Teaching Now: Learning About (Dis)ability in History – An Inquiry for Elementary Students


This brief unit plan and teaching guide was developed by Dr. John Bickford, Professor of Social Studies/History Education at Eastern Illinois University and Editor-in-Chief of The Councilor: A Journal of the Social Studies, in collaboration with Citizen U. The plan, developed in conjunction with this (Dis)ability History primary source set, includes teaching notes and is targeted to early and upper elementary students.


America’s history of safeguarding the civil liberties of citizens with disabilities has been problematic, at best.¹ Folks with disabilities are a sizeable portion of public school students and the American population. They deserve equitable access, support, and treatment just like Americans of marginalized races, ethnicities, sexualities, and identities.

Common social studies resources, however, overlook or underemphasize (dis)ability in history and children’s and young adult literature often provide incomplete pictures of notable figures such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Helen Keller and helpmeets and advocates Eleanor Franklin and Anne Sullivan. Primary sources, therefore, can help fill such historical gaps while enabling students to examine context and significance.

For further information, read Dr. Bickford’s article, “Nothing about Us without Us: Teaching about (Dis)ability in the Early Grades”.² For access, contact him.


Students—particularly young children learning about the world and their place in it—easily recognize common differences and (dis)abilities among classmates. This guided inquiry situates students to consider the (dis)abilities they see and do not see, both in history and today. The sources and strategies mix reading, writing, and thinking with history, civics, and social and emotional learning to spark, scaffold, and sustain students’ interests. This interdisciplinary format flexibly fits common elementary schedules though these texts and tasks can be extended to middle and high school, too.

If your curriculum currently doesn’t include the teaching of disability history, consider implementing this mini-unit during testing down time or as a supplemental end-of-the-year activity.


Consider starting with Amy Hayes’s (2017) Disability Rights Movement or Deborah Kent’s (1996) The Disability Rights Movement, which each contextualize the era of advocacy for citizens with disabilities. Quality non-fiction texts include Educational Resources Information Center’s Clearinghouse on Disabilities and Gifted Education and Southern Poverty Law Center (1997) Starting Small: Teaching Tolerance in Preschool and the Early-Grades offer general resources and current research. Diana Carson’s (2013) Ed Roberts: Father of Disability Rights emphasizes an oft-overlooked historical figure. The Awesome Miss Seeds, written by Dolores Escobar and Sandra Radoff’s (2016), chronicles Corinne Seeds’ struggles with hearing and seeing as well as her successes as a teacher and professor. Extraordinary People with Disabilities (Kent & Quinlan, 1996) and People with Disabilities (Sanders & Myers, 1998) offer chapters about different people’s disability-based experiences.

Books featuring people of color or non-Americans are essential to every classroom. Laurie Ann Thompson’s (2015) Emmanuel’s Dream: The True Story of Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah details how a boy born with a severely deformed leg bicycles Ghana to spark education and equity. In Knots on a Counting Rope (Martin & Archambault, 1997), Boy-Strength-of-Blue-Horses, a Navajo child, learns about the world in spite of his blindness. Adrianna Morganelli’s (2016) Rick Hansen: Improving Life for People with Disabilities depicts how the Canadian Paralympian circled the world to advocate for others while in his wheelchair.

Fiction helps students consider big ideas. Dusti Bowling’s (2017) Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus, Betsy Byars’s (1970) Newbery-award winning The Summer of the Swans, Nie Jun’s (2018) My Beijing: Four Stories of Everyday Wonder reveal—in startlingly different ways—the power of and possibilities for children with disabilities.

Educators should be conscious of students’ cognitive, physical, social, and emotional struggles. Carol and Donald Carrick’s (1985) Stay Away from Simon!, Esther Watson’s (1996) Talking to Angels, Cushla Brown’s (2019) Born This Way, Laura Rankin’s (1996) The Handmade Alphabet, and Lindsey McDivitt’s (2018) Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story collectively feature an array of different (dis)abilities. Teachers might appreciate Tricia Brown’s (1996) Someone Special, Just Like You or Shilo Berry’s (2019) Happiness, where disability is incidental, humanity is central, and happiness is untethered to ability.

