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Are you an ableist and have no idea?

Do you ever notice how your voice changes when talking to a baby?  Do you hear how it goes up an octave or two running into a cute dog while walking down the street?  While the intention is meant to be endearing in certain settings it can be truly demoralizing in others, like when talking to adults, yet I have seen this done time and time again with disabled persons. This doesn’t just happen from vocal tone but also behaviorally assuming that the disabled person lacks the ability to comprehend the world around them.  

While some people may be non-vocal that doesn’t mean they are unaware of what is going on. Working with people with disabilities, neurological disorders and mental health challenges has exposed me to an expanded perspective on communication and the way we emit and process information.  According to the Oxford Dictionary, infantilization means to treat someone as a child or in a way which denies their maturity in age or experience.  In one time in your life or another, I am sure you have experienced this whether you are a minority, new to your field, by a parent or teacher, or having to interact with an oversized ego, it is demeaning and doesn’t feel good. 

Imagine being treated like this day in and day out.  While some disabilities have a physical component that at times rears compassion, others aren’t as visibly noticeable at first glance.  However, once it is deemed apparent the quality of conversation shifts and not just to simplify language but inadvertently becomes dismissive.  I don’t believe that this is something that people do intentionally to cause harm or be hurtful so I wanted to explore this disconnection.  I realized that not everyone is even cognizant they are doing this so awareness is the first step.  Here are a couple of recent examples that I have witnessed for us to unpack together.

Scenario 1

There is a high school boy with ASD on his school’s baseball team.  He doesn’t stand out from the crowd.  He shows up to practice with a trendy haircut and changes out of his Jordans and into his cleats in the dugout.  He embraces his teammates giving them fist bumps and hellos.  Turns out he is actually a pretty good player.  He takes direction well from his coaches and nothing seems out of place.  They start practice and a few of the young men start joking around and teasing each other.  While the young man is trying to fit in with his teammates he doesn’t understand the joke so starts to ask questions because he is confused but wants to laugh too.  His teammates are finding themselves annoyed that they are having to explain something that was to be taken at face value as a joke but now is being picked apart for clarity.  As the practice goes one, there is less communication with the young man and the team is starting to congregate to talk in a different area.  This makes the young man feel isolated, ashamed for speaking up to ask for clarity and overall disconnected.

In situations like this it can be tricky to know that someone may have some challenges with social pragmatic language.  What initially may feel like an annoyance to one may be a life altering moment for another.  Teaching inclusivity at a young age is imperative to growth and development and truly adds to leadership skills.  If someone got to know the young man better maybe they would learn that he loves to take stats and can read stat highlights at the end of games or take data on performance to help everyone grow.  Often people with disabilities are looked at as their weakest characteristic instead of highlighted for their awesomeness.  It is our job to find the best in everyone we meet.

Scenario 2

A woman is at the doctor with her parent.  The woman is non-vocal but understands and comprehends well.  While her vocal speech is limited she uses other ways to communicate.  The doctor speaks over her to her parent as if she was not present.  The parent redirects the doctor to ask her daughter how she is doing rather than asking her since her daughter is present.  The doctor is taken back and felt embarrassed.  The mother educated the doctor that her daughter uses a communication device and can communicate.  

While the doctor may have felt embarrassed for being educated on the spot, it should never be assumed that one cannot communicate even if non-vocal.  No one like to feel like they are invisible especially when the conversation is regarding them.  This was a great learning opportunity for the doctor and the mother affirmed to her daughter that her voice mattered.  

There are a plethora of examples to share however it all boils down to inclusivity, empathy, and advocacy.  Have you ever been in a room where you felt invisible like no one saw you yet you were surrounded by people?  Have you ever wanted to speak up but were scared you’d be ostracized for thinking differently?  How awesome would it be if someone affirmed you weren’t alone and that they thought you were brave for speaking out?  Wouldn’t it make you feel valued if someone acknowledged you instead of walking passed or worse avoiding you?

We live in times where there are those that thrive on divisiveness however working together has proved time and time again to be most effective.  Imagine living in a world that people celebrate differences instead of using them to make someone else feel less than.   

Acknowledging and understanding differences doesn’t take heaps of research or extraneous effort.  It takes commitment to wanting equality for all and challenging our own perspective.  Think about changes you can make that can help someone else’s day run a bit smoother.  If you’re in business think about your systems and policies and audit them to see if they are accessible.  When speaking to others ask questions instead of being dismissive because more often than not those people that you are being dismissive toward have been treated like that their whole lives.  When we take time to listen and learn it can truly make people feel valued and gives them a sense of belonging.  Any and every time I have spent a little more time than I may have anticipated, I have walked away with a new perspective and grateful for the experience.  As a community we need to focus on growing together and the first steps are through observation and listening.  

Change starts with each of us and the more we stand up for each other and advocate the more acceptance and awareness will become the norm.  We see examples like the ones listed day in and day out so I ask you to take a step back when interacting with anyone to be mindful of transactions and see how you can help create the best outcome for every situation.  When we know better we do better, so take this as an opportunity to look at situations you have been is or are in and reframe them to see how you can help those around you shine.  It takes one persons light to ignite the flame for others and it takes nothing but a willingness to want to help. Nothing gets taken away by lighting someone else up, instead the world in gifted with more light, so let’s spread this idea like wildfire. 

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