6 Ways to Be a Better Ally to People Living with Disabilities

Jul 26, 2015

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When it comes to talking about disability, we don’t.

Nearly one in five Americans reports living with a disability, yet our silence prevents us from aiding in destigmatization, fair access and equal opportunity.

Sunday marks 25 years since the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed into law, but we still have a long way to go when it comes to properly supporting people living with disabilities. Though anti-discrimination laws like the ADA are more than needed to ensure opportunity and access for marginalized populations, even these laws can’t change our social views of disability.

Along with major forms of social discrimination, such as denying employment to people with disabilities or using the R-word, there are seemingly little things able-bodied people do every day that aren’t so inclusive. And those little things need to change.

Here are six things you should think about in order to be a stronger ally to disability communities.


1. Don’t use people with disabilities as your own inspiration to rise above challenges.


We’ve all seen those widely shared Facebook posts that marvel at people who “overcame” their disabilities — the girl drawing with her mouth because doesn’t have arms, or the little boy running with a prosthetic leg. These images are meant to inspire able-bodied people to see their challenges aren’t so bad after all.

Disability rights activist Stella Young coined the term “inspiration porn” to refer to this kind of post. These images and messages often come at the expense of disability populations, making them pornographic because, as Young said, they objectify one group of people for the benefit of another.

“The whole concept refers to the fact that most able-bodied people think of disability as such an unspeakable condition that you can only think about it in euphemism,” Carol Glazer, president of the National Organization on Disability, tells Mashable. “People use terms like ‘special’ and ‘exceptional,’ when really people want to say, ‘You have an unspeakable condition. If I had that condition. I don’t know what I’d do.’”

But disability conditions aren’t unspeakable. As Young said, we all learn how to use our bodies to the best of their capacity. Recognize that people with disabilities aren’t intrinsically exceptional for getting out of bed in the morning. They might just get out of bed in a different way.


2. View aids that enhance the lives of people with disabilities as more than just devices.


Some people living with disabilities require the assistance of wheelchairs, service animals, interpreters and other devices that help enhance their lives. These objects act as an extension of a person — and you should respect them as a part of that person.

“Oftentimes, people will lean on someone’s wheelchair,” Glazer says. “What most people may not know is that a wheelchair is part of somebody’s personal space. Leaning on a wheelchair is like standing on somebody’s shoes. It’s their belonging.”

The same thing goes with service animals. For example, you may want to pet a cute service dog, but he’s working. “You wouldn’t go up to someone who is working and just joke around,” Glazer says.

This rule also applies to interpreters. When it comes to a person acting as a device for another person, it may seem awkward to consider a human as a piece of equipment. But, in that moment, he or she is an extension of that person, Glazer says. Focus on facing and talking to the people whom the interpreters are assisting — not the interpreters themselves.


3. Understand a person’s disability doesn’t define her, but may be an important part of her identity.


Able-bodied people have a habit of defining people with disabilities by their disabilities. Instead of using language like, “She’s confined to a wheelchair” or “He’s mentally challenged,” refer to the person first.

“Even my mother would say, ‘Oh, he’s a hydrocephalic,’” Glazer says, referring to her son. “No, he’s not. He’s a child with hydrocephalus.”

Changing your language to refer to people first is an important step toward inclusivity. Instead of using a person’s identity as her defining characteristic, refer to her disability only when necessary to the conversation. “Is the meeting space is accessible? My coworker, Chloe, is coming to the meeting and she uses a wheelchair.”

Most importantly, talk to people about what their disabilities mean to them. They could be their connections to community and activism, or they could be relatively unimportant. But talking to them is the only way you’ll know. Let them define themselves on their own terms.


4. Never have low expectations for someone with disabilities.


Assuming someone’s levels of ability — whether intellectual or physical — before you actually get to know that person is a problem Glazer calls “the tyranny of low expectations.” Expecting minimal achievement from people living with disabilities is a disservice their ability to succeed, Glazer says.

“We just don’t have very high expectations for people with disabilities. We usually infantilize them,” she says.

Don’t adjust your expectations based on your own biases. Instead, work with people living with disabilities to properly accommodate their needs — if any adjustment is even necessary. Don’t assume someone’s disability defines their overall ability.

“You can’t assume difficulty speaking means difficulty thinking,” Glazer says.


5. Don’t assume people living with disabilities are miserable, unhappy or less fulfilled than you.


Just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean he or she is living a life that’s any less than an able-bodied person’s.

“[Some able-bodied people] say things like, ‘You have to rise above your disability. You have to overcome your disability,’” Glazer says. “But most people with disabilities just think of themselves as normal people.”

Like any able-bodied person, people with disabilities adapt to accommodate their own experiences. But that’s not something that makes a person living with disabilities less fortunate or clearly miserable.

“Even if we have no arms and legs, we’d figure out how to paint a painting with our mouths. And it’s not a big deal and we’re not rising above. We’re just us,” Glazer says.


6. Stop being afraid of disability.


Able-bodied people don’t often talk about disability, and the fear of getting something wrong or offensive keeps us from addressing it. We might even accidentally point out that we aren’t as comfortable with disability as we want the world to believe.

But these fears shouldn’t stop us from confronting our own biases.

“When you are afraid, you stop thinking. When you stop thinking, you start making silly mistakes. If you calm yourself down, you just get comfortable. And if you ever wonder about anything, just ask,” Glazer says.

Become a stronger ally by using your fear as an indicator of the things you need to work on. Confront your discomfort, and ask questions.


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