Disability awareness is the foundation for inclusion and empathy. We practice awareness when we understand that people with disabilities face additional challenges and may experience the same situation as us but very differently. This also includes self-awareness of privilege. Realising that there are gaps in what you know and working to close those gaps is the first step towards awareness.
According to Google Search, inclusion is: “the practice or policy of providing equal access to opportunities and resources for people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those who have physical or mental disabilities and members of other minority groups“.
The world health organisation estimates that there are 1 billion people with disabilities around the world, making people with disabilities the world’s largest minority. In the United States alone, 1 in 5 people (20%) have some form of disability in their lifetime. Worldwide:
300 million people are colour blind,
466 million people have hearing loss,
65 million people rely on wheelchairs and
285 million people are visually impaired.
The reason why disability matters and you should care is because it impacts everyone. It impacts the self-identified disabled people (estimated 1 billion people), the non-identified people with disabilities, allies, friends and family of people with disabilities; and everyone. At some point of one’s life, a person will experience temporary, situational, or age-related disabilities.
There are several definitions, also called “models”, of disability, which try to discern why people are called, or feel themselves, disabled. The medical model of disability explains that a person is disabled if their body is unable to perform some of its normal functions. This is closely related to the way a doctor might see the world, where a disability is something a person has, a “problem” or “bug” to be “treated” or “mitigated”. This model is easy to understand. It is, however, a flawed model. For example, many people cannot read without glasses, but do not consider themselves disabled or blind. This might serve you as an indicator of where the issue is.
In contrast, the social model of disability holds that a disability is a mismatch between a person’s abilities and needs, and their environment. One way to address disabilities is to change the environment. With the right accommodations, such as glasses, or bicycles designed with specific needs in mind, we can remove the barriers that were making something disabling.
The social model of disability calls for an inclusive or universal design. The inclusive design establishes that when you design well for people with disabilities, you also design well for everybody else. For example, sidewalk curb ramps, allow wheelchair users and people who can’t step easily to cross the street. They also benefit cyclists, and people pushing strollers and luggage.
When we apply inclusive design principles to digital products, for instance adding closed captioning, we enable people with disabilities to use them, and we can make our products better for everyone else too. To enable inclusive design, ground it on the following three respects:
- Respect the user: We build products for everyone and that includes people with disabilities;
- Respect the opportunity: understand their needs will allow us to deliver great user experiences and to build products that empower the 1 billion people with disabilities – they could be the next billion users and we have the opportunity to improve their lives;
- Respect each other: We need to make sure the thousands of our co-workers with disabilities feel safe at work. We all play a role in fostering an environment where everyone is included and can do their jobs and is comfortable providing product input. Managers have an especially important role to play in supporting people with disabilities on their teams, removing barriers and enabling them to succeed to their full potential.
Disability awareness requires the understanding of the meaning of empathy and its discernment from sympathy. Dr Brenne Brown explains the difference between empathy and sympathy in a clear and concise way. Please watch the video below.
Once you build some awareness you can start practicing allyship. Allyship is an ongoing practice, it is not an identity or a label. Allyship is about constantly using your awareness to take action to create more inclusion and equity for communities of which you are not a member. As you practice allyship you will find that you learn more about yourself and about others.
Building awareness and allyship will require you to start conversations with people with disabilities. Don’t ignore or avoid people out of guilt, pity, or fear. Nor make assumptions about someone’s background, experiences, or capabilities because they have a disability. Allyship is not easy, and it’s not linear. You will make mistakes, then grow and learn more, and make more mistakes. There’s no finish line, and we continue to learn and grow.
As you grow your awareness and allyship you will start your journey of advocating for people with disabilities. Advocacy means spreading awareness, challenging other people to be more inclusive and encouraging broad systemic change. The cost of unfairness and discrimination is alarming. In the United States companies lose an estimated $64 billion annually as a result of having to replace employees who departed because of unfair or discriminatory treatment (March 2021 report by the Center for American Progress). You practice advocacy by challenging the status quo and demanding equity, even when people with disabilities are not present in the room.
As an advocate you will amplify voices of people with disabilities, however, don’t speak for the community without consent. There’s a saying in the disability community: “Nothing about us without us.”