A commitment to action: the process of redistributing access and opportunity to be fair and just.

A way of being: the state of being free of bias, discrimination, and identity-predictable outcomes and experiences.

Understanding Equity and Inequity (Certificate-Bearing)


An unfair distribution of material and non-material access and opportunity resulting in outcome and experience differences that are predictable by race, socioeconomic status, gender identity, home language, or other dimensions of identity.

Understanding Equity and Inequity (Certificate-Bearing)

According to the equity literacy framework, equity is not merely about giving every student what they need to succeed in an individual sense. This way of imagining equity obscures our responsibility to address institutional bias and inequity. Instead, equity is a process through which we ensure that policies, practices, institutional cultures, and ideologies are actively equitable, purposefully attending to the interests of the students and families to whose interests we have attended inequitably. By recognizing and deeply understanding these sorts of disparities, we prepare ourselves to respond effectively to inequity in the immediate term. We also strengthen our abilities to foster long-term change by redressing institutional and societal conditions that create everyday manifestations of inequity.

Equity Literacy Definition and Abilities | Equity Literacy Institute

This unit grapples with two possible concepts of fairness: an equality or “sameness” concept of fairness, and an equity or needs-based concept. It encourages pupils to question sameness-based understandings of fairness, and why these may not work for everyone. It explains how the principle of equity is already at work in many familiar school situations—like a teacher spending more time with a pupil who has more questions.

Mainly through story explanations, it also tries to address objections that pupils may have for example, that getting support automatically grants an “unfair” advantage over others, or that some tools are “cheating” or mean pupils aren’t doing the work themselves.

The unit also introduces a balance scale metaphor for thinking about fairness. Someone may experience a challenge that others don’t have in that situation. It’s “a weight on their scale”—so they may also use a support that others don’t use, as a tool to meet that challenge and help “balance their scale”.

Learning About Neurodiversity at School (LEANS) | The University of Edinburgh

Sameness-based Versus Needs-based Fairness

What’s fair depends on what people need.

Explaining Fairness (LEANS resource 5.3)
  • What I need may be different than what other people need, and that is OK. Everyone has things they need to thrive at school and in their life.
  • Fairness in school isn’t always about being treated the same or getting the same things.
  • Sometimes, it can be fair for people to get or to do different things than their classmates, because they don’t have the same needs. Being treated fairly helps us be able to do our best at school.
  • Due to their learning and thinking, some neurodivergent students may do things differently in the classroom. What helps one person may not help another—neurodivergent people are very different from each other too.

Source: Learning About Neurodiversity at School (LEANS) | The University of Edinburgh

Tall Poppy Syndrome, the politics of resentment, and sameness-based notions of fairness are a systemic slog for neurodivergent and disabled people. We really appreciate this video from LEANS explaining fairness.

Video: Explaining Fairness (LEANS resource 5.3) – Media Hopper Create

LEANS introduces a balance scale metaphor for fairness.

In this story, Mr. Oliver introduces a new metaphor for fairness, the balance scale. He is trying to address concerns that classroom changes or additional supports give some pupils an advantage over others (i.e. are actively disadvantaging classmates). The point of the balance scale is to suggest that supports may help “even things up” rather than putting some people ahead of others. People getting or doing apparently “extra” things may be making school more fair, not less.

In a given situation, we have both challenges (needs) and tools to address them (skills, information, strategies, supports). Some of the challenges and tools will be shared across the class—but some people will face challenges their peers do not. To “balance out” these challenges, people need more tools too. In the story, the example is a dyspraxic character’s handwriting challenges being “balanced out” by typing the work.

Mr. Oliver reminds the class that the example is about one person in one situation. People’s scales will differ from one another, and each person would have a different scales in a different situations (for example, sports, maths, or art rather than a book report). Different situations make different demands on us—and our available tools and coping capacity can vary too.

Learning About Neurodiversity at School (LEANS) | The University of Edinburgh
Mr. Oliver uses a balance scale to think about the challenges people have, and the tools they can use.
Typing book reports can be a tool for someone who has handwriting challenges, and can help “balance their scale”.

Fairness and school isn’t always about being treated the same, or getting the same things. Sometimes, it can be fair for people to get or to do different things than their classmates. This is because we don’t all have the same needs. Our needs, and other people’s needs, aren’t always things that we can see from the outside. Differences might be on the inside, and have to do with how we think, feel and learn. Neurodiversity is a word that sums up these kinds of inside differences. Some people may get all the support they need from how things are usually done at school. Other people have differences in the way they learn, think, or do things, and this means they need other kinds of tools or support. They might get additional help from adults, go out of class for breaks, or have something to fidget with during lessons. There are many kinds of help and support people may have at school. The same thing won’t help every person. Just like giving out glasses to the whole class wouldn’t help every person! We won’t always know what other people’s needs are, or why we see people doing things differently at school. People don’t have to share that information with us, and we don’t have to tell everyone about our needs either. We can respect others by believing that they are telling the truth about their needs. They can respect us by believing us too. Next time you see that people aren’t doing the same things as you at school, and want to say “it isn’t fair!” pause, and think. Maybe that difference between what you’re doing and they’re doing is making things more fair, not less fair. When we get what we need, we won’t all be treated the same, because we’re not the same. Being treated fairly lets all of us try our best at school.

