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How to be a better ally to disabled and neurodivergent people

How to be a better ally to disabled and neurodivergent people

By Luke Grayson-Skinner

  • Neurotypical: not displaying or characterized by autistic or other neurologically atypical patterns of thought or behavior.
  • Neurodivergent: differing in mental or neurological function from what is considered typical or normal (frequently used with reference to autistic spectrum disorders); not neurotypical.
  • Infantilizing: treat (someone) as a child or in a way which denies their maturity in age or experience.
  • Erasure: the removal of all traces of something; obliteration.

For a short while, person-first language (person with a disability or alter-abled) was thought to be better and more inclusive than identity-first language (disabled person). As someone who is disabled and neurodivergent, I find identity-first language to be better and much more validating.

My differences make me who I am. My disabilities have a huge part in who I am. Saying “I am disabled” or “I am dyslexic” feels more right than “I am a person with a disability.”

Yes, I am a person. However, I also identify with my differences. 

There are some main barriers for disabled people:

  • Attitudinal: stereotyping and stigmatizing
  • Communication: written and auditory information is often hard to process on its own
  • Physical: stairs, curbs and steep ramps
  • Policy: denying access to reasonable accommodations
  • Programmatic: inconvenient and inconsistent meeting times or varying accessibility accommodations
  • Social: far less likely to be employed or have higher education levels
  • Transportation: lack of access to someone who drives or distance to/from a bus stop

In consideration of these barriers, listed below are ways people can become better allies to disabled and neurodivergent people.

One, do not assume you get it or that you are right. Regardless of your second- or third-hand experience, unless it is your body and your brain, you will never fully get it.

Two, disabled and neurodivergent people understand themselves, their friends and a very large portion of these demographics better than anyone else. However, no two people have the exact same symptoms with the same diagnosis.

Three, make all of your spaces equitable. Offer quiet spaces where someone who is overwhelmed can go to calm themselves down. Be open to further explaining what you mean, or explaining it in a different way. Things aren’t automatically widely understood as someone intends. Capitalize each word in a hashtag (#BlackLivesMatter). That way, people can easily read the words instead of spelling it all out.

Other ways to make equitable spaces include adding image IDs or image descriptions to all your images (a black background with words written in yellow). Use high contrast when making a graphic. This is helpful for everyone, especially colorblind people who cannot see lettering that closely matches the background. 

Four, don’t make decisions that affect or influence marginalized communities without including us in the discussions within your organizations. If someone is not at the table, ask yourself why that group is not being represented. One way to start is to reach out to people with disabilities and simply ask for their help in improving accessibility.

Five, don’t use people with disabilities as your own inspiration to rise above challenges. Yes, everyone has their own battle, but disabled people are too often used as inspirational stories on social media. My story is rarely inspirational. It is rarely happy. If someone says “you’re so incredible for doing this” or “that is so inspirational, I wish I could be more like you,” I instantly check out of the conversation and not-so-patiently wait for a moment to escape the interaction.

Six, never have lower expectations for someone who is disabled. We are often underestimated or seen as the odd one out in any group because we are seen as less capable than our abled counterparts.

Seven, understand that a person’s disability doesn’t define them but may be an important part of their identity. I am more than my illnesses; however, they are still a very important part of my identity.

And eight, stop being afraid of disabilities. Often people have unconscious bias when it comes to interacting with a disabled person. The bias is that we are different, and things or people who are different scare people. Consciously or unconsciously, it is something that has been ingrained in our culture since the beginning. Like most things, it takes time to get past that bias where you are correcting yourself and challenging those inherited beliefs.

As someone who is impacted by multiple life-long disabilities, any of these actions would be extremely helpful for me to actively participate in things I want to be a part of that directly affect my community. I would have been a bigger part of my community had things been more accessible. 

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