Though inclusivity applies to all kinds of marginalized identities, here we are talking about its importance to people with disabilities. How can people without disabilities understand and include people with disabilities? This can often be a bit of a gray area.
Many people think they are following and comprehend the rules of inclusivity, while being far from it. However, recognizing the experience of people with disabilities and working to perceive them accurately can make all the difference in showing support and acceptance.
Adjust your idea of what it means to have a disability, for inclusivity’s sake
Being inclusive in general means making space within our attitudes and assumptions for experiences that we can’t relate to. It’s all about having an open mind. When giving into common stereotypes, your behavior towards a person may be impacted. Taking the time to educate yourself is a huge first step towards inclusivity. That starts with recognizing faulty beliefs and changing your perspective.
Many see wheelchairs, communication devices, etc. as barriers for people with disabilities. A wheelchair doesn’t mean a person can’t walk. Communication devices don’t mean a person can’t hold a conversation. Misconceptions often cause more limitations than disabilities themselves.
Misconceptions also apply to invisible disabilities. It is wrong to assume because someone does not have any mobility or communication aids that they do not have a disability.
The definition of inclusivity is usually a misconception itself. Accommodations in the workplace. Ways to make things more accessible. The social and medical focus of what it means to have a disability. This definition of inclusivity is incomplete when only looking at these explanations.
To be inclusive is to forget all the usual stigmas around disabilities. Pity, guilt, and uneasiness are just a few of the typical unhelpful attitudes people tend to have.
There is a difference between being accepting and respectful and being notably uncertain and uncomfortable when interacting with someone. Having the knowledge of this difference comes with educating yourself on how to be an ally and understanding inclusivity through the lens of people with disabilities.
Don’t worry about being perfect
When we feel afraid of offending someone whose experience we can’t relate to, “our non-verbal behaviors—making eye contact, using welcoming gestures or a pleasant tone of voice, for example—can be affected as well. When everyone in a conversation is anxious that it will turn negative, it often does.”
This creates obvious signs of being uncomfortable or uncertain which makes someone feel worse. It is better to be honest and simply ask someone if they would like assistance, if they prefer person or identity first language, etc. rather than operate in fear. Showing you care to try and understand is the first step.
What does inclusivity towards disability look like?
Inclusivity can be seen in adapted classrooms, high tech devices and accessibility adjustments designed to help people with disabilities. These are beneficial and practical, but there’s more to it. Inclusivity is validating someone’s feelings and showing acceptance through a variety of ways that might not always be obvious.
Person first language
Opinions on this vary, but be conscious to use person-first language when you can. This includes terms like “people with disabilities,” or “people who are disabled” instead of “disabled people.” Though a minor change, it shows you recognize someone is not defined by their disability. You see them as a person first.
People with disabilities also struggle to use person first language because of the stereotypes and cultural conditioning growing up.
Also try to remove terms such as “physically challenged,” “suffers from,” “special,” etc. from your vocabulary. Many of these phrases are degrading and patronizing–after all, for example, who are you to decide whether someone else is suffering in their disability?
“Abled people assume that saying ‘special’ means a ‘good special’ when disabled kids who went through the system know that kids would use ‘special’ as an insult.” – Quinn West
On the other hand, what effect could it have when you refer to people without disabilities as “normal?” Consider what that implies and how it could make someone with a disability think or feel.
Conversation and tone
Many times people can be condescending without realizing it. Avoid pitiful tone or assuming someone cannot do something. A general rule of thumb is to talk to adults like they are adults. Ask yourself if that’s what this conversation sounds like.
Speak directly to a person, not their companion, partner, or aid if they have one. Be patient and attentive if someone has difficulty talking. Let them finish their thoughts and actions, don’t try to do it for them.
“It’s understandable that people who have had no direct or regular contact with disability often find it difficult to comprehend. But if you can’t think of something to say that doesn’t sound bad, it’s probably best to say nothing at all.” – Belinda Castle
Proactively accommodate for others’ disabilities
One of the most inclusive things you can do in daily life is to minimize the need for disabled people to request accommodations. This extra step can feel othering and is often unnecessary with a bit of forethought on the part of abled folks.
For instance, all kinds of disabilities can interfere with meetings for school and work. This is a common situation in which abled people can practice inclusivity. If a meeting can be conducted remotely, avoid requiring others’ physical presence in the first place. Even further, accommodate for neurodivergence by offering email as an acceptable alternative to meeting where possible.
How else can you proactively accommodate for disabilities?
- Set deadlines a few days in advance of when you need something, to account for the chance the other person might be struggling.
- Add alt-text and captions to your online content, so that everyone can enjoy what you share with the world without missing out.
- Offer enlarged text and audio options for those who struggle to see.
- Be considerate of how the environment may affect people with varying disabilities and alter it according to what is best for them.
- Discuss ideas and needs for accommodations with the person who needs them!
From mobility issues to social anxiety to neurological conditions, sometimes disabling struggles require the impacted person to “roll with the punches.” Inclusivity means making it easier for people to bounce back when life throws a curveball.
Avoid assuming someone’s diagnosis or disability status
Just as not all disabilities are visible, not all disabilities are easily identifiable. You should never assume that someone can’t be disabled because they can do x,y and z. Every disability looks different. Every disability affects individuals differently.
Superficial characteristics do not define disabilities, or anything about someone. Making any type of assumptions about any person is the opposite of inclusion. Assumption can be extremely harmful to someone’s feelings and at its worst, in diagnosis.
This judgment goes even further when race and gender come into play. These identity factors intersect with disability and confound assumptions even more.
Diagnosis disparity can narrow the focus of diagnosis, especially for women and people of color, when risks related to these factors suggest likelihood of conditions.
People with disabilities can excel in school, hold a job, play sports, etc. Disability doesn’t entirely exclude anyone from any human activity.
People often assume that those with disabilities do not want to or are unable to participate in events, sports, or activities. Instead of assuming, let people with disabilities make the choice for themselves.
Through inclusivity you can validate those who thought they were alone. It breaks down physical, attitudinal and communication barriers so that people with disabilities can be in full participation in every situation. Inclusivity goes beyond the common superficial things.
In any case, work to alter your perspective, educate yourself, and think of the feelings of others. Above all, treat people with disabilities as someone living with their disability, not someone who is defined by it. Be accepting. Be an ally. Inspire others to do the same.