Autistic Future
July 19th, 2016

Your Audience is Disabled

Like many neu­ro­di­ver­si­ty peo­ple, I main­tain a per­son­al social media pres­ence the size of a small NGO’s. It’s what we do. Affil­i­a­tion with the Neu­ro­di­ver­si­ty Move­ment often comes with both dis­abled iden­ti­ty and expe­ri­ence with the inter­net and social media. When a per­son or orga­ni­za­tion doing good things for the dis­abil­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty needs help with these things, I try to step in. Over time, I’ve end­ed up putting a lot of con­tent on the inter­net, some­times as a vol­un­teer, some­times for pay, and one of my fun­da­men­tal guid­ing prin­ci­ples is to assume that any audi­ence I have includes peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, includ­ing I/DD. That does­n’t mean I assume I have read­ers. I watch the data to know whether any­one is real­ly lis­ten­ing. It just means that I con­sid­er the old dis­abil­i­ty rights and cul­ture max­im ‘noth­ing about us with­out us.’ I avoid writ­ing as if no one with a dis­abil­i­ty could be read­ing what I say.

Basi­cal­ly, I try not to do what many dis­abil­i­ty advo­ca­cy non­prof­its do way too fre­quent­ly on social media. I love most I/DD advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions, but I have to pick on them because they tend to be the worst about this with the excep­tion of the ones with most­ly or exclu­sive­ly dis­abled lead­er­ship. When a most­ly non-dis­abled I/DD orga­ni­za­tion offers puts dis­abil­i­ty-relat­ed infor­ma­tion on social media, it tends to be writ­ten for loved ones. The word­ing goes some­thing like this:

An ABLE Account might help your child plan for the future.” (bad)


An ABLE Account might help you plan for your loved one’s future.” (worse)

Instead of

An ABLE Account might help you or your loved one with a dis­abil­i­ty plan for the future.” (bet­ter)

It’s difficult for a person with a disability to see language that looks like it is only targeted to our non-disabled loved ones without feeling excluded from the discussion. That language is about things that concern us, but it speaks to an audience that is not us. It talks about us and over us rather than to us. It’s the language of a writer who may not completely grasp the fact that plenty of people with disabilities are literate, and many of us use the internet. People don’t like to be talked about as if they weren’t present when they are.

We argue a lot about lan­guage in I/DD cir­cles, espe­cial­ly per­son- vs. iden­ti­ty-first lan­guage.* The strength of peo­ple’s con­vic­tions and the iden­ti­ty impli­ca­tions of the words peo­ple use makes it impor­tant to respect each indi­vid­u­al’s choice. How­ev­er, we’re miss­ing a lan­guage prob­lem that has the poten­tial to make per­son-first and iden­ti­ty-first peo­ple feel equal­ly unwel­come. If you’re blog­ging, post­ing, or tweet­ing about dis­abil­i­ty issues, please remem­ber that peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties are part of your audi­ence, ulti­mate­ly the rea­son that cre­at­ing or mov­ing con­tent about dis­abil­i­ty is some­thing you do. Struc­ture your sen­tences and pick your words to show that you know we’re here, lis­ten­ing, and maybe the ones using the infor­ma­tion or tak­ing the advice. Use lan­guage that wraps in peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, our loved ones, and peo­ple who fall into both cat­e­gories. There are more of those than you think. You should do this out of polite­ness, but you might want to do it for oth­er rea­sons, too. If you rec­og­nize us, if your lan­guage con­veys a respect­ful acknowl­edg­ment of our pres­ence, we might just be a lit­tle more like­ly to click ‘Like,’ ‘Retweet,’ or ‘Add to Cart.’

*Think ‘per­son with Down Syn­drome’ vs. ‘Autis­tic person.’