December 3rd marks the International Day of Person’s with Disabilities–celebrating the largest and arguably most invisible minority group. It’s estimated that in the United States alone,1 in 5 people have a disability, and in addition, anyone can become disabled at any time.
I am one of those 1 in 5.
As someone who has been disabled since birth, I’ve talked about my diagnoses at length and my medical history could be made into a book on its own, so I won’t bore you with the details. But people with disabilities have been fighting for their rights for decades, from staging sit-ins in government offices to protesting on behalf of inclusion in the school system. The social model of disability, activists argue, says that more often than not, we are more disabeld by a non-accessible and inequitable society than we are by our bodies. Although there has been progress in this area, the Americans with Disabilities Act, which makes it illegal to discriminate with a person with a disability, has only been law for 30 years. Despite this, there is still a need for significant progress. Disabled people are your friends, family and community members who have so much to offer the world, and I might be biased, but our resilience and sense of humor are second to none.
If you want to learn more about how to be an ally to your disabled friends, remember:
- Not all disabilities are visible. As someone who depends on a power wheelchair for nearly all of my mobility, my disability is visible–and for many, the first thing people see. However, for most, their disabilities are invisible–and not noticeable to the naked eye. Even though many of us don’t “look sick,” our disabilities very much influence how we interact with the world around us. Those with invisible disabilities often forgo disclosing them in job applications despite reasonable accommodation–which is covered by the ADA–out of fear that it would impact how others perceive their job performance. The truth is that people with disabilities are capable, resourceful, and creative–because we have been forced to adapt to the barriers placed in front of us.
- When we say we’re in pain or not feeling well, believe us. Often for people with disabilities–myself included–pain is a part of our daily existence. I’m even in pain as I type this post. Just saying that you believe us when we’re not feeling well and asking what you can do to help goes a long way.
- We don’t have to be inspiring all the time. I constantly get told by others how inspiring I am for how I deal with my circumstances, and occasionally is done by complete strangers and in public places. While this is sweet, it can sometimes become objectifying–and something that only makes able-bodied people feel better about themselves for not being disabled. Next time you want to call your disabled friends inspiring, ask yourself, “What for?” While there is no doubt that our disabilities make it harder to do many things in life, and we can and do accomplish many inspiring things as disabled people, the pressure to constantly be a role model for mundane tasks can be a lot to put on a person. Remember that we’re people just like anyone else, and we’re more alike than we are different.
- Disability is intersectional. Because disability can happen to anyone at any time, disability is intersectional–and disabled people of color have more barriers than disabled White people. Medical racism is rampant in the medical community, unintentional or not, and up to half of victims of police brutality are disabled–with most of those also being people of color. For example, a person who is both black and deaf is more likely to be perceived as a threat to police than someone who is not a member of each of those minority groups, and Marcus-David Peters was killed by police while experiencing a psychiatric episode. By advocating for disability rights, we must advocate for all people and make sure they have a seat at the table.
- We are capable, resilient, and have inherent worth. As a disabled person who has gone through more than my fair share of struggles, I grew up thinking that I inherently had less value than my able-bodied peers; in many ways, I still think that, and it is something I’ve been slowly working to unlearn. One of the ways I’ve done this is with the help of disabled representation in the media. Disabled people are making big moves, such as actress Keira Allen being a real wheelchair user cast opposite Sarah Paulson in Hulu’s Run as well as Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth’s work as a double amputee to make changes at the federal level to remove barriers and make the world a more accessible place for all. Even if you don’t make a splash in the way these two women have, it’s important to remember that all people–including disabled people–have inherent worth and value.
On this International Day of Person’s With Disabilities, I can’t help but look at my community with pride. Although disabled stories aren’t often told and progress has been slow, we are slowly but surely coming out of the shadows to make our voices heard. If you want to learn more about the disability community and the disability rights movement, check out the documentary Crip Camp, available on Netflix.