Explaining Fairness (LEANS resource 5.3)

Props to the LEANS Team for the quotes and images used above. Stimpunks recommends LEANS to all educators.

©2022, The LEANS Team. Alyssa Alcorn, Sue Fletcher-Watson, Sarah McGeown, Fergus Murray, Dinah Aitken, Liam Peacock, & William Mandy assert their right to be identified as the authors of this handbook and associated downloadable materials.  

Illustrations ©Claire Hubbard 2022 

The handbook and associated LEANS materials are published under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 license: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International. 

Terms of use | The University of Edinburgh

Toolbelt Theory

At our Stimpunks learning space, we embrace toolbelt theory, which uses needs-based rather than sameness-based framing.

Tools matter though. They are the most basic thing about being human.

They matter most for those who lack the highest capabilities.

And everyone needs a properly equipped Toolbelt to get through life.

Toolbelt Theory for Everyone

We want our children to discover how to choose effectively for their own needs. To do that, they need choices, and so we believe in Toolbelt Theory.

The Basics of Open Technology

Toolbelt Theory is based in the concept that students must learn to assemble their own readily available collection of life solutions. They must learn to choose and use these solutions appropriately, based in the task to be performed, the environment in which they find themselves, their skills and capabilities at that time, and the ever-changing universe of high and low-tech solutions and supports.

So, the Toolbelt is designed to:

  • Break the dependence cycle
  • Develop lifespan technology skills
  • Limit limitations
  • Empower student decision making
  • Prepare students for life beyond school

Source: A Toolbelt for a Lifetime

No student will have mechanical limitations in access to either information or communication — whether through disability, inability at this moment, or even just discomfort. Learning is our goal, and we make it accessible.

We hand our students real laptops with real capabilities, and we fill them with software, apps, and bookmarks.

We want our children to discover how to choose effectively for their own needs. To do that, they need choices, and so we believe in Toolbelt Theory.

The Basics of Open Technology

We all have different needs and different tool belts, especially those of us who are neurominorities with spiky profiles. At Stimpunks, we push back against sameness-based notions of fairness with toolbelt framing. We’re co-creating personalized toolbelts to meet learners’ needs.

laptops in the classroom represent the first real chance at Universal Design for Learning – the first real chance to allow every student to choose the media format most appropriate for their own needs – the first real chance for students who are different to be accommodated without labels

SpeEdChange: Humiliation and the Modern Professor

✨ Shiny Thing Equity Arithmetic

Shiny Thing Racial Equity Arithmetic: Racism + diversity programming + an anti-bullying program + Kindness Matters + SEL, PBIS, and restorative practices + grit and growth mindset = Racism
Image Credit: Paul Gorski via Soni Gill on Twitter

Shiny Thing Racial Equity Arithmetic: Racism + diversity programming + an anti-bullying program + Kindness Matters + SEL, PBIS, and restorative practices + grit and growth mindset = Racism

Paul Gorski via Soni Gill on Twitter

⚖️ Equity Literacy

With this in mind, my purpose is to argue that when it comes to issues surrounding poverty and economic justice the preparation of teachers must be first and foremost an ideological endeavour, focused on adjusting fundamental understandings not only about educational outcome disparities but also about poverty itself. I will argue that it is only through the cultivation of what I call a structural ideology of poverty and economic justice that teachers become equity literate (Gorski 2013), capable of imagining the sorts of solutions that pose a genuine threat to the existence of class inequity in their classrooms and schools.

Source: Poverty and the ideological imperative: a call to unhook from deficit and grit ideology and to strive for structural ideology in teacher education

The Direct Confrontation Principle

The Direct Confrontation Principle: The path to equity requires direct confrontations with inequity—with interpersonal, institutional, cultural and structural racism and other forms of oppression. “Equity” approaches that fail to directly identify and confront inequity play a significant role in sustaining inequity.

Basic Principles for Equity Literacy

The Prioritization Principle

The Prioritization Principle: In order to achieve equity we must prioritize the interests of the students and families whose interests historically have not been prioritized. Every policy, practice, and program decision should be considered through the question, “What impact is this going to have on the most marginalized students and families? How are we prioritizing their interests?”

