On the ABLEISM of Participation Marks

I was recently involved in an online discussion that has me considering that the common practice or focus on participation is often stacked against people who might participate or engage differently.

When I encounter a situation where I am graded upon my participation, I generally receive exceptional marks because I am good at speaking and writing and comfortable with sharing in a group. I experience this as something I can most often do – in the moment, and in class, with little or no preparation. Also, engaging in this way actually assists me in learning and processing… so for me this has value.

It is not extra work or an additional assignment.

I basically have to just show up and do what works for me as a learner.

But what about the people who do not find participating in this way helpful to their process of learning or aligned with their way of interacting with others?

And what about the people we might have in our classes – for whom just showing up might at times be an issue of accessibility?

What do we read as a student’s commitment and participation (or perceived lack thereof) if their attendance is inconsistent, or if they are not comfortable or able to speak in front of (or with) others, or if they perhaps do not feel safe to share?

It is important to consider the ableism inherent in our conceptualization of participation, and ask, are we creating assignments of participatory accountability that are discriminatory to those who might engage with classmates or course materials differently?

It is unfair that when people do not participate in the traditional sense with ease or comfort, there is a tendency to layer on additional work or other processes of accountability.

And what about students who enroll in online or distributed learning programs for variety of reasons? Perhaps they find the classroom environment overwhelming. Perhaps they have limited personal resources that are drained away, due to fatigue, chronic pain, anxiety, trauma, or____ , and online curriculum offers them opportunity and access that allows them to focus on the curriculum and learning in a way that makes the most of their resources.

My experience with my son in distributed learning (distance education) programs, demonstrated that courses are often deliberately designed to reconcile a lack of class participation or face-to-face time with the teacher by increasing the amount of material to be covered. The instructors typically ensure accountability for this material with an increased number of assignments and written response requirements, with the result that online courses can often be more work and take more time than face-to-face classes.

But what if these students are enrolled in a distributed learning program because they need the accommodations and accessibility related to disability or… ??

And what if written expression is also difficult?

This is additionally unfair because students (like me) who can glide through with the existing measures do so with the privileged ease of participating or just showing up. I have noticed in my own classes that there is an ableist tendency for students and educators to be judgmental of those who don’t participate in traditionally defined ways. The inherent implication is that they are getting away with something, it is unfair, and their difference is some kind of an offence or manipulation that devalues the work and effort of those participating in commonly expected ways (though I have previously suggested that this is not actually work and may require little effort for some people).

So thus, I query, what is the value of measuring participation and who is it for?

Reframing Participation as Engagement

It is not reasonable that students are essentially being punished for not fitting into existing attitudes and values about participation. Perhaps we have defined participation too narrowly and too closely tied to traditional ideas about representing learning and understanding. I am curious about what might happen to our practice as educators (and as learners) if participation was reframed it as engagement with the topic or curriculum. And I am curious how we can represent or demonstrate engagement differently if we decline to add more writing or create additional social/speaking alternatives to somehow ‘prove’ or student participation.

If it is easy for me to demonstrate engagement, why should it be considered an injustice if we find an alternative that makes it easy for everyone?

Accessibility is not a pie to be shared.

It is not a threat to the privileged ease of my experience when things are made accessible for everyone.

Image: Photo of highway empty but for one vehicle far ahead, against a dramatic backdrop of the sun shining upon a beautiful cloudy horizon. To the right of the highway is smaller access road, with no vehicles upon it, and to the left are metal towers with powerlines. Text reads: “If it is easy for me to demonstrate engagement, why should it be considered an injustice if we find an alternative that makes it easy for everyone? Accessibility is not a pie to be shared. It is not a threat to the privileged ease of my experience when things are made accessible for everyone. ~ Leah Kelley”

It is interesting to consider and important to ask, ‘What are other ways we might explore engagement that do not increase written output or talking?’ 

Here are a few ideas:

  • make a video montage that can be shared and is reflective of the concepts being learned…
  • craft a single tweet or social media status about something that resonates
  • choose a favourite quote from a reading and match it to an image to represent it or to create a metaphor
  • create a meme or a visual (or find a pre-existing one) that captures something of interest related to the topic
  • make notations (electronic or written) on a reading that illustrate engagement with the ideas and text – including questions, wonderings, and connections… (for instance actually handing in a single notated page from an assigned reading is powerful formative assessment and reveals much about how the student is processing and understanding the material)
  • create short (one minute or less) pre-recorded audio or video presentations related to concepts – and also allow presentations to be pre-recorded
  • pose a question so that others might respond – and perhaps moderate it online
  • suggest a link for further reading from a blog or another relevant source
  • share a quote or image and a reflection on an article, reading, or related experience, by creating a postcard and having students share these electronically between classes. (Dr. Lynn Fels had students write a series of 7 reflective postcards throughout the Fall 2016 term in my Ed.D. program at Simon Fraser University. It built community and sensitivity to perspectives and experiences of other students that I might not have otherwise understood. This also allowed students to demonstrate engagement in an asynchronous time frame that worked for them.)
  • take a photo of visual notes and/or doodling or drawing while listening (I draw while I listen and as a Neurodivergent person it supports me in focusing and attending.)

As we examine ideas around accessibility and the ableism inherent in the way participation has been traditionally framed and graded, I expect we will come across other opportunities to creatively consider the representation and demonstration of student engagement.

If you have a additional suggestion, please feel welcome to add it to the comments below.


30 Days of Autism is a project designed to fight stigma, promote civil rights, and increase understanding and acceptance for those who process and experience the world differently.

© Leah Kelley, Thirty Days of Autism, (2018)

About Leah Kelley, Ed.D.

Leah Kelley, M.Ed, Ed.D., Writer, Consultant, Activist, Speaker, and Educator, working with Teacher Candidates at UBC. Authors blog: 30 Days of Autism. Projects support social understanding, Neurodiversity paradigm, Disability Justice, and connecting Disability Studies in Education(DSE)to Educational Practice. Twitter: @leah_kelley Facebook: 30 Days of Autism: Leah Kelley
This entry was posted in ableism, acceptance, ADD/ADHD, Disability, Distributed Learning, Educator, privilege, Visual Notes and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to On the ABLEISM of Participation Marks

  1. caelesti says:

    It’s been a while since I’ve been in a classroom environment but yes, I’ve at times lost points for not enough participation & oftentimes it had to do with what type was expected, especially if it was spontaneous. I like classroom discussions but many autistic folks & overlapping conditions (social anxiety, PTSD, or even just introverts) have great difficulty with it. Even more so if the participation was in group work. That’s one I hear about from many autistic folks is being punished/losing points/getting bad grades for not working well in a group, at many different grade levels. I can’t remember if this blog is oriented towards a particular level of education or if this is more general, as some of the autism blogs I follow talk more about elementary, some jr. high/high school & some university & folks writing from different countries with different educational systems.


  2. Thank you for this! I am writing a blog post about subtle forms of ableism in the classroom, and I agree that grading heavily or emphasizing participation in this manner is definitely a subtle form of ableism, and I like how you suggested alternative ways to participate that are more inclusive.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Samantha says:

    So helpful! Thank you for sharing these insights, Leah. I’ve been trying to find a way to contact you. I only have your old work email and I can’t find you phone number. If you want to get in touch, I’d love to connect.

    Liked by 1 person

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