How to Fight Ableism as a Nondisabled Person

Three Methods:UnderstandingInteracting with Disabled PeopleInteracting with Society

Perhaps you have a disabled loved one, maybe you're an intersectional feminist who wants to live up the name, or perhaps you just want to make the world a better place. Disabled people can always use allies to make their lives better.

Method 1

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    Read articles from well-known disabled writers. Disabled people are the foremost experts on disability, so look for the leading voices. They will show up higher in search engines, and they will say what disability/ies they have on their "about me" page.
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    Research the general opinions of the disability community. Disabled people often experience the misfortune of others speaking for them and over them, and you can avoid doing this by learning what they think. Here are some examples of misconceptions that the disability community discusses:
    • Insistence upon only person-first language when many (but not all) disabled people prefer identity-first language ("disabled person").[1][2]Using appropriate language shows respect.
    • Inspiration porn—"This girl is smiling despite the horrible horror of having two prosthetic legs, so all your struggles are invalid."[3][4]
    • Widespread support of harmful organizations, such as Autism Speaks.[5]
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    Read about common stereotypes that disabled people don't like. You may have unwittingly absorbed negative attitudes, so education can call them to your attention and allow you to act with acceptance. Here are some examples of stereotypes:
    • Conflating disability and death[6][7]
    • Disabled people as violent, evil, etc.[8][9]
    • Disability caused by mental weakness or laziness
    • All disabled people being childlike or asexual[10][11]
    • Disability being constant suffering; disabled people being incredibly strong for having accomplishments/leaving the house/breathing
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    Pay attention to intersectionality issues. Be sure to read from disabled women, disabled people of color, disabled LGBTQIA people, disabled heavier people, et cetera. An end of ableism means access for all disabled people, not only the straight white male ones.
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    Think about your own attitudes and actions. As you read, it's important to reflect and evaluate yourself. What have you been doing that helps? What have you been doing that hurts?
    • Have I done this harmful thing that the writer describes? Next time, what could I do instead?
    • Have I been dismissive or disrespectful towards disabled people?
    • Do I harbor negative attitudes towards people with physical disabilities, mental illnesses, or cognitive disabilities? Do I think of them as worthless, criminal, lazy, or disgusting?
    • Do I know how to be polite towards disabled people? Should I read more about good manners?
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    Be patient with yourself. It takes time to understand new things. You will mess up sometimes, and you may be called out for it. Apologize sincerely, carry on with kindness and grace, and forgive yourself. The fact that you made a mistake is less important than how you responded to it.
    • It's important to know how not to take criticism personally.

