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Four Tips for Being Inclusive Towards Individuals With Disabilities

Discussing common behavioral microaggressions that people with disabilities too often have to deal with on a daily basis

By Dima GhawiPublished 30 days ago 6 min read
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Disability inclusion is becoming ever more common in today’s workplaces, a reality to the benefit of both people with disabilities and the rest of society! One key way all of us can advance our inclusion journey is thus educating ourselves on microaggressions faced by people with disabilities. In this blog, I will be discussing some of the most common behavioral microaggressions that people with disabilities too often have to deal with on a daily basis.

Inappropriate Physical Contact and Behaviors

Though it should go without saying, I find it often bears repeating: we must not touch a person’s wheelchair, their guide dog, their crutches, or any other mobility aid they use without their consent! (Guide dogs in particular are always on the job and thus cannot be distracted from the work they’re doing. Although they may be cute, it is never appropriate to go up and pet a guide dog or any service animal without permission.) One mentality is to think of a mobility aid like an extension of a person's body, and—in simplest terms—it is rude and plain wrong to touch another person’s body without their consent. I know that I would be extremely uncomfortable if a stranger came up to me and grabbed my arm! As such, the key point here is simple: respect personal space, including that of mobility aids.

On a related note, sometimes able-bodied people attempt to “help” people with disabilities, and sometimes that help comes from a kind-hearted place. Where that kindness turns into an ableist microaggression, however, is when assistance is imposed: when able-bodied people assume people with disabilities need help to accomplish everyday tasks, and especially when able-bodied people do not ask for consent as to whether or not the person with disabilities needs help (or worse, when able-bodied people ignore whatever response they are given!). Increasing awareness about this particular microaggression is not to suggest that you shouldn’t open the door for a wheelchair user, for example, or that you shouldn’t offer to help carry boxes for a person who’s using a cane, but rather that we should ask whether or not the person needs assistance rather than assuming people with disabilities are helpless or incapable of accomplishing tasks on their own. Sometimes people with disabilities need help, sometimes they don’t, and the best way to find out is simply to ask!

Inappropriate Conversational Strategies

Behavioral microaggressions toward people with disabilities extend beyond the more physical aspects, including if not especially into how able-bodied individuals navigate conversations with people with disabilities. One of the most common conversational microaggressions that people with disabilities face is the denial of privacy, also known as the dreaded What happened to you? and any other questions that invasively demand a person with disabilities share information about their disability. However, no one owes anyone an explanation about their personal life, be it related to their disability or their hobbies or their favorite movie or anything in-between! People have a right to privacy, and we should respect that right for people with disabilities by refusing to engage in unnecessary and rude interrogation about their disability. As such, if someone who has a disability wants to share their experiences, that is solely their own prerogative.

On the opposite end of the microaggression spectrum is disregarding or denying a person’s disability, e.g. refusing to recognize the impact of invisible disabilities or insisting that Oh, we all have some disability as a means to minimize the other person’s experiences. Just as it is rude to hyperfocus on a person’s disability, it is equally rude to pretend they don’t have a disability (and in turn don’t need accommodations). The underlying message of this microaggression is that the feelings and experiences of people with disabilities are not real, that their feelings don’t matter, and that their feelings are not important to us. In my experience, this message is not one people truly subscribe to, because I have repeatedly found that humans are empathetic and seek to make connections with one another! As such, when people choose to share information about their disability and their experience(s) as a person with disabilities, we must be respectful and trust their knowledge.

Another common microaggression against people with disabilities is the conundrum of eye contact, be it forcing neurodiverse people to make eye contact or be it deliberately avoiding eye contact with wheelchair users and people with facial differences. With the former, we must challenge ourselves to rethink the “necessity” of eye contact in every situation: is a person with social anxiety disorder really being rude by avoiding our eyes, and if not, can we continue our conversation without the implied “need” for eye contact? With the latter, we must intentionally challenge the social stigma surrounding wheelchairs and especially facial differences, where facial differences are too often understood as “ugly” and “something to look away from” instead of part of humanity’s natural variation. Fortunately, we can actively counter these ableist beliefs by looking our colleagues with facial differences in the eyes when we speak to them! And know that although these eye contact situations may seem to be in opposition with another, they are both rooted in ableism—it’s up to us to recognize what situation we’re in and modify our behavior accordingly to ensure maximum inclusivity!

Yet another microaggression that we see all too often (especially in the media) is the patronization of a person’s disability, particularly treating them a source of “inspiration” simply because they’re disabled, e.g. telling someone that they’re So brave! for living with a disability. Too often people with disabilities are rendered “inspirational” simply for going about their ordinary life, with the only difference being the fact that they have a disability. And don’t get me wrong, people with disabilities can certainly be inspirational, but we must resist the ableist assumption that they are inspirational “because” they have a disability or because they are “overcoming” their disability. Rather, disability is just a fact of life and another element of humanity’s innate diversity!

The final common conversational microaggression I want to touch upon here is unwanted medical advice, such as recommending “medical procedures, treatment, or medication that may ‘solve’ their disability.” To counter this microaggression, we must simply remember that people with disabilities are always going to be the foremost expert on their own experiences. (We certainly don’t know anyone else better than we know ourselves, so the same applies to people with disabilities!) Not only is offering unsolicited medical advice to people with disabilities at best redundant (they’ve likely heard it all before from their doctor as well as through their own research and experiences) and at worst rude, it also reinforces the ableist assumption that disability is a medical problem to be “solved” instead of an inherent element of human diversity. Not all disabilities demand “treatment” and a “cure”!

Remember: people with disabilities are actually that—people who happen to have a disability. When interacting with someone who has a disability, a good rule of thumb is to engage in conversation the same way we would an able-bodied person, be it talking about the weather or last night’s football game or their favorite movie. If you’re someone who shakes hands upon meeting someone for the first time, do the same when meeting a person with a disability! The person will respond accordingly, be it shaking your hand or offering an alternative, from a fist bump to a friendly nod.

Note that the breakdown of behavioral microaggressions I have provided here is far from comprehensive. To learn more, see below for a from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society that notes numerous examples of microaggressions that many people with disabilities unfortunately face on a daily basis:

I encourage everyone to visit their website for numerous other examples!

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Dima Ghawi is the founder of a global talent development company with a primary mission for advancing individuals in leadership. Through keynote speeches, training programs and executive coaching, Dima has empowered thousands of professionals across the globe to expand their leadership potential. In addition, she provides guidance to business executives to develop diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies and to implement a multi-year plan for advancing quality leaders from within the organization. Reach her at DimaGhawi.com and BreakingVases.com.

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About the Creator

Dima Ghawi

Dima is an award-winning author and a three-time TEDx Speaker. Through keynote speeches, workshops, training programs, and executive coaching, she has honed a keen expertise in developing leaders to meet the demands of the global workforce.

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