During the period of working from home I was watching a lot of online training courses to fill time, as I couldn’t access the trial data, which is quite problematic for a Data Management Assistant. Some of those courses related to handling data, some of them discussed more widely applicable professional skills, and some of them related to my extra-curricular work in Equality & Inclusion. In particular, I wanted to learn more about the struggles I don’t have to face thanks to white privilege, and I also wanted to see how corporate culture was tackling these issues, as prior to this point most of my work involved swearing on Twitter. As for the first objective, I certainly learnt a lot, but as for the second part…I wasn’t impressed.
What came to light as I watched the videos was that even top-end academics in sociology don’t know how to talk about disabled people, and often end up spreading harmful misinformation despite their good intentions. Admittedly there is a distinct lack of robust data, and a distinct over-abundance of conflicting information, contributing to the confusion. However, if even those who have dedicated their life to studying the subject cannot get the basics right, then there is clearly a gap in need of filling. While this is hardly the most academic resource, I still felt the need to put together this guide on How To Talk About Disabled People.
This sounds obvious, but the vast majority of the training courses I watched that were discussing diversity as a whole, & didn’t focus on just one protected characteristic, completely failed to mention disability. There were discussions on race, religion, gender, sexuality, age, and even class, yet rarely was disability ever mentioned. If we were lucky, we got a brief mention tacked onto the end of one of the videos, but nothing of substance was said. The irony of discussing inclusion but excluding one of the protected characteristics is seemingly lost on them.
Even worse is that all the courses related to the workplace, further ingraining the notion that disabled people aren’t employable. While not every disabled person can work, some of us can, and this association makes it far harder for us to find jobs.
Able-bodied people (a.k.a. ableds) have a delightful habit of telling disabled people what we want without having asked us first. This leads to sitcom-worthy misunderstandings where additional barriers are placed in our way, and harm is done to the community. When disabled people then speak up, we’re called ungrateful. The amount of times people have tried to push my wheelchair, often without me even realising they’re behind me and risking damage to a very expensive piece of medical equipment, perfectly exemplifies why asking me if I need assistance first is so important.
This conflict could be entirely avoided if ableds would just talk to us to find out what we actually need, instead of making assumptions based on the misinformation obtained from the last time we weren’t asked. Of course, there’s no point talking to us if you don’t…
When asking us what we need or want instead of making assumptions, it is entirely pointless if you ignore the answer. Continuing the example of trying to push my powered wheelchair without asking me first; I will very vocally protest at this, partly out of concern in case my only way of leaving the house is damaged, but also because I can and will move myself as needed. This is usually a waste of energy as I am ignored, completely. Sometimes, people are surprised that the vegetable can talk. Other times, I’m rude. Most of the time, people just keep on trying to push.
If you’re going to talk about disability as part of a discussion around equality, which you should be doing (see Point 1), then you need to get reliable information (Point 2), and use that information (Point 3). All of these factors are seemingly simple, but are also extremely rare.
I am a disabled person. I have a disability. This is Diary of a Disabled Person, where Disability Doesn’t Mean I Can’t.
My point? Disabled is not a dirty word.
The euphemisms people use to describe us (invalid, handicapped, handi-capable, differently abled, ability status, special needs etc.) are almost universally hated by the entire disability community. Despite the community being rather vocal about this, ableds insist that us being called disabled is demeaning, when what is demeaning is having our opinion completely disregarded. In fact, when people have been debating what word to use, no time is left to discuss actual issues around inaccessibility and exclusion.
Refusing to say disabled also puts a stigma on the word, which in turn places a stigma on the people. It is something to be hidden away (Hugo, 1831), and to be ashamed of. Growing up, children are so used to being shielded from us that their curiosity often bubbles over into insolence, eventually growing up to become unintentionally ableist themselves.
While there is debate over whether or not to use person-first language (more on that here), the one thing the community unanimously agrees on is that the D-word is not a dirty one.
Chances are that, if you are able-bodied and reading this (for which I thank you), you’re feeling guilty because you’ve fallen into one of the aforementioned traps. That’s OK. Pleading ignorance is perfectly acceptable in this instance, but now you know for the future.
We’ve all made mistakes and said the wrong thing, whether that was a joke taken too far, focusing on the wrong issue, or doing something harmful while trying to help. I’ve done all of those things, but I feel no shame because it is through these mistakes that we learn and grow, and become better people.
Take the lessons from those mistakes and use them. Educate others. Spread the word. Share this blog (😊).
There are uncomfortable and awkward discussions ahead; they are inevitable if things are to change. Instead of hiding from them, tackle them head-on and make the world a better place.