ableism

Calling something easy doesn't make it easy

I see a lot of people (especially disabled people hate themselves for struggling with things that they think of as easy, often along these lines:

  • Person: I need to do this thing. 

  • Person: It’s not hard. This is so easy. Why don’t I just do it?

  • Person: I know I need to do the thing. It’s been weeks. What’s wrong with me? This isn’t hard. I need to just do it already.

If you’re having trouble doing something, the thing you’re struggling to do is not actually easy. There is no objective difficulty scale. Tasks aren’t inherently easy or difficult — it depends on the person and the situation. Different people find different things easy and hard. Sometimes you will struggle with things that other people find easy. That doesn’t mean you’re failing to do an easy thing. It means that for you, the task is hard.

Sometimes things that are hard at first become easier with practice, or become easier when you learn new skills. Sometimes things never get any easier. Sometimes solutions that work for people who can do the thing without much trouble will work for you too; sometimes you might need support that other people don’t need. 

Sometimes you might need to find an alternative to doing the thing. Sometimes the only solution is to have someone else help you do the thing or do the thing for you. It doesn’t matter if you think it ’should’ be hard or easy, if you’re having trouble doing something, that means the thing you’re trying to do is hard. (And sometimes, it might mean that the thing is impossible.)

Calling something easy does not make it easy, and you can’t make hard things easy by hating yourself. Hard things become much more possible when you accept that they are hard, stop trying to overcome the difficulty through sheer force of will, and seek out solutions that will work for you.

“Calling something easy does not make it easy” in a graffiti font on a brick wall background.

“Calling something easy does not make it easy” in a graffiti font on a brick wall background.

What disability professionals say 'tell us your story' and mean 'tell us we're wonderful'.

If a disability professional asks you to come and address their professional group, be very careful — especially if they ask you to "tell your story". Sometimes disability professionals are prepared to learn from disabled people, but more often than not, it’s a setup for humiliating emotional exploitation.

Most disability professionals form their professional consensus on The Enlightened Approach to Disabled People without many or any disabled leaders in the room. Having already decided what they will do to us, disability professionals then bring in disabled people as validation fairies to help them feel the way they want to feel about it.

Even if the person approaching you seems nice, it’s worth being cautious — don’t trust a smile; look for evidence about whether or not they are prepared to take you seriously as an expert. Most disability professionals don’t want to learn from our expertise; they want us to help them feel good about themselves. What they usually want from us is an emotional performance that validates their self image and the approach they’ve decided to take to disabled people.

They want to feel inspired, without facing difficult truths. They want to feel moved, without changing. They want to say “I learn so much from you!” without reconsidering their worldview or professional practice,  and they want to say “You have such a unique perspective!” to every disabled speaker, while treating us as largely interchangeable. (Disability professionals who are actually prepared to learn from us acknowledge gaps in their expertise, and seek out disabled experts to teach them what they need to know.)

When disability professionals *mean* “come make us feel good about ourselves”, what they usually *say* is some version of “we have so much to learn from your unique perspective” or “my colleagues need to hear your story”. When disability professionals ask a disabled person to “tell your story”, they generally expect us to follow these unwritten rules:

  • Tell the audience horror stories about your childhood that allow the listeners to feel righteous because We Would Never Do Such Things.
  • Make sure that the stories are graphic, but not too graphic. Horrify the audience enough so that their pulses raise a bit and they feel brave for listening to you, but be careful not to horrify them so much that they have nightmares.
  • Make sure that you tell the story in a way that doesn’t make them feel ashamed or responsible for any of it.
  • Give them someone to identify with so they can feel like excellent people. Usually it's either "my mom never gave up on me!" or "there was this one awesome teacher who showed me how to believe in myself!"
  • Don’t talk about the lingering harm done to you, or how it’s affecting you in the present. Don’t make them think about harm done to disabled kids who are facing lifelong consequences of that harm. Don’t talk about present-day injustice, discrimination, or violence.
  • Tell your story as a tragic misunderstanding. Don’t talk about discrimination or systematic injustice. 
  • Allow your audience to laugh at you. Tell self-deprecating jokes. Don’t insist on respect.
  • Don’t describe solidarity with other disabled people, and don’t attribute any of your success to other disabled people who you regard as equals. 
  • Don’t describe fighting with a professional and winning, unless you can attribute your victory to someone they can identify with. 
  •  Don’t be angry, and don’t describe other disabled people’s anger as legitimate. (Under some circumstances, it may be permissible to describe it as understandable, but only if you’re appropriately condescending and give the impression that the therapy provided by the professionals in the room would fix it.)
  • Don’t talk about disability in political terms. Say that “times have changed”, without giving any credit to disabled people who fought for those changes. 
  • Do not mention organized groups of disability activists, especially organized groups of disability activists who exist in the present and clash with disability professionals. 
  • At the end of the presentation, open the floor for Q&A. When audience members presume that it’s ok to ask you intrusive personal questions, smile and give them an answer that makes them feel good about themselves. 
  • When you’re in the audience of their presentations, do not expect this intimacy to be reciprocated, and do not expect them to show similar concern for your feelings. 
  • Understand that you’re here to validate them, and they’re not there to validate you. Pretend that what they’re doing is listening and learning.
  • Don't break character, and don't drop the mask. Don't acknowledge the unwritten rules or the unwarranted emotional validation they want from you. Accept compliments about your "honesty" and "authentic first hand perspective" with a straight face.
  • Above all, do not talk about being harmed by disability professionals who there’s any chance your audience would identify with.

When disability professionals expect you to be their validation fairy, this is a form of ableism and emotional exploitation. They should not be treating your life as a story about their benevolence as disability professionals. They should not be treating you as existing for the purpose of making them feel good about themselves. They should be treating you with respect as a real human being — and if you are an expert, they should be treating you with the professional respect due to a colleague.

