Smart Is a Costume That Not Everyone Is Allowed to Wear

By Julia Lewis posted 02-01-2024 09:17 AM


Smart Is a Costume That Not Everyone Is Allowed to Wear: A dis/abled educator’s reflections on how whiteness and ableism shape our expectations

by Autumn Wilke


How do you recognize and define smartness? Who decides what a smart student looks, sounds, and acts like in educational settings?

I have worked in higher education since 2009 and the bulk of my professional experience has been in offices supporting academic success or advancing access for students with dis/abilities. These roles, along with my own identity and experiences as a dis/abled learner and educator have often led to me questioning the expected, normative, or traditional way of approaching an activity or problem. In my work this has led to challenging ideas about how a task must be performed and instead encouraging focus on the outcome or product, regardless of how someone achieved it.  For example, many courses include a culminating assignment that includes a presentation of information to classmates. I have seen many assignment descriptions or syllabi that have gone on to specify in great detail that the presentation must be presented in front of the class, in a specific number of minutes, without a script, and in a particular format—without exception. When I engage faculty to ask about the goal of the assignment, most often they indicate it is to give students an opportunity to share something they have learned and to have their peers learn from them. Nothing in this goal requires a memorized lecture style presentation from the front of the room but because this is how we have been socialized this is often the only imagined possibility. In reality, a student can easily share their learning with their peers without standing in the front of the room, with a pre-recording of their voice over a slide deck, or in a variety of other formats which may actually achieve the stated goal better for students with a range of dis/abilities including social anxiety, speech dysfluency, and fatigue.

You may be wondering, what does this have to do with smartness? K-12 scholars in dis/ability critical race studies (DisCrit) have argued our ability to recognize and define smartness is constrained by systems of whiteness and ableism. Just like how socialization and expectation has limited our perceptions of what constitutes a presentation. In 2019, as I began to develop the research question that would eventually guide my doctoral dissertation on dis/abled apparentness, my reading focused heavily on how race and systems of racism have been used to identify or exclude individuals from dis/abled communities, legal protections, and educational supports.  I was particularly struck by the ways identification of learning dis/abilities were used following Brown v. Board to legally continue racialized segregation, and I began to read educational articles about dis/ability that discussed smartness or intelligence. I evaluated these articles and their findings through the lens of Leonardo and Broderick’s 2011 concept of smartness as a form of property that conveys rights to some while excluding others. Higher education is focused on the development of individuals and both access to higher education and success within institutions relies on perceptions of smartness and intelligence. “Constructing Smartness and Intelligence: A Content Analysis of Postsecondary Disability Literature,” my article in the current issue of The Educational Forum, is the result of my attempts to trace the intertwined lineages of racism and ableism in historical constructions of smartness and intelligence and use it to evaluate how concepts of smartness are used in higher education research.  

About Autumn Wilke

Autumn Wilke is a dis/abled scholar practitioner in higher education whose research interests include apparentness of dis/ability, the relationship between racism and ableism, and experiences of dis/abled college students. She earned her doctoral degree from Colorado State University and is a co-author of the book Disability in Higher Education: A Social Justice Approach.


Autumn Wilke wrote an article in the current issue of The Educational Forum, “Constructing Smartness and Intelligence: A Content Analysis of Postsecondary Disability Literature." It , along with all issues of The Education Forum are available at a discounted rate with your KDP membership. Subscribe to The Educational Forum now!