Basic Principles for Equity Literacy

The “Fix Injustice, Not Kids” Principle

The “Fix Injustice, Not Kids” Principle: Educational outcome disparities are not the result of deficiencies in marginalized communities’ cultures, mindsets, or grittiness, but rather of inequities. Equity initiatives focus, not on “fixing” students and families who are marginalized, but on transforming the conditions that marginalize students and families.

Basic Principles for Equity Literacy

Avoid These Equity Pitfalls

Avoid These Equity Pitfalls

  1. Universal Validation – Not all ideas and perspectives are equitable. We don’t want to validate someone’s racist perspective. Equity is not about universal validation.
  2. Equity Detours: Addressing Equity Problems with Cultural Solutions – There is no path toward equity that does not involve a direct confrontation with inequity.
  3. Lack of Leadership – The people with the most equity literacy have to be the people with the most power.
  4. Going at the Pace of the Most Resistant – We are prioritizing the comfort of the people who are most resistant instead of prioritizing the discomfort the most marginalized people in the institution experience.
  5. Doing What’s Popular Instead of Doing What’s Effective
  6. Embracing a Deficit Ideology Instead of a Structural Ideology – If your equity initiatives are about fixing marginalized people rather than about addressing the conditions that marginalize people, there’s no way to get to equity.

Deficit Ideology

No set of curricular or pedagogical strategies can turn a classroom led by a teacher with a deficit view of families experiencing poverty into an equitable learning space for those families (Gorski 2013; Robinson 2007).

Poverty and the ideological imperative: a call to unhook from deficit and grit ideology and to strive for structural ideology in teacher education

Briefly, deficit ideology is a worldview that explains and justifies outcome inequalities— standardized test scores or levels of educational attainment, for example—by pointing to supposed deficiencies within disenfranchised individuals and communities (Brandon, 2003; Valencia, 1997a; Weiner, 2003; Yosso, 2005). Simultaneously, and of equal importance, deficit ideology discounts sociopolitical context, such as the systemic conditions (racism, economic injustice, and so on) that grant some people greater social, political, and economic access, such as that to high-quality schooling, than others (Brandon, 2003; Dudley-Marling, 2007; Gorski, 2008a; Hamovitch, 1996). The function of deficit ideology, as I will describe in greater detail later, is to justify existing social conditions by identifying the problem of inequality as located within, rather than as pressing upon, disenfranchised communities so that efforts to redress inequalities focus on “fixing” disenfranchised people rather than the conditions which disenfranchise them (Weiner, 2003; Yosso, 2005).

At the core of deficit ideology is the belief that inequalities result, not from unjust social conditions such as systemic racism or economic injustice, but from intellectual, moral, cultural, and behavioral deficiencies assumed to be inherent in disenfranchised individuals and communities (Brandon, 2003; Gorski, 2008a, 2008b; Valencia, 1997a; Yosso, 2005).

And this is the surest sign of deficit ideology: the suggestion that we fix inequalities by fixing disenfranchised communities rather than that which disenfranchises them. This, then, is the function of deficit ideology: to manipulate popular consciousness in order to deflect attention from the systemic conditions and sociopolitical context that underlie or exacerbate inequities, such as systemic racism or economic injustice, and to focus it, instead, on recycling its own misperceptions, all of which justify inequalities (García & Guerra, 2004; Jennings, 2004). It deflects our scornful gaze from the mechanisms of injustice and the benefactors of these mechanisms, and trains it, instead, on those citizens with the least amount of power to popularize a counter-narrative, just as the dominant “achievement gap” discourse draws attention away from underlying systemic conditions, such as growing corporate control of public schools, and pushes it toward “at-risk” youth from “broken” homes whose “culture of poverty” impedes them from “making it.” Deficit ideology defines every social problem in relation to those toward the bottom of the power hierarchy, trains our gaze in that direction and, as a result, manipulates the popular discourse in ways that protect and reify existing sociopolitical conditions (Brandon, 2003; Yosso, 2005).

Unlearning Deficit Ideology and the Scornful Gaze: Thoughts on Authenticating the Class Discourse in Education

This image is actually a great example of deficit thinking — an ideology that blames victims of oppression for their own situation. As with this image, deficit thinking makes systemic forms of racism and oppression invisible. Other images, like the one of different animals having to climb a tree, or of people picking fruit, suffer from the same problem. How would we make these root causes more visible in our “equity vs. equality” image?

Well, if we began with the metaphor of the fence, this would require making clear that the reason some people have more difficulty seeing than others is not because of their height, but because of the context around them.

Source: The problem with that equity vs. equality graphic you’re using | Cultural Organizing

Published by Ryan Boren

#ActuallyAutistic parent and retired tech worker. Equity literate education, respectfully connected parenting, passion-based learning, indie ed-tech, neurodiversity, social model of disability, design for real life, inclusion, open web, open source. he/they

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