How we can help our disabled friends and colleagues feel seen, heard and supported.
Updated: Jan 9
- A Queer Perspective on Disability Inclusion.
My name is Ryan Zaman. I am a bi, cis man, and I was born with a neurological condition called Cerebral Palsy, which affects the way my brain communicates with my muscles. This means I sometimes struggle with my energy levels, balance, flexibility and hand-eye coordination. Through my work in corporate D&I, focussing on disability inclusion, I have gained great insight into how individuals and organisations can more meaningfully consider the needs of disabled people - both day-to-day and long term. I am now a disabilities advocate, using my position as a model and a writer to raise awareness around disability-related issues and techniques we can use to improve inclusion of disabled people in our work and social lives.
Even the smallest act of allyship from another person in social or professional situations can make a world of difference. Whilst July might be Disability Pride Month, it’s important to think about how we can make our disabled colleagues and friends feel seen, heard and supported all year round, in the workplace and beyond. Here are some simple but effective tips that I have found on my journey to becoming a better advocate.
NB: There are of course nuances within each community, and how some people feel about what it means to be a good ally can vary. However much of this guidance can also be applied in support of people who are neurodivergent or who have long-term health conditions, and it can be used interchangeably. We also need to keep in mind that non-visible disabilities need to be treated with the same sensibility as any other disability.
1. The most important learning has to come from within: changing our mindset when thinking about disability is pivotal to becoming a more effective ally. Know the differences between the Medical and Social Models of Disability.
Whilst a lot of how we can make disabled friends and colleagues feel supported is to do with how we interact with them and others, arguably, the most important learning has to come from within ourselves. The most important mechanism of change is moving your mindset from The Medical Model of Disability (which is most commonly used in our society) to The Social Model of Disability. The more you are aware of the differences between these schools of thought, and when it is most appropriate to use one or the other, the more effective you will be as an ally.
> The Medical Model of Disability dictates that someone’s condition comes first before the person, and having a disability means there is something wrong with them. Whilst this may be appropriate in medical settings, in wider society, being constantly fed this message in every part of their lives can be incredibly damaging to someone’s state of mind, and heavily contributes to one’s sense of Internalised Ableism.
Internalised Ableism (noun): when disabled people are so heavily influenced by the stereotypes, misconceptions, and discrimination against people with disabilities, that they start to believe that disabilities really do make them inferior.
> The Social Model of Disability on the other hand, moves the burden of being labelled as a ‘problem’ or ‘difficult’ away from the person with the disability, and places the impetus to make positive change on society and highlights the need to eliminate barriers.
2. Familiarise yourself with the different types of barriers we should look out for - keen observation can make all the difference.
The more we familiarise ourselves with the kind of barriers that neurodivergent/disabled people face day-to-day, the more we can support our friends and colleagues in small ways to make what we do more inclusive. Please see the general examples of barriers below and consider how these might apply in work or social settings you may find yourself in:
> If a building isn’t accessible (i.e if there are no ramps or lifts for wheelchair users), it means limited access to services.
> Societal Attitudes/Prejudice/Discrimination faced by those who are neurodivergent, as well as those with physical, mental and long-term health conditions.
> Language and communication barrier (i.e if someone uses Sign Language or Braille, or is non-verbal).
> Shows that an organisation is inflexible, unwilling to change, and seriously needs to address procedures and practices in order to make sure disabled people are considered.
> Organisational changes should not be considered as acts of charity. Everyone should be given equal opportunity to succeed and everyone deserves a level playing field.
3. Prioritise the importance of intersectional thinking when considering how someone might think or feel. Some people may face barriers in other parts of their lives.
As we know, our life experiences have the most significant influence on our world view and society. Whilst the examples of barriers I’ve given above are specific to neurodivergent/disabled people, Social Barriers in a wider sense can be experienced by anyone who is a member of a marginalised community. If a neurodivergent/disabled person is also a member of another marginalised community, Social Barriers can take on a whole new significance.
> Using myself as an example of a disabled person within the Queer community, I have experienced negative social attitudes, prejudice and discrimination in different ways - some linked to my disability, some linked to my queerness. As a result, these layered social barriers which touch different parts of my identity can sometimes have an effect on my emotional capital. They can control how open and vulnerable I am willing to be - usually around people asking me questions about my disability.
