A very important concept in fighting for Disability Rights is moving away from the Medical Model and towards the Social Model. Acceptance over a cure. Creating Universal Accessibility ideals that are helpful for everyone so that no one may be excluded.
To make it easier to understand I’ll give visuals:
This staircase is lovely, with a ramp built into it as an integral part of the architectural design.
This design below eliminates the staircase altogether in the form a beautiful circular, winding red ramp that everyone uses at the Ed Roberts Campus in Berkeley, California. It’s difficult to see from the photo below, but the doors are also wide and airy, and it’s reported that most visitors find this layout to be very warm and inviting.
The Greendale Villa near Disney World is known to be disability-friendly and uses Universal Design in its architecture. They even use it in their swimming pools.
The examples I gave are easy to understand because you can see them. They’re also easy to understand because they’re inclusive for people that have visible physical disabilities for people that use wheelchairs; parents using strollers or are holding a wobbly toddler by the hand; aging individuals or others who need a walker or a cane; people that have a cast on their leg and use crutches; a postal delivery person carrying or wheeling heavy packages; a student lugging around heavy books or an enormous art project; a caterer making a delicate delivery. The fact of the matter is that stairs are clumsy and difficult to navigate.
When it comes to the disabilities that you can’t see, the Universal Design within the Social Model is still not only an ideal, but a necessity. We’re not demanding that the world change to give disabled individuals “special treatment.” We’re hoping that the world will understand that a level playing field is the goal. We’re hoping that by showing care in being inclusive to all, people might start to figure out that disabled individuals are valuable and have as much to offer and contribute as anyone else does.
I see resistance to these ideas because I think some people believe that acceptance of disabilities means giving up, not trying, not caring, being willing to somehow not be enough of something. Human maybe? Even though disabled people are fully People, fully Human, no matter the disability. But for many people, the Social Model means that those who have disabilities have the audacity be disabled; to not hide the disabilities adequately enough to appear to have no disability at all or, worse, to not have overcome the disability or disabilities. The problem with resisting the Social Model is that the Social Model benefits EVERYONE. That’s how inclusion works. Funny, that.
Imagine these ramps that are inclusive of everyone as communication barriers that have been broken down for people that have mental health disabilities, developmental learning disorders, cognitive function disorders, traumatic brain injuries, intellectual disabilities, impaired vision, impaired hearing… and all of the other invisible disabilities that so many people forget about when it comes to universal designs.
It can be as simple as recognizing that there are multiple ways of communicating. Even a newborn baby can communicate through facial expressions, body language, different types of cries, different vocalizations, eye contact, and even how fast or slow they’re breathing. Someone that is classified as non-speaking and “incapable” of speech is still always capable of communicating.
So if you have someone that’s Autistic or has a speech delay and their parents have been told they’ll “never” speak because they seemingly aren’t verbal since they haven’t (yet) communicated verbally, what do you think the assumption tends to be?
“My child can’t communicate and never will, and therefore they must be intellectually disabled.”
That sounds so dire, doesn’t it? I would bet my left butt cheek that their child uses body language, facial expressions, other sounds, or possibly even sign language of some sort to attempt to communicate. Pointing, shaking the head, refusal of performing a request and performing a different behavior instead… that’s all communication. It doesn’t mean that the child doesn’t understand what’s being said or asked; it simply means they need another way to communicate.
Hear this well: non-verbal learning disorders and delays don’t mean someone has an intellectual disability, or that they’re incompetent. While neurological disorders and other disabilities such as Autism and Non-verbal Learning Disorder and Sensory Processing Disorder and Cognitive Delays can co-occur, they are mutually exclusive of each other.
This means that you need to assume that your child or any other disabled individual you come across should be presumed to be competent. Presume they can hear you and understand you, and maybe even read. Maybe learn to use cards with images on them. Offer a computer keyboard or a tablet. See if your loved one enjoys drawing, painting, or a craft. Art is also communication. So is music. So is math. Everything someone does or doesn’t do is communication of some sort.
Disability does not make one less. It’s not something to be ashamed of. As someone with disabilities I’m not going to sugarcoat it and say that disabilities are fun and everyone should join me and have them. I’m not going to say that the challenges aren’t incredibly difficult, and that some obstacles don’t really seem impossible to ever overcome. I’m not going to say that it isn’t discouraging at times. Being disabled often sucks, but it doesn’t mean I’m miserable.
And that’s something else.
One big assumption about individuals that have disabilities that needs to disappear forever is that “being disabled means being miserable and life isn’t worth living.” That statement is a myth and it’s offensive. It’s why I found it heartbreaking, tragic, and ridiculous when people decided that Robin Williams’ suicide was understandable when they discovered it was so he wouldn’t have to progress with his disability rather than because it was part of his lifelong depression and, thus, “selfish” of him to commit suicide.
