This month I gave a speech on behalf of Enhance The UK about inclusion in the workplace and the best ways to be a disabled ally. This is an adapted version of that speech and the video at the bottom of the page is the speech in full:
There are a number of things you can probably assume from looking at me: she likes vintage clothes, She spends a long time on her hair care, she finds life very amusing. But there are some things you won’t know when you first see me and, as a YouTuber with a rather active comments section, I can tell you they’re the things I hear the most: “you don’t look like a lesbian”, “you’re too pretty to be disabled” and “you don’t sound deaf”.
These observations seem pretty harmless but what they’re actually saying is ‘you’re not ‘other’ enough: you look like me.’
‘Passing’ for an able-bodied person might seem like a good thing: I can go where I want, do what I want, get the job I want… except it doesn’t actually mean that, it just implies the expectation that I should be able to. As I wrote in a previous post, having a hidden disability or chronic illness actually means having to explain oneself over and over, gatekeeping from able bodied people who assume you are too. For some it means not getting the help we need and the adaptions that allow us to work and live.
This is why being diagnosed with a ‘disability’ was one of the best things that ever happened to me. It gave meaning to the body I had struggled with all of my life. No longer was I called lazy for having low energy, punished for being ‘dreamy’ in class when I actually just couldn’t hear or laughed at for being weaker than the others.
‘Disabled’ is a very positive word to me. I fought to be called disabled, fought for that recognition. Calling myself disabled is a way to tell the world that I’m a fighter, that I struggle but I’m trying and I’m going to keep on trying. But please excuse me if I drop something on your foot.
Yet I see how scared able-bodied people around me are of using just that simple word- too frightened of messing up! This is where the terms ‘hand-i-capable’ and ‘differently abled’ are brought in and things start to get messy. Yes, we’re all better at some things than others and I’m sure we all have talents that beat everyone else but we’re not talking about the special snowflakeness of the universe right now I just want you to open that door for me because my hands can’t grasp so can you stop giving me a lecture about my own abilities or lack of and just be helpful!!!
… is what I have wanted to say many a time.
If you want to be a good ally to disabled people then please, don’t skirt around the truth, don’t run away from disabled terminology because you’re trying to be PC. Feel free to ask me questions (polite ones!), and please, please, please ask about my accessibility needs. It might not look it when you first see me but I only manage to leave the house three days a week so it’s kind of a big deal and I’m going to need a little help with that.
It’s not that people don’t care, it’s that they don’t think.
We all make assumptions but some of those guesses are harmful. If we assume that everyone in the office can stand for a long meeting then we’re possibly forgetting that for someone they might be able to do that, but they won’t be able to do anything else for the rest of the day. If we try to make our work place ‘disabled friendly’ by putting in a ramp we’re forgetting those who can spring up some stairs but have sensory issues or problems with their arms.
We can’t know what a person needs unless we ask. We can’t help someone unless they tell us what they need but no one is going to do that unless we offer them a place of safety and openness.
Disabled people need to know they can come to you.
I’ll leave you with an exercise: What would happen if you were in accident tomorrow and became disabled? Picture your home: getting up in the morning, making breakfast, leaving the house. Picture the journey to work: public transport or your car, are there stairs, are there announcements, can you hold everything yourself? Picture going into the office: having meetings, working at your desk, talking to clients…
Whatever the disability you have imagined yourself into your life will be different. The people around you can’t know how different or how much help you’ll need unless they ask.