The Most Important Things I’ve Learned Working With People With Disabilities for 6 Years

For those of you who don’t know, I’ve been helping people with disabilities achieve their vocational, residential, and social goals for the last 6 years. What I have learned during this time has changed me so much, and while I started with the idea I was being a pretty nice guy, I find myself now realizing I had no idea what I was doing and so many of my good intentions were actually discriminating and ignorant. So here are some things I learned that can hopefully help you avoid misunderstanding your relationship to people with disabilities and help you recognize the soul who experiences unique challenges with their exterior.

  1. The best advocate for a person with a disability is the person with a disability

    Don’t get me wrong – people with disabilities could use as many voices in the public arena as possible, but don’t get so carried away while holding a megaphone that you actually impose your own desires on a person with a disability. Every person is different and making scene or gaining special treatment may be the exact opposite of what the person for whom you are fighting wants. A good follow up read is this quick Wikipedia article about the slogan “Nothing about us without us.”

  2. When you talk to someone with a disability, don’t change they way you’re talking

    It’s very hard, especially for the nurturing type, to resist talking to someone with a learning disability like they are a child. While I recognize it’s a real challenge, treating someone who is an adult like a child can be extremely offensive or worse, perpetuate the low expectations of those people with disabilities who are lumped into the same societal expectations as children. Here is a popular list called the 10 Commandments of Disability Etiquette.

  3. Stop saying “retarded” immediately

    I used to think it was really cool to say this, but imagine my horror when on my first day of training as a vocational trainer I said something to the effect of “wow, that is pretty retarded,” about something I can’t even remember. This used to be the legal definition of a person with a learning disability, but society has turned it into one of the most degrading and dehumanizing insults, not necessarily to the person who is called the name, but to every person whose challenges are used as a derogatory reference. This is on par with the worst of racial slurs now, so this is your fair warning to stop immediately. Learn more about ending the r-word.

  4. Don’t do things for people with disabilities they can do themselves

    Living this way can seem strange, but I have learned not to hold doors for people in wheel chairs who can use an accessible entrance, to keep my mouth shut when someone is struggling to find the words to finish a sentence, and to ask someone if they need help before I assume they want or need it. There is nothing wrong with holding the door for someone, but only if that’s what you’d normally do for the person behind you. Behind all the good intentions of being helpful is often the belief that your role is to make life easier for people with disabilities when in fact it is to empower people with disabilities to realize their full potential. How do you do that? Ask the person with a disability and don’t assume anything but equal treatment.

  5. Stop having pity, showing charity, or being sympathetic and fight for the civil rights of every human being who is being oppressed in your community

    Throughout the course of every person’s life are opportunities to specialize in a certain career, hobby, field of study, and noble cause. We often find ourselves championing one cause over another and this is natural. But recognize that fighting for the rights of someone with one diversity over the rights of someone with another is hypocrisy and the worst sort of favoritism. People with disabilities are not charity cases or unfortunate. Don’t let the heart-warming images of people with disabilities on social services websites blind you to the epidemics of the sex trade, drug rings, and rampant discrimination in housing and employment, not to mention the discrimination in your own heart. Stand up for the rights of any oppressed person when you find yourself able.

I would invite any person with a disability to critique this if you feel I’ve misrepresented your position. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know this stuff – most people don’t. Instead, make a commitment to change the way you think about your fellow citizens with disabilities and your role as their neighbor.

I have accepted a job in software engineering, which is a huge career change, but let’s be honest – I’ve been getting paid to do this. It’s easy to be an advocate when someone is paying you. No one is going to pay you to be an advocate for people with disabilities in your workplace (except maybe in HR), so the difference between you and me is only that I have less excuses.

Let me know what you think if you want. Here is the ultimate follow up if you live in Ohio.


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