For secondary sources, teachers might spark intertextual connections by asking the following questions:

  • What did you learn from this text?
  • How is this text similar to other sources?
  • How is this text different from other sources?
  • Why is this text important?


In addition to the thinking prompts provided in the source set, Primary Source Learning: (Dis)ability History, when analyzing primary sources, students might consider the creator (What do you know about the source creator? Why was this written/made?); context (When was this source made? How do you know? What do you know about the time period?); audience (Was this source written to a single person [like a letter], the public [like a speech], to oneself [like a diary entry], or to another audience?); and impact (What did the author hope the audience would do or believe after reading/viewing the source?). Several suggestions for text- and visual-specific prompts are listed below.

Text Prompts

  • What type of document is this? (letter, journal, interview, etc.)
  • What do you know about the author of the document?
  • Who was the author speaking to with the document?
  • Why did the author write this document?
  •  Why is this document important?
  • What questions do you have?

Image Prompts

  • What kind of document is this (photo, art, map, something else)?
  • What details do you notice?
  • What might be missing from this picture?
  • Why was this source created?
  • What did the creator want the audience to think or feel after viewing this source?
  • What questions do you have?


The sources referenced here can be found in this (Dis)ability History source set.

  • The button (Source 1) and bumper sticker (Source 2) illustrate advocacy by and for individuals with disabilities. Activists—as well as their messaging, tactics, and elected allies—are depicted in photographs and accompanying descriptions (Sources 3, 4). These sources illustrate how advocacy was not effective quickly nor easily, which combats the presentism and chronological ethnocentrism—two common historical misrepresentations—widespread in narratives that do not detail the struggle.
  • Students can contemplate how people confronted disability. President Franklin Roosevelt, who initiated the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP), which became the March of Dimes, might be a logical starting point (Source 5). The statue represents an homage to the president that hints at but does not provide direct evidence of his disability (Source 6). Decades before Roosevelt’s presidency, his wife Eleanor addressed the poor treatment given to sailors who suffered shell shock and physical disabilities. Source 7, whose length can be cut and language changed, highlights Mrs. Roosevelt’s humanizing military protocol for injured or incapacitated veterans.
  • Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan both overcame childhood disability throughout their intertwined adult lives. Anne Sullivan’s letter to Alexander Graham Bell—inventor, engineer, and philanthropist—revealed attentive, effective instruction in Keller’s early stages of learning (Source 8). [Note: teachers may want to consider providing a typed transcript of the source.] Similarly, Keller’s telegram to Bell disclosed her own advocacy for other disabled citizens (Source 9). Students can also uncover, as well, how ordinary people responded to disability. Ruth Sienkiewicz-Mercer shared her breakthrough moment as she induced the staff to recognize her (cognitive) abilities, not simply her (physical) disabilities (Source 10). Meg Kocher, like Sienkiewicz-Mercer, refused to tolerate indifference or silence from others (Source 11).


This unit is organized around common elementary curricular schedules, which often include Reading, Writing, and Social Studies classes. Middle and high school students could do similar tasks in far less time.

Day 1: Spark Inquiry

  • First, pose the compelling question for students to consider: How do people experience ability differently?
  • Offer short summaries of different books and then allow elementary students to explore them.
  • Encourage children to read back covers of all the books to gauge interest and skim a few pages to determine each text’s difficulty, before requesting three-to-five specific books.
  • After students turn in their individual book requests, organize cooperative-learning groups based on students’ requests and reading successes (and struggles). Supplement any of the selected books by integrating accessible primary sources.