Life is more than worth living when one has one or more disabilities and it’s no one’s place to put value on someone’s life, to measure their worth or right to live or whether someone’s life is a tragedy based on the single fact that they have disabilities or make assumptions on someone’s suffering levels. Life is still worth being part of society, part of family and friends, and having society recognize that individuals who are disabled have just as much to contribute and deserve to earn a living wage, with voices and opinions that are strong.
Part of making society acceptable, part of the Social Model needs to be dispelling myths and incorrect stereotypes about disabilities in general, and disability-specific. For instance, individuals who are autistic are not “suffering with Autism” and nor are they emotionless. They are autistic. Very often, in my personal observations, it seems that autistic individuals are more sensitive to emotions and they most definitely aren’t suffering due to their Autism. The suffering occurs from the treatment of others who may be abusive and less understanding, less accepting, and being in environments that are not disability friendly. For instance, lights that are too bright and music that’s too loud in a store that can already be disconcerting makes the experience nearly impossible for some. It’s an assault on the senses.
There are movie theaters that now offer sensory friendly screenings of movies. They will advertise a specific movie with the times, locations, and accommodations being made: raised lights; reduced level of sound for the movie; allowing wandering during the showing within the theater itself; allowing talking; providing ESL interpreters; allowing carers such as PCA’s to accompany without having to pay additional fees. Universal acceptance, Social Model.
Assimilating universal designs into our society is an acceptance that everyone of any ability is valuable and worthy of having access to anything and everything. It’s a recognition that everyone’s needs are different. It’s difficult when much of society isn’t just afraid of acknowledging disabilities, but disgusted by them. There is a lot of fear of being seen as different, as Other, because once someone sees you as disabled, you’re also seen as weak and incompetent. There are a lot of people who try to take advantage of that perceived weakness, and there are those who use their physical intimidation to put themselves in a powerful position and misuse it. It’s called bullying.
For me to accept my disabilities relating to Fibromyalgia, depression, anxiety is not giving in or giving up. It’s not accepting a suffocating, negative label. It gives me a name for the obstacles I have to cope with, and a starting point to learn. It means that while I accept my disabilities I can still do my best to help myself feel better. I may have some cognitive issues and massive physical pain that would bring down a horse, but I am not weak nor incompetent. I have strong opinions. I’m a self-advocate and I advocate for my children and others. It’s not easy for me to accept my particular disability because it’s physically and mentally taxing. It’s scary to realize that it’s going to progressively get worse. That just makes me work even harder to take care of myself.
By the same token, by accepting my daughter’s Autism, I’m not throwing her to the wolves and giving up her, drowning her with alphabet soup letters and labels. Discipline doesn’t go out the window. Education doesn’t get tossed in the wind. I’m helping her along with her sisters learn about who they are, what they’re going through, and working out the process with them. We’re learning together how to identify their strengths, talents, interests so that they can learn how to best communicate and what their best learning methods are.
Along the way, we’ve figured out which clothing can trigger negative behaviors. We’ve learned which ingredients in particular foods and drinks to avoid. We’ve learned what weather changes can do to health. We’ve learned how to adjust our thinking, our language, our expectations. We’ve learned that these things change and are fluid and that being flexible as parents and caregivers is simply the best approach.
In doing so, I’m trying to make the world more accessible for her. I’m letting her be who she is without trying to change her. I’m not trying to make her “pass” for neuro-typical or, as those of us who are non-autistic are sometimes called by some people in the Autistic Self-Advocate Movement, Allistic. I’d like her to know that she can change her world. She does need to learn how the “Allistic” world works so that she can navigate it, but whether she ever appears to be like her non-autistic peers isn’t really on our radar.
Would you like to know why? Because I don’t want her to grow up believing that Autism is something she has to overcome or that she has to try to cover up in order to make other people feel more comfortable. She should never have to feel like she has to overcome herself or something that is such a major part of what makes her who she is at her core. Her pride in who she is should be empowering for her.
I see the discomfort people feel when they see my cane, see my pain, and they don’t know what to say. I see it in the faces of people who haven’t seen me in a long time and see me now, or those who just can’t get used to seeing me with the cane. That used to make me feel bad, and as if I had to apologize for it. Then I realized that I shouldn’t have to apologize for having a disability. The discomfort of others regarding my disability or them realizing my daughter has a disability isn’t my problem to work out. It’s up to them to figure out how to accept it and make it part of their reality. Maybe I’m not entirely comfortable with my own disabilities, and that’s okay because I’m learning and it’s a process. I go back and forth between accepting it and not… but as someone who is a do-er I tend to lean towards accepting and moving along so that I can find the new path.
It starts in the classrooms, and I’m hoping that these inclusive classrooms are encouraging children to bring their acceptance and generosity of spirit home to their families. If that happens, their parents bring it to work and it spreads.
We’ve learned that neurology is diverse and that they don’t need, or want, a cure. I’ve heard the words come from Sweet Girl’s mouth herself. She just wants to be accepted for who she is.She embraces her Autism and wants to be accepted. That’s all any of my girls want regardless of their neurology. They are not weak nor incompetent. They are not damaged.
We just need a pool that we can ease into rather than having to jump into all at once.