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Closing the Gap in Civics for Students with Disabilities in Classrooms from K-12

Published on Wed, 09/08/2021

Smiling young student in wheelchair with teen by school bus.
Full inclusion of students with disabilities in civics will require that schools prioritize civics for all.

Mind the Gap

Students gain knowledge and skills in civics and history when schools provide effective instruction and when students have opportunities to express their voice and to engage in activities like service-learning. Yet American education is falling far short–in elementary grades in particular–and especially for students with disabilities. 

Massachusetts and other states made some progress in recent years, increasing the focus on civics education. Yet elementary schools still lag. “Elementary social studies teachers were less likely than secondary teachers to indicate an emphasis on practices explicitly related to civic education.” (Hamilton et al, 2020). Emerging America’s own 2019 survey of Massachusetts teachers found that even in the most active year, fifth grade, less than 25% of schools teach social studies every day. A 2020 study commissioned by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) confirmed the lack of implementation of elementary civics education. 

The 2020 DESE study found further that schools systemically (even if unintentionally) exclude students with disabilities from civics lessons: “Qualitative interviews revealed a trend in which students missed social studies because they were scheduled to be pulled out for interventions (e.g., IEP services) during social studies instruction.” (Tichnor-Wagner, 2020). The study found similar exclusion of students receiving English as a Second Language (ESL) instruction. (Note that the study did not explicitly seek to examine disparities related to ability status.) The study found that the students most often miss civics instruction because they lack equal access: 

  • “Those are the ones who are ELLs or ESL students or students with special needs. We really try to integrate the classroom as much as we can, but it’s not up to me who comes in and who goes out. It’s up to the administration.” - 5th grade teacher from high needs school district
  • “Other students who are not a part of that [civics] class . . . are rather in a life skills kind of program.” - Middle school teacher


Such exclusion is doubly problematic for students with disabilities. A core goal for all learners, and particularly for students with disabilities, is to become effective self-advocates. Participation in civics education is a vital part of that. Students with disabilities also need to learn to overcome the additional barriers to civic life that they will face as adults, starting with access to the vote. Researchers from Rutgers have found that people with disabilities voted in national elections at about 6% less than people without disabilities. 

To be clear, the study also confirmed that many teachers, especially at the secondary level, strive to implement effective, multi-sided strategies to engage and support ALL their students in civics. I can attest to the sincere efforts by the many teachers I have met through our Accessing Inquiry for Students with Disabilities courses. With support from researchers and from dedicated teachers, we can now pass on the broad strategies (including Universal Design for Learning) and a rich variety of specific strategies that can ensure inclusive civics education. 

Closing the Gap

As the teachers quoted above point out, policy makers and administrators must prioritize civics education generally and inclusion of students with disabilities in particular. Mass DESE has begun efforts to strengthen support for inclusive civic engagement.

  • “We are excited about, committed to, and looking forward to continuing to provide resources and opportunities that support educators across the Commonwealth in planning for and implementing inclusive civics learning opportunities, including civics action projects in Grade 8 and high school.” - Kathryn Gabriele, History/Social Science Content Support Specialist, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education 


Professional development works. High quality curriculum works. Emerging America offers both. Partner organizations such as the Right Question Institute, Maryland Humanities, and Engaging Congress at Indiana University are making serious efforts to support inclusion of students with disabilities. 

Earlier in 2021, Emerging America and the Learning Disabilities Association of America published a Disability History and Civics Extension to the 2021 Educating for American Democracy Roadmap. The extension offers particular approaches to infuse Disability History across the curriculum and to more effectively include students with disabilities. The Library of Congress recently approved work by Emerging America to develop a K-12 Disability History curriculum. As these initiatives ripen, there is much that any teacher can do. 

Emerging America is proud to have aided the launch of a powerful, effective, and growing K-5 free Civics and History curriculum: History’s Mysteries: Historical Inquiry for Elementary Classrooms. History’s Mysteries employs numerous strategies that can effectively support elementary students with disabilities. This curriculum makes it possible for EVERY elementary teacher to effectively teach history and civics. This fall, Emerging America offers both introductory webinars and advanced professional development on History’s Mysteries led by the authors, Kelley Brown and Laurie Risler. (Laurie teaches teacher education courses in Special Education.) 

Emerging America offers multiple courses to support effective teaching of students with disabilities and of English learners in History, Civics, and Social Science. See course descriptions and find registration information. Funded by the Library of Congress, nearly 650 teachers have completed Accessing Inquiry courses. Building on long experience in service-learning, civic engagement, Emerging America will offer a new one-day workshop, “Make Your Civic Engagement Inclusive.” Emerging America’s Accessing Inquiry clearinghouse provides extensive strategies and tools for inclusion, including a portal to primary sources and teacher-written lesson plans. 

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Rich Cairn

Civics and Social Studies Curriculum and Instruction Specialist, Collaborative for Educational Services
Rich Cairn founded Emerging America in 2006, which features the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources program at the Collaborative for Educational Services, and the National Endowment for the Humanities Landmarks of American History program, "Forge of Innovation: The Springfield Armory and the Genesis of American Industry." The Accessing Inquiry clearinghouse, supported by the Library of Congress TPS program promotes full inclusion of students with disabilities and English Learners in civics and social studies education.