Days 2-4: Dig Deeper into the Sources

For an interdisciplinary unit, intertwine Reading, Writing, and Social Studies classes by featuring close reading, text-based writing, and historical thinking tasks on Days Two, Three, and Four. This three-step process can be repeated during Reading, Writing, and Social Studies within elementary school, or during single-day activities in a middle or high school. Remember, though, to use discretion in source selection, as students cannot examine all the suggested primary and secondary sources suggested over a three-day period.

  • During Reading class, students read independently before discussing their books within literature groups. Spark intertextual connections by asking students to respond to the following questions in a notebook:
    • How is this source similar to others?
    • Why is this text important?
  • During Social Studies, students analyze a new primary source first independently, then in small groups, and afterwards with the whole class. If students have little experience analyzing primary sources, model the process for them. You may have students use the See, Infer, Wonder graphic organizer to help them before responding to the thinking prompts. Alternatively, you may have them use the Draw and Tell graphic organizers (horizontal or vertical). Different graphic organizers provide multiple pathways for students to show what they learned; teachers can adjust them, as needed, for their students.
  • During Writing class, students use their notes and completed graphic organizers to help them articulate conclusions about the sources in writing.

Day 5: Build Understandings

Students articulate an answer to the compelling question—How do people experience ability differently?—based on their secondary source readings and primary source analyses. This expository essay serves as a point of synthesis as students fuse their understandings through text-based claims with revision. Further, the writing process provides students a product to share with folks outside their class.

Days 6-7: Connect and Act

There are numerous options for students to make connections and take action and engage in civic dialogue. The pathways feature historical or civic issues and are grounded on evidence-based communication, as historians and social scientists do. Each pathway allows for hand- or computer-drawn, talk-to-text transcriptions, and other accommodations for diverse abilities, experiences, interests, and skills. The key, regardless of the option chosen, is to spark students curiosity and engagement.

  • Children could write letters to a specific audience. Authors and librarians are likely receptive audiences for children. Children can ask authors why certain aspects, (dis)abilities, or struggles are emphasized, minimized, or excluded. Learners might benefit if a librarian explained how they ensured equitable representation during reading time. A letter to an author or librarian explaining what they learned about (dis)ability in history—an expository writing pathway—connects students with the authors who produce, and the librarians who curate, books.
  • Students will find school administration and counselors approachable and informed about (dis)ability and are ideal audiences. Students might explore the physical layout of the building(s) with eyes for concerns—such as, the distance between the school’s entrance and elevator or the accessibility of different playground equipment—in order to write an informed letter encouraging accessibility or new equipment. Children can ask counselors how they assist students struggling with mental health or experiencing emotional turmoil or different teachers how they help students overcome struggles or maximize talents. This persuasive writing—whether to the principal about what to purchase or in response to the counselors’ steps to assist—connects students with administrators who manage, as well as counselors who advocate for the mental health of those within, the children’s school.
  • A class collection, in edited book format, might be placed in the school or local library. The teacher could develop a cross-grade collaboration with older English or history students who could offer peer-review feedback. Older students could also be an audience for these youngsters.
  • Family or community members are ideal audiences for children. Students might consider their favorite character, the most poignant moment in, or an interesting concept learned from a secondary and/or primary source. Students, then, might create dialogue for a scene in which they interact with this historical or modern figure. This narrative writing enables children to creatively teach family members about others’ (dis)abilities. But remember, while creativity enables students to show what they know in a novel way it can also be problematic. Be careful to guide students away from certain roles so that children do not recreate an antagonist’s mental landscape for dramatic effect that might trivialize suffering and to ensure all lived experiences are treated respectfully.

¹ Zames Fleisher, D. & Zames, F. (2011). The Disability Rights Movement: From Charity to Confrontation. Temple University Press.
² John H. Bickford & Dalani A. Little (2022) “Nothing about Us without Us: Teaching about (Dis)ability in the Early Grades,” The Social Studies, 113:1, 1-16, DOI:

Related resources