Learning About Disabilities

October is Disability History Month. During the past few years, I’ve learned a lot more about disabilities, disability justice, and how to be a more thoughtful ally. I’m still learning and will have to continue to learn and evolve around disabilities. Carrie has been a patient mentor – make sure to read some of Carrie’s past blog posts on Fakequity.

For this week’s post I’ll share some of what I’ve learned about disabilities over the years. I am not a disability expert, nor am I part of the disability justice world. But I want to share some novice level info in the hopes it will spur you to dig deeper on your own. For those heavily immersed in this world, thank you for the grace of teaching people like me. This post is hopefully a quick invitation to others who like me have to learn and need a little nudge or exposure to learn more.

There isn’t one way to be disabled

A few years ago, I was called out in a blog comment about not including disabilities in my writing. It was true I didn’t write about disabilities – I focused on race because that is what I know. It is a fool’s errand to write about what you don’t know and thus I stayed away from writing about disabilities. I didn’t want to make a mistake, be called out, or at worse do more harm. However, the call out was important because disabilities is something I need to learn about and include in Fakequity. Carrie was very patient when I emailed her asking for help. I am grateful since it wasn’t her job to educate me.

One of the first things she taught me over a pho lunch, was there isn’t one way to be disabled. Disabilities includes many different ways of being disabled. In American culture we’re often socialized to believe disabilities are physical and often visible. This isn’t true for everyone with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) definition of disabilities “as a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”  

Disabilities can include many different ways of being disabled – physical disabilities, vision, hearing/auditory, neurological, medical, cognitive, psychological, mobility, etc. For me realizing the wide array of disabilities was a lightbulb moment.

One out of five people have a disability. At different points in our lives, we can shift to being disabled, or for some out of a disability. It is important to understand and realize this so we can be more consciousness about creating environments that are inclusive of people with disabilities. Accommodations for a person with low vision would be different than a person with a medical disability.

Access and Accommodations

My colleague Trang said during a planning call around COVID vaccine clinics, (paraphrasing) “how people with the highest burdens and needs experience an event is a sign of how well the event went.” She said it much more elegantly. Trang taught me a new way to prioritize who events are designed for and how to create a better experience for people with disabilities, language access, people of color comfort and wellbeing. Rephrased less elegantly, we need to design our work, events, spaces, etc. thinking about how people with disabilities and their intersectional needs (e.g. language, technology fluency and tech access, transportation, historical inclusion, etc.). If we fail to think about them while we plan they will get lost in the shuffle and won’t have a great experience.

Carrie is also famous for the saying “when you design for everyone, you design for no one.” No one event/program can meet everyone’s needs – impossible to please everyone. This means being clear about who you are focusing on and why you are creating whatever you’re creating. If you want to be inclusive of people with disabilities, you need to understand who the people are. Not every person with a disability needs the same things at the same time.

Finally, Heidi has blogged about this in the past – Access Isn’t Equity. While it is important to think about providing access to events, meetings, classrooms, for people with disabilities that isn’t true racial equity or disability justice. Access is just that access to a space not designed for or by people with disabilities. Justice requires us to step back and create the conditions that foster and default to people with disabilities having ownership/control and comfort/wellbeing of whatever is being developed. This is what we should be striving for.

A curated list of additional resources from Carrie:

One out of Five, Office of Education Ombuds

There Is No Justice Without Disability

Invisible Disability Project (IDP)

10 Tips for Introducing Disability to Kids – In a future post (sometime this month hopefully, we’ll delve into conversations with kids and disabilities).

Rooted in Rights

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I am writing from the ancestral lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawaii; a small action to hopefully repair and work to be in more justice based relations.