In a time where it seems every human services profession throws around the word “diversity” in trainings, mission statements, and general discussions they are really missing the point. When people discuss diversity, and say they honor it/ specifically work with these populations they usually list: race, class, economic status, gender identity, sexual orientation. Notice something missing? Yes, no maybe? It’s disability!
It’s something that so many providers that claim to work with all types of people don’t acknowledge or if they do it’s in a surface way that almost makes you feel worse than if they just didn’t say anything. For example, a class on diversity could have in depth materials on sexual orientation, race ETC but have brief and inaccurate information on disability. This is because there are very few accurate examples of disabled people in the media, genuine disability centered interventions to teach students, or even students with disabilities themselves to speak about their experience. If there such students in the class/ school they are often not invited to speak, get their words twisted to conform to the instructors needs and generally are made to feel worse.
This results in human services professionals genuinely believing that they are working in a culturally sensitive way with all marginalized populations. If you search websites to find mental health professionals you’ll see whole catagories of people who say they’re GLBTQ sensitive, work with chronic illness, military personel, or even aviation professionals. But still the word disability is not included.
No one ever asks these professionals what do they think of when they first hear the word disability/ disabled in the context that they work in. Getting at their gut reactions is the first step to emotionally dealing with the biases they have so they can genuinely connect with us.
Here’s the fallout I see from this lack of understanding: (this is by no means an exhaustive list. I personally only have lived the reality of being blind, all other examples are empathetic guesses to the best of my ability)
Professionals in all areas of human services, who do not speak ASL, know how to access an interpreter, or know anything remotely about the deaf community. I’m just meeting some deaf friends, or friends that have deaf friends so I don’t know the extent of this huge oversight. But I’m sure it affects everything from going to the Dr. office, to trying to get an apartment. In the process of not being able to set up basic communication, I would imagine the person feels like they’re a bunch of nothing if the professional wants nothing to do with understanding their needs. If they don’t understand/ connect with them around their deafness and break the communication barrier how can they truly be an ally in the ways their job entails.
Blind people not getting written information in an accessible format, forms e-mailed to them or in large print, being politely and in a caring way guided around unfamiliar spaces, and given the decency to make their needs known/ make it clear how their blindness affects their life and not have it dismissed. I and my blind friends, have been in so many situations approaching human service professionals where this has happened. Have talked to friends where they need to apply for Medicaid/ food stamps/ job / doctor ETC. And they’ll just be handed forms/ mailed forms that are inaccessible. And the staff at such places will flat out say they don’t have time to help the person fill out the forms or know how to put it in an accessible format. This basically means the person is unable to receive services because they can’t even get through the basic intake.
I’ve had situations where professionals have guided me improperly, pushed from behind, grabbed my wrist ETC. I can sometimes have some leeway with this when it’s a random stranger on the street, but especially medical professionals should know you don’t shove someone around like that.
One of the biggest problems I see with being blind and accessing services of any kind (and I’m sure this applies to all disabilities) is there isn’t the openness to let me take the lead in discussing my blindness how it affects me and how it doesn’t ffect me. I can’t even go to a therapist/ call one without first saying I’m blind and getting the uncomfortable silence or change in tone of voice that means we’re now in a totally different dynamic than we were before I mentioned this. I’ve walked into a psych unit and was told the reason I was there (my second time) is because I’m depressed that I’m blind. When I tried to say different, they basically ignored me. Even a staff member who I really like where I’m living truly believes I’m “too smart to have mental illness.”(a whole other issue of not understanding!) and my only issues come from being blind. Being blind, my blindness. How often has that stopped me from getting things I want or need from professionals who say they work with anyone.
