Disability Activism Do's and Don'ts

Hey there beauties! I thought we would go ahead and jump straight into today's discussion. The topic of today's post is so relevant especially because of the current society we are living in. Let's face it, people who have never interacted with a person who has any type of disability may think of the exchange as intimidating or nerve-wracking or even scary. They might worry about what to talk about or how to avoid staring. These concerns are understandable, but it’s important to realize that people with disabilities should be treated the same as everyone else. We are people first.

Always remember the most important part of interacting with someone who has a disability is seeing that person for whom he or she is, and not what disability that person has. What it boils down to is having a sense of disability awareness and disability etiquette. The point is to help raise awareness and change societal perceptions.

I sincerely hope this list of “don'ts” isn’t just a list of my personal pet peeves. I tried to focus on negative and harmful habits that are at least somewhat common among disability advocates and activists, especially new ones. I’ve also tried to stick to ideas and rhetorical practices that are specific to the disability community. While I personally disapprove of them, I hope you our readers will find this list as helpful, not scolding in any way. As a disabled person, even I have struggled with some of the things mentioned below. Honestly, I still remind myself sometimes to be careful with how I phrase things or speak. Ultimately, the purpose of this post is to educate, inform, and spread awareness.

So, if you’re going to do disability advocacy and or activism, here are some things to avoid:

Don’t complain about “other minorities” having more power, recognition, support, etc. than disabled people.

First, it’s not true. Second, our movements and communities overlap. There are disabled people who are also people of color, LGBTQ+ etc. so our “groups” aren’t even totally separate. Finally, justice isn’t a limited commodity to fight over, and resenting other people’s status or advantages is offensive and pointless.

Don’t compete for power, recognition, and support with people who have disabilities that are different than yours.

This is another variation on the same habit of zero-sum competition. “Severely” disabled people think more “mildly” disabled people hog all their resources, and vice versa. Every condition wants to be considered a top priority. Different disabilities do include different experiences, honestly speaking, hierarchies do unfortunately exist between disabilities, and total unanimity among disabled people is neither possible nor even desirable. But deliberate competition and resentment between disability groups for shares of a supposedly limited pie is terribly destructive and helps exactly nobody.

Don’t try to improve perceptions of your disability by saying that it’s better than having some other kind of disability.

“It’s my legs that don’t work. There’s nothing wrong with my mind!” may be the ugliest and yet most common line of argument disabled people use to sidestep stigma and bolster their social status … as if people who DO have “something wrong with their mind” somehow deserve prejudice and condescension. Disability activists/advocates should fight ableism, not try to dodge it or deflect it onto others.

Don’t accommodate people with some kinds of disabilities and then make accommodating others a lower priority.

This should be obvious. If you believe non-disabled people should make things accessible to your disability, then you should do all you can to make everything you do accessible to people with any disability. And yet, disability organizations regularly treat certain accommodations as extras or ad-hoc “if requested.” This is an especially common problem for people with intellectual disabilities, as well as for blind and deaf people.

Don’t attempt to craft a more “positive” image of disability by centering people perceived to be more conventionally attractive or appealing.

This practice of handing leadership and the proverbial microphone to the kinds of disabled people thought to be most appealing and relatable …  young, physically disabled, and verbally articulate … is at least somewhat understandable from a conventional P.R. perspective. But it is also very deceptive, exclusionary.

Don’t try to police who should and shouldn’t qualify as “disabled.”

People with chronic illness, mental illness, and learning disabilities are often regarded as marginal or provisional “members” of the disability community and not just by non-disabled people. If a person has a condition of any kind that they have to think about and adapt to every day, and if they are affected by ableism, (even misplaced ableism), then they should be considered disabled, after all disability is more than wheelchairs.

Ableism is defined as discrimination or prejudice against people who have disabilities. Ableism can take the form of ideas and assumptions, stereotypes, attitudes and practices, physical barriers in the environment, or larger scale oppression. It is oftentimes unintentional. The thought that people with disabilities are dependent and require the care and support of someone else is an example of ableism.

Sadly, ableism is woven into the fabric of society. It is a reality! The best thing to do is just realize it and try to do better! The number one thing to remember is to treat someone

with a disability how you would want to be treated. Everyone appreciates respect and etiquette, not just people with disabilities. Acceptance is Key!

What other “don’ts” would you suggest for disability activists? Don't be shy tell us your thoughts below!

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See ya in your skivvies!

Shannon and the Slick Chicks Team


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