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Recognizing Your Biases

As educators, it is important that we learn how our biases can impact our actions, language, and practices in classrooms and other learning environments, including how we interact with students and fellow educators with disabilities —both visible and non-apparent.

What Is Bias?

Bias comes in many forms and can often contribute to how even the most well-intentioned educators respond in their learning environment. Our preconceived notions and opinions can emerge through our language choice, teaching methods, grading practices, and accessibility practices and it can have a tremendous impact on our students’ learning and connection to school. That is why recognizing and understanding our biases is crucial.

To begin, it is important that we define bias—both implicit and explicit:

  • Implicit bias is the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner, which can be activated involuntarily without our awareness.
  • Explicit bias is a conscious preference or aversion toward a person or group of people, which results from deliberate thoughts that we can identify and communicate with others.

Bias can lead to feelings or attitudes toward other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, disability, gender, or appearance. Microaggressions, which are comments or actions that subtly and often unintentionally express a prejudice attitude toward a member of a marginalized group, are an outgrowth of implicit bias. They can be expressed as verbal, behavioral, or environmental slights and communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative viewpoints.

Why Is It Harmful?

As educators, we believe all our students—across race, place, socioeconomic status, religious preferences, language differences, and disability labels—deserve a fair and equitable public education. However, it is simply human nature that we tend to sort people into groups and have unconscious thoughts and preferences based on a range of characteristics. For example, a few of the most common types of implicit bias include:

  • Ageism, which discriminates against someone based on their age;
  • Sexism, which is discrimination or prejudice based on gender or sex; and
  • Ableism, where able-bodied individuals are viewed as normal and superior to those with a visible or non-apparent disability leading to discrimination and prejudice. 

Implicit bias can influence our actions, reactions, perceptions, and judgments, and it can result in unfavorable treatment of our peers and students. What we know for sure: No one is immune to suffering its effects, and discrimination and prejudice against people with disabilities are unfortunately quite common. For example, when we meet individuals with disabilities, we might see the individual’s disability before we see the individual; we might not use identity-first language and etiquette; and we might simply treat individuals with disabilities differently than we do with individuals without disabilities.

What Can We Do to Address Our Implicit Bias?

The first step in overcoming implicit bias is increasing our awareness of our own personal biases, thoughts, and feelings. By doing so, we can implement behavior changes that help us focus on seeing each person as an individual rather than sorting and grouping people into categories.

Once you have increased your awareness, you will be ready to take the necessary steps to limit and combat your biases. Here are some tips:

  • Be conscious of and question your decisions. Self-reflection is key to adjusting your perspective and being mindful. The American Bar Association offers a helpful list of questions to check your implicit disability biases. By treating your students with kindness and understanding, you lead by example.
  • Educate yourself. You can access resources, like Project Implicit, to uncover your implicit biases or participate in bias training. This can help teach you to act objectively and limit the influence that your biases have on your behavior.
  • Communicate about it and create systems to reduce it. It is important to hold yourself accountable as you work to consciously change your stereotypes. You can create a safe space for your peers and students by admitting that everyone is subject to implicit biases; it is how we take steps to combat them that matters.
  • Increase your exposure. Spend time with people who are different from you and become more inclusive to help counter any stereotypes you might have. You should do this inside and outside of your learning environments.

Interested in Learning More?

Project Implicit, a non-profit organization run by academics at multiple universities, offers the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to help uncover your implicit biases.

As you explore your own biases and stereotypes, do not feel ashamed by what you learn! We now know that everyone has unconscious biases. What’s important is that we are open to learning from it.

Resources for More Information

National Education Association

Great public schools for every student

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.