Role Modelling to Break Down Barriers

How society perceives disability is a crucial aspect that affects both the quality of life for individuals with disabilities and the moral values of society itself.

Holding negative attitudes towards disability can disempower individuals with disabilities, leading to their exclusion and social isolation (Babik and Gardner, 2021), especially in terms of accessing multiple sets of opportunities such as education, stable income, employment, housing, welfare or social insurance benefits, citizenship, civil rights, security, justice, mobility, social and political participation and information and communication (Jongenelen, 2018).

In particular, the experiences that children have in school play a vital role in shaping their self-perception, including their academic self-concept. Students who struggle significantly with academics are considered to be at higher risk for having a negative self-concept and experiencing negative consequences as a result. Among this group, students with specific learning disorders (SLD) have been of particular concern (Elbaum & Vaughn, 2001: 304).

However, teachers and parents can play an essential role in supporting students with SLD and promoting a positive self-concept. One way to achieve this goal is by providing encouragement and creating a supportive environment for these students. In this line, awareness raising and empowerment for both, students with SLD and those with none, can be realised by using role models, who can serve as a way to influence students with SLD in a positive way.

The importance of role models in building self-esteem...

A role model is “an individual who inspires through personal contact and observability [and] can personify behaviours that build self-esteem, most rooted in relationship” (MacCallum & Beltman, 2002: 8). This way, role models can reassure children with SLD and challenge stereotypes, demonstrating that disability does not mean inability. By offering social and emotional support, role models can inspire them to achieve goals that may have seemed impossible. Their influence has the potential to transform a person’s mindset and provide the encouragement needed to take the first step toward their aspirations. As a result, students with learning disorders can gain the confidence to advocate for their own rights and preferences, since seeing someone who has overcome similar challenges can increase morale and serve as a valuable success story.

Furthermore, it is important to recognise that individuals with disabilities have a valuable contribution to make to society and that their experiences and perspectives can enrich the lives of others. By creating a culture of acceptance and understanding, we can work towards a more equitable and inclusive society for all. This can begin by breaking down stigmas and stereotypes that falsely suggest that SLD limits individuals’ abilities to perform and succeed.

Providing role models can inspire and motivate those who struggle and empower them to become agents of change in their own lives and communities. Jongenelen’s study (2018) about role modelling in disability advocacy in Zambia identified four positive outcomes of this mechanism; role models (1) address negative self-esteem in youth with disabilities, (2) encourage a proactive attitude, (3) strengthen their ability to speak out, and (4) enhance group solidarity.

... and building a more inclusive society

Moreover, by promoting an inclusive environment that values diversity and individual strengths, teachers can create a positive environment for all students. In this environment, SLD students can see their unique strengths and abilities as assets rather than limitations. This shift in perspective can help them develop a more positive self-concept and overcome the challenges they face.

In these regards, our project, Role Models, aims to build on this direction by collecting success stories that not only promote confidence, inclusion, and diversity in the classroom but also accurately portray role models with disabilities. By focusing on ability rather than disability, our project seeks to enhance inclusion and understanding while promoting literacy and digital competence. Through these efforts, we hope to create a more equitable and inclusive learning environment for all students.

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Illustration of Max Fischer on Pexels:

Babik, I. & Gardner, E. (2021). Factors Affecting the Perception of Disability: A Developmental Perspective. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 1-26.

Elbaum, B. & Vaughn, S. (2001). School-Based Interventions to Enhance the Self-Concept of Students with Learning Disabilities: A Meta-Analysis. The Elementary School Journal, 101(3), 303–329.

Jongenelen, R. (2018). Exploring Role Models in Disability Advocacy: the Case of the Young Voices Programme in Zambia [Master’s Thesis, Universiteit Leiden].

MacCallum, J. & Beltman, S. (2002). Role Models for Young People – What Makes an Effective Role Model Program? Australian Clearinghouse for Youth Studies.


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