In a post from last month, I explored the problem of Well-Meaning Ableism. Here are five ways you can help:
1. Speak about disability plainly, concretely, and specifically
Forms of the word “disability” are your safest bet when referring to any kind of unspecified physical or mental impairment. When referring to individuals, it is probably best to say “person with a disability”, although more and more of us are gravitating towards “disabled person” as our preferred term. Steer clear of more elaborate words, phrases, and spelling that seem like they were designed by committees to make disabled people feel better. Avoid “differently-abled”, “disABILITY”, and “special needs”. Of course, you should also avoid terms that are especially negative, like “wheelchair bound”, or “suffers from …”. No matter how you feel about “banning” words, “retarded” is by now just an insult, and you should never use the term again unless you have to quote someone. Disability terms should be accurately descriptive, and should not be weighed down with either negative or positive value judgments. Just speak neutrally about disability matters.
2. Don’t focus on our disabilities, but don’t deny them either
Look, but don’t stare. Don’t fixate on our disabilities, but don’t ignore them. Healthy interest is fine. Morbid curiosity is offensive and easy for us to spot. Most of us don’t like to talk about our disabilities all the time, and we all have interests that are at least as interesting if not more than our disabilities. At the same time, it’s problematic to tell a disabled person, “I don’t think of you as disabled”. The intention may be good, but the fact is that disabilities are real, they have an impact, and they are woven into our lives. You can’t really “see past” our disabilities, any more than you can "see past" the red-colored threads in a multicolored carpet. In any case, literally forgetting we have disabilities can pose real problems, too … like when a group of friends decides to go to a restaurant that isn’t wheelchair accessible because they forgot to consider that one of them uses a wheelchair.
3. Let pictures speak for themselves
This advice is meant to address a fairly narrow phenomenon, but one that has become a large part of the average person’s exposure to disability ideas … disability photos and slogans in social media. It is usually photos of a disabled person doing something either athletic or otherwise surprising compared to a conventional idea of what disabled people can do. These photos are usually accompanied by an “inspiring” slogan that underscores the value we are supposed to take from the photo … courage, perseverance, faith, triumph of the human spirit, even the reality of miracles. Sometimes, the message is also a backhanded slap against negative values such as laziness, selfishness, and self-pity. “This quadriplegic is painting a beautiful picture with his mouth … what’s your excuse?!” It is something of a trend, and a regrettable one. Some of us call it “Inspiration Porn”. The problem isn’t so much the values being extolled, it’s that we become icons and symbols rather than people. Our names don’t matter, and there’s no way of really knowing much of anything about the person in the photo. They rely on the us believing that disabled people mostly live lives of suffering and hardship … that’s why the photos are so awesome! At the same time, it is helpful for disabled people of all kinds and styles and personalities to be visible in popular culture. So, one solution is simply to show the photos but leave out the slogans. Let viewers interpret what they are seeing. It’s much better to prompt people to think freely about images of disability than to cram a packaged “message” down their throats.
4. Don't assume you know who is and isn't disabled, or what someone's disability is
It happens every day. A person with a disability that isn’t immediately visible parks in a handicapped space, and a well-meaning defender of the disabled gives them a dirty look, or worse, because they assume the person isn’t disabled. A child with a learning disability needs extra help in school, and people sneer and complain that their day, “bad kids” weren’t just labeled “disabled” and given special privileges. An adult with an unusual gait and impaired speech is spoken to as if they were 5 years old. A restaurant manager thinks it’s her job to decide whether a dog is a pet or a service animal. There is no one solution to these situations, all of which are harmful and insulting when they occur. The main message is to be careful and open-minded in developing your knowledge and opinions about disability. Disabilities are more than just wheelchairs and guide dogs. There are as many different kinds of disabilities as there are people with disabilities, and pretty much any “rule of thumb” you come up with to generalize about disability is going to fail you. Disability isn’t a club or a profession, and it is no-one’s job to police membership.
5. Listen to disabled people
The classic example of this is a wheelchair user waiting to cross at an intersection. A stranger approaches and asks if they need help crossing. The wheelchair user says, “No thank you”, but the stranger insists, grabs onto the chair, and starts wheeling the person across the street. This type of situation often has a second phase, in which the wheelchair user shouts, “I said no!” or “Stop!”, and the good samaritan takes offense at being yelled at and having his generosity rejected. The whole scenario, and others like it, point to how subtle stereotypes of disabled people rob them of agency. Even people who feel friendly and charitable towards disabled people often find it hard to deal with them when they act differently than expected … when they have individual wishes, desires, and opinions of their own … when they aren’t appropriately grateful. Another related problem is when people try to fathom the mysteries of disability through every means at their disposal, except asking disabled people and trusting their answers. This happens a lot with doctors and hospitals, which already have a built-in vigilance about “noncompliant” patents, which seems to intensify when the patients have long-term, underlying disabilities. But it also happens in other settings. Basically, our adult competence and rationality seems to always be one or two short steps away from being discounted, as if having a disability somehow makes us more susceptible to fantasy and self-delusion. You don’t have to check all of your skepticism at the door. Just remember that most of us do know what’s going on with ourselves, even if the things we report sound incredible, and even when communicating with us is difficult. Being routinely consulted, listened to, and believed would for most of us be a marked improvement in our lives.
Tomorrow: What you can do about Systemic Ableism.