Disability justice is needed now more than ever. Here are just a few of the ways the rights of people with disabilities are being undermined: Attorney General Jeff Sessions in February claimed that those of us living with chronic pain and receiving prescriptions should take aspirin and “tough it out.” Meanwhile, Republicans have pushed for attaching work requirements to a variety of social safety-net programs and tried to pass HR 620, which passed in the U.S. House but stalled in the U.S. Senate.
I am multiply-disabled due to issues with my spine and knees, chronic illnesses, and pain. I use a cane and have used a walker in the past. The issues of ableism aren’t new for me as I have lost jobs, friends, family, and partners due to their unwillingness to make necessary accommodations and supports for me. However, now that my disabilities are more visible, I have had new experiences with ableism that are humiliating and harmful.
There is no justice without disability justice, and people living with a disability need able-bodied accomplices to stand beside us as we fight to eliminate the ills of ableism.
In 2010 there were 56.7 million people in the United States living with a disability—19 percent of the total population, according to the Census Bureau. More than half of those people reported a severe disability. The Bureau of Justice Statistics says up to 40 percent of incarcerated people have a disability, though the U.S. government doesn’t recognize many disabilities as such and is likely undercounting. and almost half of the people killed by law enforcement have a disability.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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Researchers estimate that as many as 40 percent of women with disabilities experience sexual assault or physical violence in their lifetimes and more than 90 percent of people with developmental disabilities will experience sexual assault. Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, yet it seems as if our struggle for basic human rights hasn’t eased up at all.
While we’re fighting for systemic change and an end to institutional bias against disabled bodies, there are very clear actions able-bodied accomplices can do to treat those with disabilities with dignity. This is not meant to be a complete list, but rather a beginning guide for the able-bodied.
Don’t stare or touch without consent.
People with disabilities aren’t spectacles for you to ogle or fetshize, or for your inspiration porn.
As I go about my life, I’m trying to get through my day while traversing a world that wasn’t created for me. Your stares and unsolicited help aren’t welcome. Do not “assist” a person with a disability without our consent. You may think you’re helping, but your actions could cause great harm. There may be occasions where we need assistance, and your help may be welcome, but ask first.
Don’t compare us to seniors.
I respect my elders, but my disabilities do not mean that I’m a senior. This is a form of ableism on both a systematic and individual level. Many government programs for people with disabilities are also rolled into services for seniors. This is problematic and wholly unfair for those with disabilities. Our medical and social service needs are different from our elders. We may require help that able-bodied folks from our age groups don’t need, but we’re still trying to live a rich life full of meaning. I’m working, dating, organizing, writing, socializing, resisting colonialism, and fighting for my life as many of you are. I just happen to rock a cane and struggle with chronic pain. Do not compare me to the experiences of your grandparents and other elders.
Make spaces more accessible for us.
As we fight to build and update disability accessible infrastructure, there are ways that the able-bodied can help us in the meantime. It’s incredibly difficult to open doors while using many mobility devices, such as a walker, braces, or a wheelchair. Hold the door open for us and make sure our pathways are clear. If you see us in motorized carts and scooters, then get out of the way. If you insist upon having rugs then make sure they won’t move. I can’t tell you how many times I almost tripped and fell while using a walker because of rugs that were not secured to the floor. Move obstacles that are in our path out of the way. If you see someone who is sight impaired, then ask them if they’d like help learning how to the navigate the space. Basic common courtesies and sense will go a long way toward ensuring our ability to participate in public and private spaces.
Talk to us, not our aides.
We are our own people, and depending upon the disability, many of us are capable of thinking for ourselves. Be friendly to our aides and translators, but remember they do not think for us, nor are they in charge of us. Unless someone is incapacitated, then speak directly to us, not our helpers. Furthermore, don’t assume that someone who is with us is on the job. Being disabled doesn’t exclude us from having friends, partners, and family.
Service animals are not pets.
I know dogs and animals are adorable and it can be difficult to resist the urge to pet them and do baby speak, but these animals are on the clock. Your pets and conversation with them can distract them from doing their job and in turn harm the human they’re helping. Service animals are also legally allowed in restaurants, stores, and other public spaces. Service animals are no different for us than canes or crutches. They help us live more independent lives and they must be respected.
Respect our time.
As an Indigenous and Queer person I know the jokes of running on “Indian time” or “Queer standard time” and what it means to exist under colonized time constructs, but many of us with disabilities have to live highly scheduled lives. Some of the busiest people I know are disabled. Your tardiness and no-shows can throw us off. It can mean that we don’t eat, take medications, or make medical appointments. I literally schedule my life around going to medical appointments, picking up prescriptions, and making calls to government agencies in order to access and keep the services I need. I have to schedule rest and sleep breaks because I’m so exhausted from the pain, ableism, and other isms I experience. Please also understand that sometimes we’ll be late or need to cancel because the world isn’t designed for us and it takes us much longer to travel places. Paratransit and other travel services are not funded as they should, are not fully functional, and can be our only means of transportation. Some destinations we simply can’t go to because they are not accessible.
Disability doesn’t translate to a sexless or loveless life.
Having a disability doesn’t preclude us from having and wanting sex. There are a lot of different forms of sexual play and many of us can find paths to sexual pleasure with understanding partners. Don’t assume that if we don’t have an orgasm, it’s because of our disability. It could be an off day for us. It could be that an orgasm wasn’t the primary goal in play. It could be that you’re not an ideal match and the chemistry wasn’t there. You could also simply be bad in bed.
Certainly not all people living with disabilities have the same desires for sex and romance, as some of our community members are surely ACE, but having a disability should not be equated with a sexless and loveless life. I may not be able to bend like Gumby, but I can get down with the best of them when I’m with the right partner.
Don’t question the legitimacy of our disabilities or give medical advice.
One of the largest barriers to a healthy life is the fact that able-bodied people often do not believe us. I can’t count the many people who have been in my life, including medical providers, who did not believe me when I said I was sick or in pain. They forced me to work and live in ways that caused more bodily harm. The severity of many of my mobility impairments are due to poor medical care and ableist employers and family.
We are often denied care because of not only the expense, but because others don’t take us seriously due to their own biases. The fear I feel of medical providers is real and sometimes keeps me from seeking care.
My list of wretched encounters is miles long. I often swap medical abuse stories with many of my friends with disabilities. We support each other as far too many of our loved ones do not believe that we are ill or disabled.
I genuinely wish that aspirin would make my pain go away, but despite Jeff Sessions’ hateful words, I cannot simply “tough it out” without medication. However, able-bodied people can make accommodations that would allow me, and others with disabilities, to live fuller, richer lives.