More than Awareness

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As an autistic person, awareness months always make me chuckle. Often interpreting things literally, I think, people arent aware this exists? Of course, I understand the actual purpose is to spread awareness of the struggles, needs, messages, etc., of whichever cause or group the month is celebrating. Bringing awareness leads to action, usually in volunteering time or donating money to reach a specific goal, for example, cancer research. However, during this Disability Awareness Month, I would like to propose a new challenge for the celebration.

Last year in April, known as Autism Awareness Month, autistic self-advocates made the change to celebrate autism acceptance rather than awareness. Im not suggesting copying that specific idea, but I like the thought of shifting the message to something more direct. Rather than just being aware of the challenges faced by people with disabilities in our communities, think about what you can do to become an ally. Donating to organizations that serve individuals with disabilities or volunteering your time to these organizations is indeed important. Still, there are things we can do in our everyday lives that are as easy as simple changes in mindset.

A common mistake I see when people try to support individuals with disabilities is infantilization and sometimes dehumanization. If youre talking about kids, treating them like kids is fine. But a disabled adult has adult emotions, adult experiences, and adult aspirations. Its both dangerous and offensive to treat us otherwise. Think of disability as an identifying factor such as race or gender. Having a disability doesnt make us less capable, we just experience the world and approach challenges differently. And this is not to be inspiring, nor does it warrant a sure you can. It just is. If someone with a disability gets asked to prom, it makes national news; but a non-disabled teenager does not make news for the same. Neither situation is newsworthy. Paralympians coming home with a medal is exciting because they represent our country as some of the best athletes in the world. Trischa Zorn should be no more inspiring to you than Michael Phelps. It takes zero effort to treat someone as your equal, yet it is the most important thing you can do to support individuals with disabilities.

Another aspect of disability allyship is to consider how decisions impact us. Are you aware of how policies made by our leaders affect our livelihoods? Are you calling out friends and family that use offensive language such as the r word? Small acts of kindness such as ensuring the sidewalk in front of your house is clear of snow or debris can make a huge impact on someone who uses a wheelchair or crutches. Be sure your kids understand inclusion and that they are kind to kids with disabilities at school and on the playground. Please encourage them to make friends with kids that are different than them. Remember that before you help someone with a disability, you ask them if they would like your help. When approaching a disabled person who may have someone else with them, address the person with a disability directly, do not assume they cant speak for themselves. I could list examples all day, but it comes down to treating people with disabilities as people and expanding your horizons to understand people that experience the world differently than you (which can go beyond disability).

This advocacy should bleed into our work as well. Create an environment where a person with a disability feels comfortable and safe to self-identify. When working on diversity, equity, and inclusion, remember disability is part of that. When planning events or projects that impact the community, include people with disabilities, in not only the decision-making but also the ideas.

A wiser person than me once said that when you design for disability, it benefits everyone. If we design how we think about disability to be better allies, we will be better equipped to treat all people with equity and inclusion.