Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Newbie FAQs: Introduction

FAQs spelled out in 3-D blue letters with a computer mouse in front
There’s this line of thought within Disability Culture, which says that one of the oppressions we experience is the expectation that it's always our responsibility to "educate" non disabled people ... that our first response to offensive, annoying comments or actual discrimination should always have the tone of a patient, caring teacher. How can a non-disabled person with no personal connection to disability know the right thing to do if we don’t tell them?

There are good reasons why so many of us see this as another form of oppression.

First of all, the response, “Teach me! I need to learn!” usually comes from the source of some painful encounter with ableism. Second, more often than not, the person saying this should actually know better. For example, any business owner who claims ignorance of the ADA, which will be 25 years old this July, is either grossly lazy or lying. Also, it really shouldn't take much in the way of social science or diversity training to realize customers with disabilities should be spoken to directly, not through the non-disabled person who is with them. Third ... and in all honesty this is probably the most common reason ... we just get tired of explaining the same things to people over and over again, year after year, decade after decade.

We are tired of constantly having to answer those same “Frequently Asked Questions”.

On the other hand, there is some merit in the old saying, “If you want something done right, better to do it yourself.” As sick as we are of being everyone’s unpaid disability sensitivity trainer, do we really trust others to do it for us?

As for the questions themselves, are they really things everyone should just know, instinctively? Or, are we expecting too much to come naturally to people, at least in regard to disability “awareness”?

If only there was some sort of network or communication tool we could use to answer these questions once and people could just read them. Wait a minute …

Let’s start with the questions. Here are some of the questions I hear most often from non-disabled people … and a few with disabilities, too. (Note: I will try to phrase these questions as I have heard them, sometimes using terminology I wouldn’t normally use myself).
Why do you call yourself “disabled"? Isn’t that a negative term?
Why are so many businesses and buildings still not handicap accessible? Isn’t that against the law?
What's wrong with being “inspirational”?
What’s wrong with special schools, group homes, and day care programs for the disabled?
Isn’t it unrealistic to close sheltered workshops? Most of those people will never be able to get a real job. In a workshop they’re at least busy, socializing, and making a bit of money. 
Isn’t it okay, if someone’s really severely disabled, for them to decide they don’t want to live anymore? Isn’t it all about dignity and choice?
How can it be better to place special needs kids in regular classrooms, where there’s no way they can keep up and the teachers have a hard enough time teaching all the normal kids? 
Isn’t there a lot of abuse of the term “disabled” these days?  I mean, parents getting their kids labeled so they can collect SSI, and unemployed adults getting their doctors to declare them disabled so they can collect Disability. This is a big problem for real disabled people, right?
Just between you and me, it’s different with mentally challenged people, isn’t it? I mean, they can’t be independent like you, can they? 
I broke my leg skiing last year. I had a cast for three months and had to go around on crutches. So I know what it’s like to be disabled.
If we really want city councilors to understand accessibility problems, why don't we make them spend a day in a wheelchair? That would teach them!
Over the next several weeks, I’ll try to answer each of these FAQs. I would love to see other, similar questions that you hear a lot from people who are “disability newbies”. I invite you to post them in the comments below!