On left is a circle labeled "society". Inside the circle is a person, with arrows and the word "barriers" all around him. On right is a diagram showing that the three "social barriers" are environment (inaccessible buildings, language, services, communication), attitudes (prejudice, stereotyping, discrimination), and organizations (inflexible procedures and practices).
Sketch of the social model of disability highlighting the environmental, attitudinal, and organization barriers to access. Retrieved from: https://www.nccj.org/ableism

As I challenge us to think about our structures and systems in academia that promote ableism (NCCJ, n.d.) often under the guise of rigor (Ketcham 2022), perhaps introducing some ways to enact change would be helpful. I do know that moving toward Universal Design and Universal Design of Learning is a goal we should strive toward, and I simultaneously want to encourage us to implement steps now that promote positive change. Our campus has adopted the Act-Belong-Commit framework to promote a mentally healthy campus (Donovan and Anwar-McHenry 2014). It is evidence-based and simple. Research has shown that mentally healthy people engage in activities or a range of activities (Act—do something), they engage in activities with others that build connections and relationships and promote a sense of belonging (Belong—do something with someone), and they engage in activities that are meaningful or contribute to their communities, giving them a sense of purpose (Commit—do something that matters). As I have been engaging with this framework in and out of the classroom, I have also recognized how it can be a framework to positively move students toward the outcomes we want to see in classrooms. Stay with me here as I try to explain.

Let’s acknowledge that our students may not be coming into our institutions with the skills to thrive in our classroom. This “deficit” in preparation can be for many reasons the least of which is likely student motivation or lack of care. The systems and structures of education benefit some learners over others (APA 2012), and students and families have little agency over this. We, as institutions of higher education who want to be inclusive, equitable, and diverse, MUST create new systems and structures to bridge these gaps. Just to reinforce, it is not by employing weed-out strategies! If we align to the tenets of the Act-Belong-Commit framework, what Actions can occur in the classroom to give students coming from a range of pre-collegiate experiences a way to engage that meets them where they are? Can we give them a range of activities that helps them build the skills foundational to our course material? Perhaps we can share a list of resources so students can learn or review foundational material for the course as needed and normalize this as part of your course by allowing time for students or groups of students to engage in these. Or perhaps we can adopt a format where students can move through different modules at different paces. Reminder, in UDL this is not a one-size-fits-all lesson, but a range of activities they can engage in to learn that skill (Act). Some good examples include flipped classroom approaches, decoding the disciplines, and problem-centered pedagogy (see Sirena Hargrove-Leak’s underwater robotics project, as an example) to name a few. These examples use approaches that have different entry points, help learners through the more complex material, and center learners as they identify meaningful ways to solve problems and learn content.

When students feel empowered to engage with course material, they start finding a place to belong in the course and curriculum (Belong). You might strengthen this by creating opportunities for small groups to do some of these activities, modules, and assignments together, helping grow that sense of belonging in our classrooms with our content. I encourage framing these groups to normalize students coming in with very different background experiences and to center the strengths and knowledge they do bring to the group. As students find their place in the classroom, they begin to integrate content, knowledge, and skills and connect these to their experiences, other courses they have taken, and how it will benefit them in their career path.

As students identify how they can apply these skills in ways that are meaningful to them, honor the experiences they bring to our classrooms, and build pathways and connections to their future, they are more likely to be motivated to give time to learning more (Commit). If we create spaces where students are more bought in and deeply connected, then we as instructors can start to intentionally ramp up challenge and see exciting outcomes. It might not be a traditional example of rigor in your discipline, but maybe it will pull students in and lead to more interdisciplinary applications as they journey through their college curriculum.

I want to note here, I am not emphasizing this as a process primarily for disabled students; it will support many students from any identity. That is the point. Some students won’t need any of these opportunities, many will need some, and some will need all. It is about normalizing the fact that we all might need different practice to engage in the course content. I have drafted an example of this that I use in my classroom in the section below. I have been teaching this course for multiple years and as I integrate the Act-Belong-Commit framework more intentionally I have found that students are more easily able to integrate the values, content, and practices of the discipline into their careers. This is the ultimate goal of a liberal arts education—graduating students that embrace learning and integrate it into their now and their next, impacting the world and the greater good.

