How to be a better ally of disabled and neurodivergent people
By Luke Grayson-Skinner
- Neurotypical: not exhibiting or characterized by autistic or neurologically atypical thought or behavior patterns.
- Neurodivergent: mental or neurological function different from what is considered typical or normal (frequently used in reference to autism spectrum disorders); not neurotypical.
- Infantilize: treat (someone) like a child or in a way that denies maturity in age or experience.
- Erasure: removing all traces of something; obliteration.
For a short time, the first language of the person (disabled or impaired person) was seen as better and more inclusive than the first language of identity (disabled person). As a person with a disability and neurodivergent, I find identity-focused language to be better and much more validating.
My differences make me who I am. My disabilities are a big part of who I am. Saying “I am disabled” or “I am dyslexic” sounds more accurate than “I am a person with a disability”.
Yes, I am a person. However, I also identify with my differences.
There are some main barriers for people with disabilities:
- Attitude: stereotypes and stigma
- Communication: written and auditory information is often difficult to process on its own
- Physics: steep stairs, curbs and ramps
- Policy: deny access to reasonable accommodation
- Programmatic: inconvenient and inconsistent meeting times or variable accessibility arrangements
- Social: much less likely to have a job or have a higher level of education
- Transportation: lack of access to someone driving or away from a bus stop
Given these barriers, below are some ways in which people can become better allies for people with disabilities and neurodiverse.
One, don’t assume that you get it or that you are right. Whatever your second or third hand experience, unless it’s your body and your brain, you will never get it completely.
Second, people with disabilities and neurodivergent understand themselves, their friends, and a very large part of these demographics better than anyone else. However, two people do not have exactly the same symptoms with the same diagnosis.
Third, make all of your spaces fair. Provide quiet spaces where a busy person can go to calm down. Be open to explaining more what you mean, or to explaining it in a different way. Things are not automatically widely understood as someone understands them. Capitalize each word in a hashtag (#BlackLivesMatter). This way people can easily read the words instead of spelling everything out.
Other ways to create fair spaces include adding image IDs or image descriptions to all of your images (a black background with words written in yellow). Use high contrast when creating a chart. This is useful for everyone, especially people who are color blind who cannot see letters that closely match the background.
Fourth, don’t make decisions that affect or influence marginalized communities without including us in discussions within your organizations. If someone is not at the table, ask yourself why this group is not represented. One way to start is to reach out to people with disabilities and simply ask for their help in improving accessibility.
Fifth, don’t use people with disabilities as your own inspiration to overcome challenges. Yes, everyone has their own struggle, but people with disabilities are too often used as inspirational stories on social media. My story is rarely inspiring. He is rarely happy. If someone says “you are so amazing doing this” or “this is so inspiring, I wish I could be more like you”, I instantly leave the conversation and not wait so patiently for a moment to escape the interaction.
Sixth, never have lower expectations for a person with a disability. We are often underestimated or seen as the odd one out in any group because we are seen as less capable than our able-bodied counterparts.
Seven, understand that a person’s disability does not define them but can be an important part of their identity. I am more than my illnesses; however, they are still a very important part of my identity.
And eight, stop being afraid of disabilities. Often times, people have unconscious biases when it comes to interacting with a person with a disability. The prejudice is that we are different, and things or people that are different scare people. Consciously or unconsciously, this is something that has been ingrained in our culture from the start. Like most things, it takes time to get past that prejudice where you correct yourself and challenge those inherited beliefs.
As someone with multiple permanent disabilities, any of these actions would be extremely helpful for me to actively participate in things that I want to be a part of that directly affect my community. I would have been a bigger part of my community if things had been more accessible.
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