Method 2
Interacting with Disabled People

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    Treat disabled strangers with the same common courtesy you'd extend to anyone. Look them in the eye (if they are open to eye contact), and address them directly using a normal vocabulary and tone of voice. Basically, treat them like you would a non-disabled person, with courtesy to any individual needs.
    • If you feel the urge to stare, give the person a smile instead. Then continue what you were doing.
    • Avoid pitying remarks such as "I'll pray for you" or backhanded compliments like "you're so pretty for a girl in a wheelchair."
    • Don't ask about their disability if it isn't relevant; they don't need to answer the same questions 15 times every day.
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    See the person and their disability. Their disability is a part of them, so it's unfair to pretend it doesn't exist or get mad at them when they need accommodations. You can like and respect them as a person while acknowledging that their disability exists.
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    Listen when disabled people when they talk about their disabilities. They understand their own bodies and experiences best. Good listening skills are always important, but especially when talking to people who are often talked over.
    • Assume that the disabled person is trying their hardest to manage their disability and get the help they need.
    • Remember that they know more about their disability than you do.
    • When in doubt, ask "Are you looking for advice, or just a listening ear?" They'll appreciate it.
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    Avoid assumptions. You can't usually assess the degree of someone's disability just by looking at them or talking to them for 30 minutes. Disability is complex, so trust them when it comes to their needs—they are the experts on themselves.
    • Some people use mobility equipment or alternative communication to make difficult tasks easier (e.g. a wheelchair user who can walk short distances or a partially verbal person who only uses sign language sometimes).
    • People can have disabilities without "looking disabled."
    • Not all disabled people perfectly match the textbook definition or popular stereotype.
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    Recognize that their abilities may vary from day to day. Level of difficulty can change based on many things—stress, the weather, lack of sleep, how hard they pushed themselves yesterday—some of which are highly variable or not even understood by the disabled person. When in doubt about their needs, just ask.
    • A wheelchair user who shows up walking with a cane today is not necessarily faking it or "getting better." He is probably just having an easier time walking today.
    • An autistic woman who is normally full of hugs may not be able handle the input when she is stressed. Don't take it personally if she says no.
    • A depressed person can smile and laugh at a party and feel miserable the next day. This is nobody's fault.
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    Ask about their needs as relevant. If you mean well and intend to help, most disabled people are glad you asked. This can allow them to be more comfortable or safe, and they'll trust you to respect their needs in the future.
    • "Do you have any needs that I should be aware of in general?"
    • "Should I move this chair out of your way?"
    • "You mentioned that you have PTSD from sexual assault, and this movie has a pretty intense sex scene. Would you prefer to watch something else instead?"
  7. Image titled Woman with Down Syndrome Consoles Crying Girl.png
    Respect their problems and emotions, visible or not. Many disabled people don't discuss how deep their troubles run—it's often personal, and they don't want to upset you. If they say something is really hard for them, then assume it is, even if you don't personally witness them struggling.
    • People with chronic pain and other disabilities may have an excellent poker face.
    • Respond with compassion if they have a panic attack, meltdown, psychotic episode, or other breakdown. (Call one of their loved ones if you don't know what to do.)
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    Treat their disability as natural. This can be an enormous relief to people who have to put up with others treating them as burdens or curiosities.
    • Accommodate without a fuss. "Loud noises hurt your ears? Okay, I'll shut the door more quietly from now on."
    • Don't make a big deal out of difficulties. "Huh, there's no wheelchair ramp here. That stinks. We could get takeout and eat it at the park, or should we try that Chinese place instead?"

Method 3
Interacting with Society

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    Amplify disabled voices on social media. Pass along that "Disability Manners 101" article or "How to Help a Depressed Friend" PDF. You don't have to be disabled to share disability resources! This is an easy way to educate people and promote understanding attitudes.
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    Celebrate disability awareness/acceptance events. This can educate people who don't have the specific disability, and provide emotional support to those who do. Your friend with Down Syndrome may light up when you dress up in blue and yellow to celebrate World Down Syndrome Day.
    • Check with the disability community before celebrating an event, in case it is run by a harmful group or promotes dangerous ideas.
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    Work on removing ableist language from your vocabulary. Stop calling people who disagree with you crazy, willfully ignorant people deaf or blind, foolish people -tards, or anyone stupid. These all refer to people with disabilities.[12] They imply that disability is insulting, and that disability is antithetical to agreeing with your or having a reasonable opinion.[13][14]
  4. Image titled Woman Comforts Man.png
    Fight the idea that strong emotions are a sign of weakness. The idea that suffering should be hidden contributes to mentally ill people's reluctance to seek help, and hinders understanding of all disabled people's problems.
    • Mentally ill people and autistic people can experience especially strong emotions.
    • Men face additional pressure not to appear "weak" or "girly." Rigid gender roles are not good for anyone. Treat men's emotions as worth sharing, and consider your own prejudices.
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    Call out or call in your non-disabled friends when they do problematic things.[15][16] This can be a huge relief to disabled people, so they don't have to constantly bear the burden of educating others.
    • "Hey, that language is really hurtful to people with disabilities. Please don't use it."
    • "That's not fair. Would you treat a non-disabled person the same way?"
    • "How do you think a Deaf person would feel if they heard you saying that?"
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    Be respectful and mature when called out. Calling others out can be a very scary thing to do (especially for disabled people), and you need to make it clear that you're a safe person. Listen, apologize, and work on doing better.
    • If you cannot accept criticism with grace, then you are probably not ready for activism.
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    Treat everyone with compassion. You never know who is disabled, nor do you know who is struggling or having a really bad day. Give second chances when people make honest mistakes. Treat people as having equal human dignity, no matter how difficult it is for them to pass a test or brush their own teeth. All people, disabled or not, deserve respect.

Article Info

Categories: Disability Issues | Disability Activism