As you may (or may not) know, I frequently write about topics related to disability and ableism. Recently, I received an anonymous message from a reader, containing a link to a video entitled “A Credo For Support.” The Credo For Support addresses and most importantly, challenges, common perceptions, beliefs, and attitudes of non-disabled people towards people with disabilities. While the target audience seems to be professionals who work with people with disabilities, the sentiments extend to anyone who interacts with people with disabilities in any capacity—friend, neighbor, or stranger on the street.
The Credo contains powerful statements such as:
Do not see my disability as the problem. Recognize that my disability is an attribute.
Do not see my disability as a deficit. It is you who see me as deviant and helpless.
Do not help me, even if it does make you feel good. Ask me if I need your help. Let me show you how you can best assist me
Do not admire me. A desire to live a full life does not warrant adoration. Respect me, for respect presumes equity.
If you question the validity of any of these statements, or perhaps some of them make you feel uncomfortable, that would be your internalized ableism talking. In our society, the implicit (and sometimes explicit) message we are exposed to is that disability is bad, undesirable, deviant; that people with disabilities are “other” or somehow less important than nondisabled people. The easiest and most important way to begin challenging society’s ableist messaging is by listening to the voices of disabled people, considering your own biases, and opening your heart to new ideas and points of view.
The Credo reminds me so much of the sentiments expressed by Dr. Barry M. Prizant in the book Uniquely Human: A Different Way of Seeing Autism. Although the entirety of the book (and Dr. Barry’s podcast, Uniquely Human) is overflowing with wisdom that brought me to tears on more than one occasion, I particularly love the first chapter, titled “Ask ‘Why?’” In this chapter, Dr. Barry criticizes the use of the behavioural-assessment approach to diagnosing autism—which he calls “defining a child as the sum of deficits”—and instead advocates for professionals and parents to “dig deeper” and ask “Why?” Why is she rocking? Why does she repeat certain phrases when she’s upset? Why does he stare at his hands fluttering in front of his eyes?
Although the following passage is specifically about autism, particularly children who have limited speech, I believe it applies to the understanding and supporting of people with all kinds of disabilities.
“This way of understanding and supporting people with autism is sorely lacking. It treats the person as a problem to be solved rather than an individual to be understood. It fails to show respect for the individual and ignores that person’s perspective and experience. It neglects the importance of listening, paying close attention to what the person is trying to tell us, whether through speech patterns or behavior.”
I sincerely hope that my writing has always accurately reflected my perspective towards people with disabilities, which is simply that they are people—just like everyone else—and deserve to be treated as such. I also think that it is extremely important to acknowledge the struggles that people with disabilities face in a society that is not built for them. Acknowledging struggles, strengths, concerns, wins, differences, and similarities in lived experiences and needs is how we make progress. It is so important for nondisabled people to think about the things that nondisabled people don’t have to personally consider as they navigate their daily life.
How might someone who uses a wheelchair move around this building?
How might an autistic child with sensory sensitivities feel in this store?
How would I feel if people constantly spoke to me as if I did not understand them?
What can I do to ensure that everyone can be included in a meaningful way at this event?
When this is acknowledged in a respectful way, a way that lifts the voices of disabled people instead of speaking for them or infantilizing them, we may begin to see a change for the better.