An important aspect of advocating for individuals with disabilities is understanding ableism. Ableism is a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities. Ableism is rooted in the assumption that disabled people require ‘fixing’ and that they are limited by their diagnosis.
These beliefs can be intentional or subconscious, but either way, we must address them to better support people with disabilities. It is essential to recognize the impact of ableism and to better support people with disabilities to promote complete inclusion.
Ableism is so tightly woven into the texture of human interactions that it takes an active effort to identify ableist attitudes.
Neurotypical and abled people are often desensitized to ableism because the world was designed specifically for an abled population. Differently abled individuals are rejected, ignored, infantilized, feared, abused, underpaid, and forced to experience a lifetime of oppression. The only way to create a more inclusive society is to address ableism and take actionable steps toward fostering a more respectful environment.
Infantilizing Differently Abled Adults
A common form of infantilizing people with disabilities is reinforcing socially constructed misconceptions about disability and maturity. I have heard so many people call adults with disabilities "adorable," "endearing," and "inspiring." These patronizing euphemisms reveal the fact that some people are only capable of tolerating the differently abled community if they are able to view them as subservient.
If you are not able to show empathy for differently abled people without reducing them to docile children, then you are not seeing them as fully nuanced humans.
My teenage brother has non-verbal autism and my sisters and I will often verbally advocate for his needs. I will always see him as my cute, younger brother. However, I also recognize that he is a developing, soon-to-be young adult who needs privacy and boundaries. My sisters and I's interactions with our brother have evolved as he needs the same sensitivity to his developing identity as I did when I was in high school. He might not verbally express it, but he does not want me holding his hand in public or entering his room without warning. Part of loving and supporting a differently-abled person is having the flexibility in your relationship to grow alongside them.
Soliciting personal information is also a way of infantilizing differently-abled individuals as these invasive questions suggest that the person is not entitled to boundaries and respect. People with disabilities desire and have sex. When communicating with a differently abled person, refrain from asking or using patronizing language in regard to their sexual history and abilities. To be clear, do not ask a person who uses a wheelchair if "their parts work." However, if you are curious about the lives of differently-abled people and how to be a better ally, try to find resources written by or highlighting people of all abilities. For example, this article by Madison Lawson answers some of the questions people want to know about disabled people but are afraid to ask.
Information about how differently-abled people navigate and thrive in their lives exists both on the internet and through members of your community. The key to establishing respectful communication with differently-abled people is to not allow your perception of their identity to be limited to their diagnosis. Just like the rest of us, people with developmental disabilities are complex individuals. We can engage in meaningful conversation by genuinely taking an interest in their hobbies, family, and what they think is funny or interesting. You’ll likely find that you have a lot in common. Establishing trust might open the door to more in-depth conversations about things like their own personality traits, concerns, or life goals. It’s often helpful to learn some general information about the disability to more clearly understand how the condition might affect someone’s daily function. By learning more about the individual and listening, you can form quality relationships and determine the best ways to provide support and advocate for their needs.
I have had the opportunity to practice active listening and nonverbal communication by developing my relationship with my brother and the different differently-abled people I met through volunteering in my community.
When interacting with a differently abled person who expresses themselves verbally, I have found that they feel most at ease when I use gestures and expressions that demonstrate my interest. We can show genuine interest in what is being said by doing the following:
Looking directly at the person
Making sure they are finished speaking before talking
Asking follow-up questions
Nodding or smiling in agreement
Sometimes, the person may have a difficult time communicating, either because of a related physical impairment or because they are feeling anxious. A common symptom of Autism is difficulty maintaining eye contact during a conversation because the combination of verbal and auditory stimuli is overwhelming. This can create a sensation referred to as sensory overload.
Sensory overload is when your senses (light, sound, taste, touch, and smell) take in more information than your brain can process. Overwhelmed by all the input, the brain responds as it would to a life-threatening situation and enters fight, flight, or freeze mode.
It’s important to be patient and to ask clarifying questions to ensure that you understand their message. It is also helpful to reiterate throughout the conversation and course of the relationship that their personal well-being takes precedence over societal norms. For example, I find myself taking mental breaks like filling up my water bottle during long classes or going on a quick walk in between meetings. People of all abilities should be encouraged to a break during an activity or conversation in order to create an enjoyable socializing experience.