4. When speaking to others about their disability, neurodivergence or long-term health condition, it is crucial to remember that they know themselves best. Give them the agency they deserve.
> If you are not sure of someone’s access requirements or if they might need Reasonable Adjustments (a neurodivergent person may talk to you about ‘sensitivities’ and ‘triggers’) please just ask. It is better to know than trying to figure out what that person may need by yourself - the person themselves knows best. Remember to give a valid reason why you would like to know more, e.g.: so you can work with them more closely/improve your understanding of their working style/better understand how you can support them.
> However, please respect someone’s space and boundaries if they do not have the capacity to open up at a specific time, especially if you don’t have a reason other than curiosity to learn more. If they do want to talk to you about it, just not there and then, give them an opportunity to arrange a time to discuss with you.
> Be aware that access requirements and Reasonable Adjustments should be reviewed periodically, as disabilities/long-term health conditions or how they can affect an individual are rarely unchanging. This especially applies to physical conditions. If you manage someone with a condition for example, be open to your team member(s) perhaps arranging to speak to you if there has been a change.
> Always ask before helping someone who might be struggling. Disabled people value their independence - even if it takes a little longer, there is a lot of satisfaction in doing something yourself, even if it is something small like tying shoelaces.
> Always ask if it is OK to touch someone or their mobility aid. Personal space is important to everybody, and those who use mobility aids most likely see them as an extension of their person.
5. Be tactful, emotionally-aware and act only with permission: how we onward share information about another person should be treated as carefully as when that person discloses sensitive, personal information to us.
> Always ask if the person is happy for you to share their requirements further - it is their choice to disclose their disability or not, and this choice should not be taken away from them. Also, if the person themselves wants to tell others, that’s fine too.
> If you have permission to discuss someone’s disability to others on their behalf, it is always best to take someone aside to a quiet space and discuss with them one-on-one and see if they have any questions. This promotes a sense of safety, sensitivity and trust, both between you and the person you are speaking about, but also the person you’re notifying.
6. Everyone’s capability and capacity can vary day-to-day depending on energy levels.
This is especially the case for disabled/neurodivergent people and individuals with long-term health conditions. For us, fluctuations in capacity/capability due to outside factors can be a lot more significant than a neurotypical/non-disabled person. Checking in regularly with our friends and colleagues helps us manage our workload and expectations.
Ask your friend/colleague if they would like to use The Spoon Theory to talk about capacity:
Using spoons as units of energy, Christine Miserandino originally explained that non-disabled people have more ‘spoons’ than disabled people to complete tasks throughout the week, with every task requiring a different number of ‘spoons’ (amounts of energy) to complete in any given day.
On a good day, you may have enough spoons to do everything. However, if you don’t get much sleep for example, you will have less spoons to use the next day. In the same vein, if someone does something that requires a lot of energy - they might have to use more spoons here and sacrifice energy that is normally used for another task. Similarly, disabled/neurodivergent people might ‘save spoons’ during a quieter period, knowing that they will need to use that energy for an event/task later in the day, or later on in the week.
> Remember: it is not helpful to make direct comparisons with the capability/capacity of others - everyone and everybody is different!
7. Reflect on your own experience.
Thinking about both social and professional environments, how would you like to be supported in order to feel truly included, and how would you like your words to feel like they carry weight when decisions are being made? Think about a time when you may have been injured and your capability has been reduced. What changes could you make to make others feel more mentally and physically safe?
Odds are, a lot of the kinds of things you are thinking about, are similar to what those who are neurodivergent/are disabled/have a long-term health condition think too. And, it’s useful to remember that if we are lucky to grow old, everyone eventually becomes disabled one way or another. Therefore, it is in everyone’s interest to make sure our workplaces and our world is accessible to all - a sentiment which is at the very heart of both community and allyship.
8. Make changes within your organisation to make it more accessible. Attract great talent.
What changes could you start making today to make how you work more accessible for others? If you are based in the UK, the government runs the Access to Work Scheme (link), to help both organisations be more accessible, providing financial support for employees’ Reasonable Adjustments. If this is something that your organisation is aware of/utilises well, this is a great way to attract talent from the disabled community.
9. Consider how you can better support and empower your colleagues, educate your business and inspire your queer, disabled leaders.
WE CREATE SPACE has a selection of webinars and panel sessions where disability is considered as a central theme, or within the context of intersectionality. Please get in touch with the team at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to discuss in more detail.
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