If you want to learn more about being inclusive of those with disabilities (and why wouldn’t you?), a great way to start is by reading the book, Demystifying Disability: What to Know, What to Say, and How to be an Ally, by Emily Ladau.
This book is an excellent primer that teaches exactly what it promises in the subtitle: what to know, what to say, and how to be an ally. In this post, I’ll share my review and a few takeaways from the book.
The author describes the book as a “safe space to learn and find answers to questions you might have but aren’t sure how to ask.” Ladau, who (among other disabilities) has Larsen syndrome and uses a wheelchair, shares stories and examples from her personal life to illustrate her points.
As she mentions, every person with a disability is different—in fact, even two people with the same diagnosis will experience different effects of that diagnosis. For this reason, she does not attempt to speak for all disabled people. Rather, she shares her experience and perspective while also referencing what others in the disabled community have taught. It presents a balanced and informative overview of disabilities and disability allyship.
What to Know
From presenting multiple definitions of what a disability is, to summarizing key points in the history of the fight for disability rights (which isn’t over yet), to exposing ableism, to educating about inclusive language, this book covers all the bases for a “Disability 101” kind of book.
Here are a few takeaways related to what everyone should know about disability:
- People with disabilities make up the largest minority in the world. And it’s a minority group that anyone can join at any time.
- Disability is complex. Many people have multiple disabilities, and everyone has multiple intersecting identities that affect their viewpoints and how they’re treated by others. Disability is just one part of the whole person.
- People with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed than people without disabilities. As of 2019, 63.3% of nondisabled people were employed, while only 19.3% of disabled people were employed.
- People with disabilities make important contributions to society. Some historical figures you may not have known had disabilities include Harriet Tubman, Frida Kahlo, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. There are many other important disabled historical figures that you’ve probably never heard of. I hadn’t, until I read about them in Ladau’s book.
- Unfortunately, it is still legal in many parts of the U.S. to pay people with disabilities less than minimum wage—substantially, tragically less. This is one of the many ways our society still devalues people with disabilities. Fortunately, some states have passed laws eliminating subminimum wages, but the wheels of progress turn slowly.
What to Say
As Ladau points out, there’s no one-size-fits-all advice about what words to use for all disabled people. Some people prefer person-first language (such as “person with cerebral palsy”) and some prefer identity-first language (such as “blind person”). Some people with multiple disabilities prefer a mixture of both (such as “autistic person with a brain injury”). And some don’t identify with the term “disability” even if they have a condition that qualifies as a disability. The important thing to remember is when in doubt, ask the individual.
There are, however, some general guidelines for what not to say:
- Don’t use euphemisms like “differently abled” or “handicapable.” Just say “disabled” or “disability.” (Never “handicapped.”) However, some disabled people might prefer a different term, so when speaking to or about a specific person, use their preferred terminology.
- Don’t use disabilities as an insult. Some examples to avoid are:
- That’s so lame!
- She’s crazy.
- It’s right there—are you blind?
- You’re so OCD about things.
- Stop referring to people with disabilities as “low functioning” or “high functioning.” Ladau quotes Noor Perez, who points out that, “’Low functioning’ is used to deny agency to disabled people who have high support needs, while ‘high functioning’ is used to deny resources to people who can mask their disability well.”
- Don’t refer to things like terrorism, gun violence, and racism as a “sickness” or “disease.” When society equates bad things with illness, it further stigmatizes disability.
- Don’t ask invasive questions. To quote the author, “If you wouldn’t ask a nondisabled person the same question in the same context, don’t ask a disabled person.”
How to Be an Ally
Reading this book is a terrific first step toward allyship. Here are some other tips for being a good ally:
- As Ladau puts it, “stop treating disabled people as a weird cross between precious gems and alien creatures.” We’re people. Just treat us like people.
- Amplify disabled voices. Ladau advises, “if you are in a position of privilege, rather than using that position to amplify your own voice, ask yourself whose perspectives are missing from the conversation.” Then “share the mic” with those people and give them the opportunities and platforms to have their message heard.
- Don’t share “inspiration porn.” If you’re not familiar with that term, view Stella Young’s amazing TED Talk. If you find yourself feeling inspired by a story about a person with disabilities, stop and ask yourself why. Rather than truly being inspirational, these stories often “inspire” feelings of pity. Ask yourself if you’d feel the same way if the person in the story were nondisabled.
- Use inclusive language. If you’re not sure where to start, there’s a great “say this; not this” list in Laudau’s book. Language can be hard to change, so when you find yourself slipping up, correct yourself and move on.
- Don’t take a joy ride in a wheelchair or put on a blindfold to try to simulate a disabled person’s experience. Ladau shares a better way of building empathy: “actively seek out the work and words of disabled people.”
- Make accessibility a priority. As Ladau says, “What people are really saying when they make excuses about accessibility is ‘Disabled people are unwelcome here.’”
I highly recommend Demystifying Disability as the starting point for anyone who wants to better understand how to interact with and better support people with disabilities. Then I encourage you to continue your learning journey by exploring some of the resources the author lists in the bibliography for the book.
In addition, connect with disabled people on social media (including me), read memoirs written by disabled authors, watch documentaries about disabilities, and above all, listen to the disabled people in your life.
Have you read Demystifying Disability? I’d love to know your thoughts.
What other great books about disabilities would you recommend? What else would you like me to review? Leave a comment below.