This post is dedicated to S, who helps to advocate for acceptance, not just awareness for disabled friends
Whenever I speak at conferences or on panels, I often mention my friends and how much they help me with things related to disability life. A majority of them are not members of the disability community, and instead are fantastic allies that are very accepting of disability. One of the common questions I am asked is how I managed to meet so many awesome people, and how I educate them on my disability. Today, I will be sharing how to be an ally to disabled friends (or if you prefer person-first language, friends with disabilities).
No, I didn’t sit my friends down and give them a lecture on my disability, but I did make a point to educate them by giving them bite-sized amounts of information. I happen to have the most incredible friends that are all accepting and willing to help me if I ask, and even when I don’t ask. Some things I have educated my friends on include being a human guide (read more about being a human guide here), print disabilties (read more about ten things I have learned about print disabilities here), and individual components of my condition like double vision (read more about life with double vision here).
Don’t assume that you are entitled to learn all about a person’s disability, just because you noticed they are disabled. I am personally very open about my conditions, partially because I run a blog where I talk about my disability. Some examples of ways people ask me about my disability include asking what I can see, questions about my cane or glasses (read more about how I answer questions about my glasses here), or other non-intimidating questions. Most people do not feel like they should have to teach you about their condition or give you a detailed answer- and that is perfectly valid and acceptable.
I don’t like it when people sneak up behind me, because I don’t know if they are a friend or a stranger. Because of this, I request that my friends not sneak up on me from behind, or hug me from behind. I also ask them to identify themselves when they start talking, which is as simple as saying “Hey Veronica, it’s (name).” Read more about how to approach people with vision impairments without scaring them here.
I have photosensitivity, so I can’t handle flashing or strobing lights. I remind new friends of this when we are going somewhere that is likely to have flashing lights, before they show me gifs, watching a video, and other situations. After being friends for a while, several of my friends have told me that when they see flashing lights in public, they instinctively think to tell me to close my eyes, even if I’m not with them. Read more about photosensitivity in the classroom here.
I use a mix of person-first and identity-first language when talking about myself. Sometimes I am a person with a vision impairment (person-first), and other times I am a visually impaired person (identity-first). I personally do not have a preference, but some people do, so it doesn’t hurt to ask what someone prefers, as some people strictly use person-first or identity-first. Just don’t use flowery language to describe a disability- read more in my post about being “vision empowered” and how ridiculous it sounds here. You don’t have to edit your entire vocabulary to talk to someone with a disability though- read my post on words like “see” here.
There have been times where my friends show me something and then realized shortly afterwards that I can’t see what they are showing me, or watched them as they walk in areas that are inaccessible to me. Don’t panic over forgetting things like this, as everyone makes mistakes and it’s important not to be super critical of your actions. It helps to correct your behavior if possible- for example, moving to accessible terrain, zooming in or describing images, or similar. I sort of take incidents like this as a compliment, because it means I am not just seen as the token disabled friend.
One of my friends completely surprised me once by saying they had read a few articles in medical journals about my brain condition, so they could better understand how it affects me. I was so touched by this, and was glad they had sought out reliable sources. My friend did not treat me any differently after learning details of my condition, which was awesome. Read more about how I explain my brain condition, Chiari Malformation, here.
Another thing that might help is to research their assistive technology or other accommodations to understand how they use them. Read more about resources to teach people about low vision and Braille here.
When a friend first met me, they assumed that since I use a blindness cane, I needed to constantly have a human guide with me, and that I could not navigate campus independently. They were shocked to learn I could walk a short distance, and that I didn’t use my cane in my dorm room. Each person is unique, and may not fit your mental image of what a person with that disability looks like- and that’s okay!
When I first started dealing with a then-undiagnosed brain condition, no one was quite sure what to expect as my condition changed over time. Would my eyesight worsen? Would I start getting chronic migraines? Would I walk funny? The answer to all of these questions was yes, and it helped to have people understand that disability is not static, and changes over time, sometimes not for the better. Read more about my experiences with an undiagnosed illness in high school here.
While there are many organizations out there that spread information and awareness about various disabilities and conditions, the words of these organizations should not speak louder than the people with the disabilities themselves. Some of these organizations are even harmful, as they may exclude certain people or promote dangerous treatments- or even extreme measures like sterilization and eugenics. What people with disabilities want is acceptance and to be listened to, so finding and supporting voices in the disability community is important. I use Twitter a lot as a way of following people and listening to what they have to say.
Your friend is ultimately the person who knows the most about their condition, so don’t try to educate them on their own condition. They also may talk about disability a lot- let them, because chances are, this is a huge part of their life and dictates a lot of what they do.
Thank you for being an ally to disabled friends!