By and large, despite the occasional news story about a remarkable individual who inspiringly transcended limitations, individuals with disabilities go both unnoticed and unassisted by the mainstream public. As a result, the full vision of including individuals with disabilities in every facet of society, or “disability inclusion”, is still yet unrealized.
I do not mean, G-d forbid, to discount the efforts of and change effected by trailblazers who have made the world more accessible to individuals with disabilities. I will grant, as does Dov Hirth, that electric cars that cater to the needs of drivers with mobility issues, interactive computer systems that allow those with disabilities utilize computers with only their eyes, phones devices that use Braille characters and many more technological innovations, all testify to the increasingly popular yearning for a more inclusive world. Moreover, work by organizations like Runway of Dreams, which specializes in adaptive yet fashionable apparel, and Disabled Sports USA, which pioneers community sports and recreational and educational programming for individuals with disabilities, undoubtedly enables individuals with disabilities to live “normal” lives.
But I wonder: do we really believe this is enough?
How many of us approach the topic of disability inclusion as a reality we personally and actively must help bring to fruition? Alternatively, how many of us rely on the inventions and services of others as a solution?
In other words, do we actually feel the weight of responsibility to contribute to this specific area of social progress termed “disability inclusion”?
To clarify, I don’t intend to accuse anybody of ill-will or nefarious motives. Many people, myself included, do not grow up with a solid understanding of what disability inclusion means or entails.
As I hope will clearly emerge from this piece, disability inclusion is not, in fact, a movement, but an ideal that manifests itself in an attitude. Including individuals with disabilities in every facet of life is, or at least should be, but a natural consequence of human beings acting with humility, empathy and responsibility for one another. A “movement” implies that there can fairly be multiple perspectives on an issue, but an “ideal” spells unanimity toward a goal that is an expression of basic human decency.
Furthermore, because this is an ideal and not a movement, everybody must be a part of the solution. Selective inclusion – whereby only certain sections of society commit to being part of the solution –at best, sugar-coats a perceived reality in which individuals with disabilities do not belong in the general population. What is necessary is an all-encompassing, cohesive and communal effort to elevate the moral plane of society and create a space for difference. To put it pithily: inclusion must be an all-inclusive effort.
To that end, I would like to suggest and, likewise, debunk five popular misconceptions about disability inclusion that I have confronted in my experience working in this field. Ideally, a better understanding of the topic will yield a future that does not merely accommodate individuals with disabilities, but actively welcomes and embraces them, recognizing their humanity as one in the same as of every person that ever lived.
- It takes a charismatic extrovert to engage with someone with disabilities.
Believe it or not, (and this can justly be the only permitted generalization,) every individual with disabilities is unique and different. There is no standard personality, nature or disposition. Just like everyone else, some individuals are loud and some are quiet, some are funny and some are awkward, some are friendly and some are shy. Any generalization about personality types of individuals with disabilities is a disservice to the person you are dealing with and is, put plainly, untrue. While, as with everyone, extroversion is typically a positive character trait in the realm of building social bonds, it is by no means a hard-and-fast rule that extroversion is any more necessary for interacting with an individual with disabilities than it is with any other population. The moment we internalize this truth is the same moment when we start treating all people as people.
- Disability inclusion is an act of lovingkindness (in Hebrew, ‘Chesed’), or charity.
A correlative (or perhaps cause) of this misconception is that individuals with disabilities are somehow worse or inferior to more typically developing individuals. This fallacy traces its way back to proponents of social Darwinism (basically, “survival of the fittest” applied to human society), and persists in cultural attitude in the form of majoritarianism (that the majority are entitled to a degree of primacy in society). While this short post is far from the proper medium to elucidate the inhumanity of allowing society to be governed by such cold principles, I can certainly say this: just as you and any given stranger fellow can relate to one another in spite of your differences because of your common humanness, so, too, can you relate to individuals with disabilities. Notwithstanding the unique ways in which these emotions are triggered, expressed and managed, individuals with disabilities experience the exact same gamut of human emotions as you, me and Dupree. Furthermore, every person processes life through a lens to which nobody else is privy. Yet, we are able to relate to others because we trust that our lives relate. Why should that be any different with individuals with disabilities? Instead of looking at the world monolithically, we must expand our perspective to realize that everybody exists on an imperfect spectrum of differences. The differences between us are artificial when we realize that, from the day we were born until the day we die, we are all humans. Therefore, we must resist categorizing disability inclusion as a form of charity because while there is an understanding that the former is only expected (both morally and practically) by those who are able to help, the former is something that is both morally demanded and necessarily facilitated by every single person. The former is a good deed to be commended, while the latter is a moral duty.
- Individuals with disabilities should be related to as individuals as disabilities.
That we process, understand and remember others based on their defining characteristics is inevitable; naturally, that is how we are wired. But despite anomalous appearances, modes of thought and behaviors, we must remind ourselves that individuals with disabilities are qualitatively just as human as everyone else. In fact, while engaging with individuals with disabilities may be a step-up from blatant disregard, it is a far cry from the vision of true disability inclusion. While we may be better conditioned to interact with people who look, think and act just like we do, we can adapt and learn to relate to every person as a person. We owe it to both ourselves and those that are different. I challenge you: probe beyond the differences to find the common humanity within. It is most assuredly there, if only we are brave enough to open our eyes.
- It is unimportant how we refer to individuals with disabilities, since it is clear what meaning we intend.
I would like to have a long sit-down with the genius who coined the idiom, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” We have no idea of the effects of the language that we use. As our primary, or most explicit, form of communication, the words we choose come to define our subjects. For example, saying “autistic individuals” is a paradigm of harmful language, because it implies that those individuals have no more important characteristic than the fact that they have autism. But ask yourself (for your sake, silently): how well do you know these individuals? Have you taken the time to get to know them that you feel genuinely confident to make the assessment that their autism is their defining characteristic? Presumably, the person who hears “autistic individuals” gathers a very similar meaning as someone who hears “individuals with autism” (if, indeed, the fact that they have autistic is relevant to the conversation, which is not always the case). The meanings, however, are not exactly alike, and the nuance can mean the difference between treating someone as a victim of a disability and treating someone according to the boundless potential possessed by every human being, without exception. In addition to avoiding an unintended insult, this nuance will consequently manifest itself in the ways in which we relate to these individuals, not to mention in other facets of our dealings with others that are different than us.
- There is little that individuals that disabilities can contribute to society.
Today, this final assertion is, thank G-d, patently untrue. In the last couple of decades, the diverse population of individuals with disabilities has most definitely made its way into the workforce. Vocational training programs give individuals with disabilities the proper support they need as they learn how to perform certain jobs and, likewise, countless companies find roles that suit the disposition of these applicants. While a typically developing person may have an easier time finding and even performing a job, an individual with a disability nonetheless has many abilities that can make him or her a vital asset at a given organization.
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Hopefully, these clarifications illustrate that individuals with disabilities have much to contribute and to teach the world, if only we acknowledge this ability and allow it to blossom. Not a niche for the few but a responsibility for the many, disability inclusion is something that we all must be a part of. For the sake of creating a society worth being a part of, let us include others that deserve to belong. We, and only we, can be the agents of our own transformation.