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.’

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