January 9th, 2018
Please take the time to learn something about disability in 2018. There is no reason to think 2018 will be any less challenging for the disability community in the U.S. than 2017 was. The things that made 2017 so difficult are largely unchanged. For that reason, it’s important to consider how to protect the interests of people with disabilities when problems arise in the new year. One small step almost anyone can take is becoming more informed in 2018.
It seems paradoxical to say that pan-disability advocacy efforts have the best track record of furthering disability rights and disability justice in this country, but, historically, they do. This is true despite the size and diversity of the group of people called disabled, an umbrella so big that it seems like an almost useless descriptor at face value. People whose most significant access needs are extensive medical equipment to stay alive, extra time on tests until they graduate from that final academic setting to reach their full potential, and viable alternatives to driving a car to maintain an independent life all fall into the category.
Some people use service animals. Others take medication. Some struggle to interact with other people. Others struggle to cope when they have to be alone. Some need SSI, Medicaid, or both. Others are economically self-sufficient and ignorant of the details of those programs. Someone whose primary disability is a mental illness may be informed about navigating the relevant systems of care but nothing about wheelchair accessibility and vice versa. These hypothetical people may also not think particularly well of each other.
People with different kinds of disabilities do not always appreciate what we have in common and the extent to which our interests are shared. It is distressingly common for disabled people to hold ableist attitudes toward others’, or even their own, disabilities. People whose primary disabilities are mental illness or I/DD are particularly likely to to face this kind of discrimination. These ideas are likely absorbed through contact with a society that devalues disability and disabled people, some more than others. Grappling with them is a task almost all people with disabilities have to take on at one time or another.
It is an essential task to take on now. Despite our diversity, the disability community has usually been most able to protect itself when its constituent parts work together, when each shows up when others need help. At the end of the day, disabled people are a big group. People with any given disability are a much smaller group. Because numbers matter, we fare better when we are attentive to each other. Still, we are ill-equipped to look after each other unless we know something about each other’s needs.
Because we may have to support each other’s advocacy this year, it benefits us all to learn more about each other. Taking time to absorb a little information about a disability that isn’t yours, or your loved one’s, or the one you deal with most in professional contexts, might be important for understanding a policy debate later. It might also be a way of growing in compassion for the challenges others face. It’s harder to judge and stereotype, and easier to shake off unthinkingly ableist attitudes, when we understand something of each other’s lives. The more we learn, the better, but half an hour sometime this year is far better than nothing. Whether you learn about programs and services, assistive technology, or culture, knowing more about the vast range and scope of disability will make you a better advocate in 2018.