I work as a grassroots community organizer of Paraquad, a pretty awesome Center for Independent Living that helps to empower people with disabilities to live their lives as they choose. In a nutshell, that means my job is to help people realize their personal power to advocate for and create change.
If you work with the disability community, you may encounter some of the same matters I do. So here are five of my own personal tips for working with people with disabilities.
Before I list them, it bears mentioning that the disability community has for years been viewed by a segment of society as a group that requires coddling and compulsory care instead of collaboration. It is this kind of institutionalized thinking that many people with disabilities have internalized over time. As a result, they have become complacent, accepting this point of view as their own. This affects the way people with disabilities pursue living their lives.
Because society has set such low expectations for people with disabilities, you may encounter people with disabilities who do not have very high expectations for themselves. However, there are those who use negative thinking as ammunition to break out of such a stigma and maybe even venture into the realm of “overachievement” as a result. It is an interesting gradient.
- Be a mirror. Reflect who people with disabilities are to themselves. Help them to really see themselves in reference to the world and how they see themselves operating in the world. Regardless of ability, being told “you can’t do that,” “you won’t be able to” or “you need help” takes a toll on the self-esteem, self-worth and confidence of a people to a generational degree even. My job — our job — is to challenge this. This discouragement is the soil in which an organizer like myself seeks to plant seeds. Helping people with disabilities and future generations see themselves as a part of the larger community, instead of a lone wolf advocate, is the way to empower them. Through unification with others in the Independent Living movement, I can get a person looking at the state of who they truly are in regard to the life (and standard of such) that they live. Then, I can encourage them to make change and take independent steps. That is the basis of the Independent Living philosophy and movement. Independent means self-reliant — to rely on one’s self. So one must be careful not to force a person into an experience they did not choose for themselves (I leave that up to life!) It has been said that independence means having the choice and control to make even a bad decision in life. If I didn’t have that choice and control, how different would I be in comparison to the institutionalized mindset of society? When people realize their personal power to pursue the life they choose, they will begin to reply to society’s dissuasion with “I can do it,” “I am able” and “I’ll tell you if I need help,” be it under good or bad circumstances.
- Learn more about and join the Independent Living movement. Let’s talk diversity in disability. There are so many disabilities out there. I often tell people I have diagnostic criteria books on my desk, and I can find something in there for everyone — and I mean everyone. Disability is so vast in its range of affecting a person’s physical, mental and emotional capacities. That being said, the next piece of advice I will offer is…
- Never assume you know if a person has a disability. If you feel it appropriate, do your best to ask as politely and respectfully as you can, but never assume you know. Many disabilities, like autism, deafness, epilepsy and mental illness, are invisible. The plight of people with invisible disabilities is that much more difficult as they have to often verify and validate their disability while trying so hard not to be discriminated against because of it.
- Educate yourself. Ladies and gentlemen, introducing …the Internet! Or let your guard down, set aside your clinical perspective and really get to know another human being who happens to have a disability. If you happen to know the disability of the person with whom you are working, there is information out there about how to interact with people with particular disabilities. Like other communities, the disability community includes many diverse cultures.
- Disability etiquette can provide you with cultural nuances of specific disabilities and help you to work with people with disabilities while treating them with dignity. As society’s perspective is pried open, change is happening and progress is being made. We can see this in important cases like the expansion of community inclusion, consideration for accessibility of the world and the language that is evolving. We, too, must evolve and keep up with the progress of political correctness (let’s at least make an effort not to offend someone with our ignorance). Still, there are some people with disabilities who will give you grief no matter what because they are just rude, just like some people without disabilities. In that case, refer back to the first tip: Keep calm and just be a mirror.
If you’re interested in joining the Independent Living movement and uniting with others to agitate and create change for yourself and/or your community, put me to work! Let’s organize and mobilize.
Janá Thomas is the Grassroots Community Organizer at Paraquad. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.