness is a valued social norm in our society, thus creating an implicit bias against disability. Implicit bias is often unrecognised against students with disability as perpetrators claim they are acting with the best of intentions. However, social conditioning largely determines how we view certain groups, and how some, such as students with disability, are viewed in negative ways. We are subtly taught to distrust, fear, and claim superiority over people with disability. When the role of social conditioning is acknowledged in devaluing of students with disability, it can begin to be addressed. The first step is to define the microaggression, understand how this may present, as well as knowing what the underlying message is. When microaggressions are examined, strategies can be implemented to counter the negative impact. However, doing nothing will allow the status quo to continue. 

How can Educators Address this?

The table below on micro-aggressions can assist educators to develop a teaching/ learning plan to address this issue and ensure that the school is inclusive for all students, including students with disability.  This table reduces an extremely complex issue to a simplistic one, but it is starting point. The table contains terms utilised within disability studies that readers may not be familiar with including:
Ableism: Beliefs that devalue and discriminate against people with disability.
Reverse ableism: Believing that people with disability receive advantages, entitlements or special treatment that oppress those without disability.
Privilege: Having an unearned benefit or advantage in society due to your identity (in this case, ableness).
The following handout, arranged as a table of information (Handout 2), may be used in individual (e.g., staff supervision and professional development meetings) or group settings (e.g., staff meeting, professional learning sessions). However a capable facilitator is required to create an environment in which participants feel safe to participate in reflection and discussion. It can be used as the basis for an exploration with staff (and students and families) about the existence of microagressions at their school. The right column of the table (strategies) is purposely designed with check boxes so readers can mark the strategies that are active and identify those that need to be prioritised and actioned. 

Handout 2: A Summary of Disability Microaggressions in Schools

More Information

The bulk of the research and literature on microaggressions is applied to race, but it can be applied to any marginalized group including students with disability.  Here are websites, documents and references for further reading:
Keller, R.M. & Galgay, C.E. (2010) Microaggressive Experiences of People with Disabilities in Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestations, Dynamics and Impact New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons
The Mighty is a digital community that focuses on health and disability. This is a link to the article ‘Disability Microaggressions: How to Respond’.
University of Washington: Centre for Teaching and Learning. This is a link to the article ‘Addressing Microaggressions in the Classroom’.


This tool was written by Dr Leanne Longfellow, Director of Inclusive Education Planning and edited by JFA Purple Orange. Leanne presents researched based professional learning to support teachers, assistants, other professionals and parents on inclusive practice https://inclusiveeducationplanning.com.au/


1 Pierce, C. (1970). Offensive mechanisms. In F. B. Barbour (Ed.), The Black seventies (pp. 265–282). Boston, MA: Porter Sargent
2 Sue, D.W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
3 Wong-Padoongpatt, G., Zane, N., Sumie Okazaki, & Saw, A. (2017). Decreases in Implicit Self-Esteem Explain the Racial Impact of Microaggressions Among Asian Americans. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 64(5), 574–583. 
4 Maycock, E. (2016). Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
5 Suárez-Orozco, C., Casanova, S., Martin, M., Katsiaficas, D., Cuellar, V., Smith, N. A., & Dias, S. I. (2015). Toxic Rain in Class: Classroom Interpersonal Microaggressions. Educational Researcher, 44(3), 151-160.  
6 Kanter, J. W., Williams, M.T., Kuczynski, A.M., et al. (2017). A Preliminary Report on the Relationship between Microaggressions against Black People and Racism among White College Students. Race and Social Problems, 9, 291–299. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12552-017-9214-0