Exploring conceptions of disability held by Anishinaabe secondary school students

After a century of wielding schooling as a tool to disenfranchise, devalue, and demonise Indigenous populations, Canada’s First Nations communities were granted self-governance over education. In the wake of decolonising education, however, special education programming remains largely unreformed as a vestige of the global North’s hegemony in schooling. This, in many ways, renders First Nations peoples with disabilities the most vulnerable in this marginalised group. Conceptions of disability are framed within cultural values. However, special education programming commonly conceptualises disability through the global North lens of industrialism, individualism, and secularism. Resultantly, my research seeks to deeply contexutalised conceptions of disability held by Anishinaabe secondary school students for the purpose of informing culturally-responsive school programming. In exploring Anishinaabe conceptions of disability, I draw on southern disabilities theories which in an effort to deeply contextualise understandings of disability within complex postcolonial environments.

This topic was examined through a six-month multisite case study in Canada’s subarctic. It involved a First Nations-operated school servicing six First Nations communities. Drawing from the tenets for indigenous methodologies, my research design encouraged community contextualisation, consultation, and participation. Honouring Indigenous knowledges means relying on localised knowledges for my conceptual framework, data collection tools, and dissemination activities. My participants frequently expressed their lived experiences by using the Anishinaabe symbol of the Medicine Wheel. This symbol frames wellness as balancing the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual aspects of individuals and communities. Disability was considered an imbalance in one or more of these areas. Regularly, my Anishinaabe participants considered systemic inequalities and ongoing settler oppression as causes for various types of disabilities. In response to disabilities, the students participated in a myriad of spiritual practices. As such, culturally-appropriate special education programming for Anishinaabe students, seems to include Anishinaabe spiritual practices and addressing historical trauma within the school setting.

Duration: 2016-ongoing

Funding body: Cambridge Trust, British Association of International and Comparative Education (BAICE) Fieldwork scholarship, and Gonville and Caius College bursary


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