I want to leave you with some additional food for thought on this topic. We do this ramping up of engagement in certain contexts relatively seamlessly within the current systems and structures: undergraduate research. We assume students entering into research with us do not have a robust background in research.** We scaffold experiences and practices (Act) to bring them into our labs and our research (Belong) and prepare them to present and publish in public domains (Commit). This is mentoring undergraduate research with a scaffolded practice for success (rigor) and centering positive mental health (Hall and Ketcham 2021).

**Do we have an inclusion and equity problem in the current recruiting practices for undergraduate research? 100%. We must be mindful of pipelines to research and not just open pathways to the “top” students who have only demonstrated their intellect by excelling in our already biased systems (ah, we will need to talk about this sometime in a future post). Please start with this significant body of CEL work in this area by Dr. Buffie Longmire-Avital. **

Act-Belong-Commit applied to my NeuroMotor Control Course (Exercise Science Required, Neuroscience Elective):

Background: I have intentionally flattened pre-requisites for this course to be more inclusive of students from multiple disciplines (psychology, exercise science, biology, chemistry, dance science, public health) at different stages of their college career (first year through graduating seniors).

Goal (Commit): I want students to be excited about the value of understanding how the brain controls movement and appreciate motor matters – to be able to apply content to their coursework, careers, and lives.

Practice (Act): What content do you need to learn or freshen up on as we start the course?

  • Some students have little theory experience and must learn to grapple with content that doesn’t have right and wrong answers.
  • Some students have limited anatomy or physiology background and so must learn and practice terminology to understand the neuromotor system organization.

Community (Belong): Who has similar holes in knowledge, who has this background knowledge – team up!

  • They work in groups of people to learn from each other and see others who also do not have that background.
  • We create an environment where we help each other and normalize having or not having background in the material as a biproduct of the systems, not the individual.
  • I let them try the material again (retake tests) if they struggle, because the goal is to learn it. Many learners take advantage of this in my classroom. After they “master” the material, they often engage in deeper and more energized ways, a sign to me they found a place to belong in the content and classroom.


American Psychological Association, Presidential Task Force on Educational Disparities. 2012. “Ethnic and Racial Disparities in Education: Psychology’s Contributions to Understanding and Reducing Disparities.” http://www.apa.org/ed/resources/racial-disparities.aspx.

Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, Harvard University. n.d. “Flipped Classrooms.” Accessed March 11, 2022. https://bokcenter.harvard.edu/flipped-classrooms.

Donovan, Robert J., and Julia Anwar-McHenry. 2014. “Act-Belong-Commit: Lifestyle Medicine for Keeping Mentally Healthy.” American Journal of Lifestyle Medicinehttps://doi/10.1177/1559827614536846.

Hargrove-Leak, Sirena. 2007. “Underwater Robots: A Model for Interdisciplinary Engaged Learning at Elon.” https://www.elon.edu/u/academics/catl/wp-content/uploads/sites/126/2017/07/hargrove-leakcatlscholarproposal-1.pdf.

Hall, Eric E., and Caroline J. Ketcham. 2021. “Mentoring with Mental Health in Mind.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. November 2, 2021. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/mentoring-with-mental-health-in-mind.

Ketcham, Caroline J. 2022. “Ableism in Academia: Is Rigor Code for Ableism?” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. January 25, 2022. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/ableism-in-academia-is-rigor-code-for-ableism.

Longmire-Avital, Buffie. Center for Engaged Learning Scholar, Blog posts by Buffie Longmire-Avital. Accessed March 11, 2022. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/programs/cel-scholars/buffie-longmire-avital/.

NCCJ. n.d. “Ableism.” Accessed March 11, 2022. https://www.nccj.org/ableism.

Caroline J. Ketcham is a professor of exercise science at Elon University, and she is the 2021-2023 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Ketcham’s CEL scholar project focuses on equity in high-impact practices (HIPs) for neurodiverse and physically disabled student populations.

How to Cite this Post

Ketcham, Caroline J. 2022. “Ableism in Academia: Ways to Build Habits of Action in Our Classrooms.” Center for Engaged Learning (blog), Elon University. March 15, 2022. https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/ableism-in-academia-ways-to-build-habits-of-action-in-our-classrooms.