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4 Things You Should Consider to Support People with Disabilities

By Pam Dewey • disabilities, disability, people with disabilities, disabled, learn disability, chronic illnesses, supporting people with disabilities, disability ally, differently-abled, person with disability, disability advocacy, disability advocate • June 16, 2022

Having a disability is a lot more common than most people realize. Not all disabilities are visible. People have learning challenges or chronic illnesses that you can’t see as easily as someone who uses a wheelchair. And as people age, their bodies change, and that can mean they become disabled.

The World Bank states, “One billion people, or 15% of the world’s population, experience some form of disability.” That means you likely know someone with a disability, whether you realize it or not.

Here are 4 things you should know to support people with disabilities.

It’s okay to say disabled, but not everyone does

NPR states, “There's certainly nothing inherently bad or shameful about being disabled or having a disability. So the words disabled or disability? Use them.” In the past, people stopped using the word disabled because it was believed to carry a stigma, but the disabled community has reclaimed that word. However, it’s important to use the language the person you’re speaking with prefers. Some people with disabilities may still not use the word disability.

Listen to the words they use

Disability rights activist and writer Emily Ladau states, "Language is one of the most important signals that we have to demonstrate our acceptance or rejection of a person's identity.” When speaking to a person who is disabled, listen to the words they use to describe themselves. Maybe they say they’re disabled, maybe they prefer differently-abled or maybe something else entirely. Like respecting someone’s gender identity, using the language they use shows you respect who they are and how they choose to identify. 

There is no single experience

No person with a disability has the same experience. Even if people have the same condition or health challenge, how it manifests can be completely different. Ladau explains that within her own family, “for instance, she, her mom and uncle have the same rare genetic disability. But for each of them, the disability manifests and impacts them differently.” Not only is every body different, but every person is different too. So a young white woman who is disabled will experience the world differently than a young black man with a disability. A multitude of factors can change a person’s perspective and how the world interacts with them, like their socioeconomic status, sexuality, race, religion, education, gender and ethnicity.

Learn how to be an ally

Ladau says, "To me, being an ally looks like asking yourself 'Who's at the table?' It's a constant learning process and that can be challenging, but when we know better, we can do better." Since being a person with a disability is not a fixed experience, you will have to adjust how you show up for different people who are disabled. Supporting these individuals will be different because they will have different needs and experiences of the world. While it’s not a disabled person’s job to educate you, listen to them, instead of assuming you know what they need.

The disability community has reclaimed the word disabled, but some may still prefer different language. Use the words they prefer to show you value and recognize how they identify themselves. There is no single experience of disability. Every person is different, and so too is their experience of the world. To support them, consider their view and experience of the world and then support each disabled person in the way they need.