How to become an ally for a person with disability?
When I was a child, people didn’t think twice about how they addressed persons with disabilities. No one cared about the feelings of someone being called, “crippled person” or “dumb” etc. In the movies, there’d be jokes on people’s disability. Some were excluded by their own families – asked not to get involved lest they cause others even more work.
Slowly over a period of time, people developed sympathy towards persons with disabilities. Maybe they felt supporting the persons with disabilities, would increase the balance in their account of Punyam (credit for the good deeds)! With the efforts of human rights/disability rights activists, governments started issuing guidelines/G.O.s to protect the interests of persons with disabilities. Finally the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995 came into force on February 7, 1996. It is a significant step which ensures equal opportunities for the people with disabilities.
In recent years, the tide has turned. The move today is not just supporting but empowering persons with disabilities. Finally, people are realizing that persons with disabilities have the same right to live life, just like anybody else.
Over the years, I’ve observed people uncomfortable and afraid of causing hurt or disrespect in their conversations with persons with disabilities. I’ve encountered several questions - like, “How can I address a person with disabilities?”, “Can I extend support?”, “Can I ask questions?”
I’ve seen friends and colleagues struggle with what to say, what not to say. This article is my way of supporting my friends. Here are my thoughts based on my experiences as a person with a disability and someone who works to empower others with disabilities.
At the outset let me clarify - persons with disabilities are not a homogeneous group. Treat them as you would any person – try to understand them as an individual. Most of the confusion arises from thinking that there is one way to treat all the persons who are wheelchair users, or persons with visual impairments etc. Hence please try to understand the feelings and concerns of persons with disabilities by speaking to them openly. Then you will understand what type of treatment they are expecting from others. They are individuals with different requirements and unique personalities. Just like you would take the time to understand your friends, treating each according to their personality, I request that you do the same when you meet someone with a disability. With that said, here is some advice for specific situations -
1. Always communicate
A friend shared this experience with me. Arun* applied for a job. The organization conducted interviews virtually. After several rounds of interviews, Arun’s performance had impressed the interviewers and they decided to select him. They asked him to come to their office to complete some formalities. It was only when he went to their office, they realized that Arun is a wheelchair-user. On seeing him, their faces were drained of color. They began to talk to Arun differently. They abruptly told him some urgent work had come up and they would call him back. He never received a call back.
Reading this, you’re probably realizing this was not fair practice. Here’s how this situation could have played out instead:
The interviewers could have honestly admitted that they were not expecting him to be a wheelchair-user. Then they should have proceeded to clear their doubts – explaining their inclusive facilities or lack of them. It would be best to have asked if he needed additional accommodations to perform his duties. In case if it was difficult to make such arrangements due to huge expenditure involved or due to any other reason, the same should have been explained to him politely.
Whatever you do, do not avoid speaking to the person and make decisions that are going to impact him/her. Discuss the same with him/her and then decide.
2. Never assume
Never take decisions on behalf of persons with disabilities based on assumptions. Here’s another story. In one company, Leo* (a person with a disability) had an opportunity to go abroad on a project. But Leo’s manager assumed that it would be difficult for him to travel to another country and handle work there. In reality, Leo enjoyed travelling and was very comfortable with the facilities provided by airlines. He had travelled abroad alone many times and managed things efficiently. The manager assumed things and took a decision to depute another person without disability in his place, and Leo missed a very good opportunity.
Once again, speak to the concerned person and decide. This is applicable for all people irrespective of their ability levels.
There’s so much more for me to share but I will leave these for another time, another article. See you soon!