When I was towards the end of college I really was worn down by my family and the emotional abuse/ alcoholism that was going on. There wasn’t physical abuse but it was still really not a healthy place to live. I had been staying with friends, but thought maybe someone else could help so my friends didn’t have to take the responsibility. I called a few domestic violence places. (because abuse of a person with a disability or elderly counts as domestic violence). Well it might be in the definition but it’s not on anyone’s mind. They flat out didn’t know what to do. They struggled to understand that no I didn’t have transportation to just get away, no I couldn’t just go ahead and rent an apartment ETC. One person even said that they wouldn’t take me in their shelter because they couldn’t handle figuring out how I’d sign documents and me being able to get around the place. They suggested I go to a shelter for the blind. I think I hung up on him right about then.
It’s stopped me in being able to volunteer. Long story I’ll tell in another post about how I was totally dismissed by this supposedly caring hotline. It’s even stopping me now from even being considered to look into group homes because of the “liability.” People use that word liability so much and often I don’t even know what they’re talking about. I mean yeah I do, like if I god forbid fell down the stairs and decided to sue them. But most of the time they just say it like that’s my cue to just go away and they have no answers. And then other abled people make excuses for them and actually defend them and still there are no answers. They’re like well it’s a good thing that these people are being honest because you wouldn’t want to work with them anyway if they can’t meet your needs. I’m like yeah but if every single organization in whatever category says we can’t meet your needs where do I go? Total silence.
I honestly don’t know very much about other disabilities and how lack of understanding by professionals, and often what looks like not even wanting to try to understand, affects everyday lives. With wheelchair users I’m sure more places are not wheelchair accessible than those that are, or claim they are or want to pretend just to make themselves look good. And because I don’t know their experiences, I don’t know how it is that people who can’t use certain parts of their body, arms hands ETC are treated and not given the time of day. Similarly I don’t know much at all about people with developmental disabilities. Except that on paper I’ve noticed that it seems like they get a lot of services and are more represented in the media. But I could totally be wrong.
Like I keep saying and having validated by my friends, the first step is within our own community. Not just the blind community, deaf community, whielchair users ETC. But across disabilities, us really getting to know one another playing on our strengths fighting for each other. That has to be the foundation. We have to work together and depend on each other, give to each other and ask for support from each other. Because honestly a huge part of the rest of the world doesn’t care. Or they’re too busy to take a minute to understand. Education is important, and somehow we have to get more people who are open to learning and connecting than less on our side. Then slowly things will turn around. But the core of the support we need has to come from within.
It would help if some things just became common place. In the same way there is now, hopefully a greater acceptance of different sexual orientations and safe spaces around that in general. It would be a good first step for some of the following to happen. ASL being taught as a second language in all schools. Units on disability, accurate portrayals with guest speakers being implemented from elementary school up. The hiring and genuine encouragement of professionals with disabilities working in the field. Having documents in alternate formats as a matter of course. All buildings being wheelchair accessible. With these concrete things, (well the hiring thing isn’t so concrete and for another post) these are good steps forward. I mean there are French and Spanish and Italian and probably german taught in schools/ colleges everywhere. Why not ASL? I mean I may be naieve but how hard would that be to do? Even easier how hard would it be to have forms on a flashdrive so someone can fill them out that way, have the forms in an accessible web page online, or just have staff with the mindset and patience to kindly help someone fill out the forms?
Please understand I’m not saying that every single therapist, doctor, housing specialist, social worker ETC is totally dense. I’ve run into some awesome people. People who from the get go were just extremely intuitive on the subject. And people where we went through a real struggle to be on the same page but our relationship was stronger for it. And someone genuinely trying even if it’s a little is better than nothing which I am seeing being done. I’m saying by and large. The degree of acceptance and genuinely wanting to connect that you see with other populations is nowhere near as present with people with disabilities. Even in the disability community. Like I said I don’t know very much about some disabilities. I will learn. And I think a lot of people have their hearts in the right place and want to learn. It’s just gonna take time. And to have more people moving in the direction of being open to learning than not. Questions? Comments? Please tell me if I missed something, said something inaccurately or if you have a story to share.