Are you ready to be anti-ableist in 2021?

The word “Disability” letter spelled in ASL with the DIS separated from ABILITY
Make a New Year’s Resolution to add anti-ableism to your skillset from 2021 going forward.
The word “Disability” letter spelled in ASL with the DIS separated from ABILITY

As I start to think about the standard “year-end” / wrap-up articles related to accessibility, this one seems pretty obvious.

We need more people to be anti-ableist.

Ableism is a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities and often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be “fixed” and are not equal to non-disabled individuals.

Anti-ableism is the opposite of ableism, with a practical focus on strategies, theories, actions, and practices that challenge and counter ableism, inequalities, prejudices, and discrimination based on any type of disability — including visible, invisible, learning, developmental, physical, or mental health.

Being anti-ableist requires more than just being a disability ally/a11y (a11y is the abbreviation for accessibility, which I will use for the rest of this article). Anti-ableists incur major risk — they put themselves out there, risking being the recipient of the same type of blowback as people with disabilities. Being anti-ableist also requires two separate work components:

  1. The ability to grow in one’s allyship with any underrepresented group. Because this is in general, this is the “breadth” component of anti-ableism.
  2. The ability to deepen one’s understanding of the barriers that regularly impact people with disabilities and how to best address and remove those barriers. Because this is specific to disabilities, this is the “depth” component of anti-ableism.

General growth to become a true and authentic ally includes:

  1. Self-reflection. What have you been doing to help people with disabilities? What could you have done better?
  2. An aspiration to learn, grow, and change, with a particular focus on intersectional identities.
  3. The ability to be humble, empathetic, and compassionate, and have uncomfortable conversations.
  4. The capacity to actively listen to the stories and lived experiences of underrepresented minorities and amplify these marginalized voices.
  5. The desire to affect change to improve the rights of an underrepresented group using one’s social capital, positional authority, and political influence.

People who want to be allies to any underrepresented group need to be ready to BE better and DO better. The first five tasks listed above help individuals reach that “breadth” first step I identified at the top of this article. These five tasks are necessary to generate the skillset for generic allyship for *any* underrepresented group. Potential a11ies need to be ready to take several specific steps directly related to disability and ableism to be anti-ableist.

  1. Challenge the representation of people with disabilities by non-disabled people by reading books, listening to podcasts, and watching films centered around the experiences of people with disabilities.
  2. Disrupt the able-bodied community they have likely been surrounded by since childhood.
  3. Stop perpetuating the supremacy of not having a disability by being willing to see and treat people with disabilities as equals.
  4. Reject the privilege of either being able-bodied or being able to hide an invisible disability.
  5. Follow the societal model of disability while challenging occurrences of the medical and charitable models of disability. It is not my glaucoma or wheelchair use that is disabling. Society allowing businesses to create digital tools that can’t be magnified or used by a keyboard, and physical events that don’t consider attendees with mobility challenges — THOSE are my disabilities.
  6. Recognize that people with disabilities are experts at developing workarounds for their disabilities. Include them in every solution you are involved in.
  7. Remove barriers that create an inequitable experience for people with disabilities. If you don’t control removing them, report them to someone who can and follow up incessantly.
  8. Follow identity-first language when requested, and people-first language otherwise, for all communications. Ask what nouns people use to describe themselves, just like you would inquire about pronouns. Disabled or person with a disability or differently-abled? Autistic, a person with Asperger’s, on the spectrum. Give people with disabilities the dignity of being able to choose how they describe themselves.
  9. Avoid and call out inspiration pornwhich is incredibly harmful to people with disabilities, no matter how well-intentioned.

One other important side note is to recognize that people with disabilities are NOT automatically anti-ableist. They aren’t even automatically a11ies to other people with different disabilities than those they possess. If you don’t:

  • Caption your videos;
  • Describe your images;
  • Choose an accessible color palette;
  • Treat all disability categories as equal;
  • Call out ableism for ALL areas of disability, not just the one(s) you happen to live with;

You are ableist. It is fixable. Do the work.

If you have gotten to the end of this article, you are in one of two camps:

  • You are already doing the work but read the article anyway because you are SO committed you wanted to see if there is some secret sauce to doing it better. Bad news, there isn’t. Just do more of what you are already doing.
  • You are thinking about doing the work but not sure how to proceed.

Take each point above (there is 14 total) and identify one thing you could do better for each category. And then plan to do it in 2021. Here is a non-exhaustive list:

  • Learn how to use the most popular screen reader for the device you send most of your email on.
  • Start a Global Accessibility Awareness Day event (May 20th, 2021) at your office, including a “no mouse” challenge.
  • Attend employee resource group (or student) meetings and mental health events.
  • Ask your procurement team to review adding accessibility to their vendor qualifications list.
  • Go to unconscious bias/disability awareness training.
  • Make your email, communications, and social media posts accessible.
  • Review and clean up your job descriptions, deleting all ableist language.
  • Do a secret-shopper test to see if your talent team really responds to reasonable accommodations requests from candidates.
  • Look at your organization’s PowerPoint templates and ask yourself, “could everyone use these?”
  • Ask your UX group if they interview people with disabilities. When the answer is no, help them fix that. When the answer is STILL no, call them out on their ableism.

It seems like an overwhelming list, but if you do one thing a month for the next year, in December 2021, you’ll be back next year looking for secret sauce because you will be anti-ableist.

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