I am not the validation fairy, and neither are you.

Image description: Text "I am not the validation fairy" next to a line art drawing of a fairy casting a spell with a magic wand.

Image description: Text "I am not the validation fairy" next to a line art drawing of a fairy casting a spell with a magic wand.

Disability is not an abusive roommate

Nondisabled storytellers often seem to think of disability as an abusive roommate coming and imposing its will on a disabled person. When they think about wheelchair users, they don’t think about the mobility that’s made possible by assistive technology. They think about how they’d feel if someone chained them to a wheelchair and forcibly prevented them from walking.

This misconception is dangerous. When people see disability-related limitations as similar to violent restraint, they don’t know know to tell the difference between the innate limitations of someone’s body and limitations being forcibly imposed on them by others. When people don’t understand the difference between living with a disability and living with an abuser, they assume that abusive experiences are inevitable for people with disabilities. 

In reality, there’s nothing inevitable about abuse. Coming up against the limitations of your body is fundamentally different from being forcibly restrained by someone else. Whether or not you are disabled, having physical limitations is part of having a body. Being disabled means that you have a different range of physical limitations than most other people do, but they don’t come color coded ‘normal’ and ‘disabled’. When you’re used to the way your body works, the disability-related limitations feel pretty similar to those that aren’t disability-related. 

Using assistive technology is pretty similar to using technology for any other important reason. Everyone uses technology to do things that their bodies alone would be too limited to do. Most people use cars to go further than they could walk; some people also use wheelchairs to go further than they could walk. Some people type or use communication tablets to say more than they could with their bodies alone; some people use musical instruments; some people use both. People with disabilities have different limitations, and as a result, often benefit from technology that wouldn’t be particularly useful to nondisabled people. 

When technology is associated with disability, people tend to have the dangerous misconception that using it is the same as being restrained. This can very easily become self-fulfilling. When people prevent disabled people from doing things, their inability to do it is often misattributed to their disability. For instance:

Wheelchairs as restraints:

  • Anthony lives in a nursing home.
  • Anthony speaks oddly, and most people interpret most of what he says as meaningless. They say ‘Anthony doesn’t communicate’.
  • Anthony can walk and wants to walk, but the nursing him staff don’t let him. 
  • George, the supervisor, tells Sage, another staff member, ‘Anthony wanders. We need to keep him in his wheelchair to keep him safe. Just lock the seatbelt. After a few minutes, he stops resisting.’
  • Every morning, Sage puts Anthony in a wheelchair that he can’t move, and ties him down so he can’t escape.
  • Sage tells Marge, a new volunteer, ‘That’s Anthony. It’s so nice to have a volunteer - he’s been spending most of his time in the hallway lately. He doesn’t walk or talk, but he loves visiting the garden! Can you take him there?”
  • Marge and Sage don’t know what Anthony actually wants, and it doesn’t occur to them that it’s possible to ask.
  • Anthony actually hates the garden and hates being pushed by other people. He prefers to spend his time in the library or with children in the children’s wing.
  • Marge assumes that Sage is the expert on Anthony, and assumes that Anthony’s disability prevents him from walking and communicating.
  • Marge doesn’t know that Anthony has stopped talking because he’s constantly surrounded by people who refuse to listen to him. 
  • Marge doesn’t know that Sage is tying Anthony to a wheelchair against his will to stop him from going where he wants to go.
  • Marge doesn’t know that she’s doing something to Anthony against his will.
  • When people see disability and restraint as the same thing, they fail to notice that people with disabilities are being violently restrained — and often unwittingly participate in physical abuse of disabled people. 

The disability-as-restraint misconception also causes people to fail to understand that when they deny people access to assisstive technology, they’re preventing them from doing things, eg:

Mobility:

  • Beck is an eight year old who can’t walk.
  • Beck has a wheelchair, but he’s not allowed to bring it to school.
  • At school, he’s strapped into a stroller that others push around. 
  • His classmate Sarah has *never* had a wheelchair that she can push herself.
  • At a staff meeting, Lee, their teacher, says “Because of their disabilities, Sarah and Beck can’t move around by themselves. Even though they stay in one place all day, they’re so fun to have in our class!”
  • Lee is missing the crucial fact that the reason Sarah and Beck are immobile is because they’re being denied access to assistive technology. 
  • When people see disability and externally-imposed limitation as the same thing, they don’t notice limitations being imposed on disabled people. 

Communication:

  • Rebecca types on her iPad to communicate.
  • Clay takes away Rebecca’s iPad.
  • Clay tells Sophie, ‘Rebecca is nonverbal. Her disability prevents her from communicating, but we’re working on improving her speech.’
  • Sophie sees that Rebecca can’t talk, and assumes that it’s her disability that’s preventing her from communicating.
  • Actually, it’s *Clay* who is preventing Rebecca from communicating.
  • When people see disability and abuse as the same thing, they don’t notice abuse of disabled people.

It’s important to be clear on the difference between disability and abuse. Disability is not an abusive roommate; people with disabilities are only abused if someone is abusing them. When people with disabilities are restrained against their will, this is not caused by their disabilities; it’s caused by the people who are restraining them. Restraint is an act of violence, not an innate fact about disability. When wheelchairs are used as restraints, the wheelchair isn’t the problem; the violence is the problem. When people are denied access to assistive technology, it’s not their disability that’s limiting them; it’s neglect. When we stop conflating disability and abuse, we’re far less likely to see abuse of people with disabilities as inevitable.

Image description: A photo of gloomy-looking stairs next to the text "Disability is not an abusive roommate".

On solving the right problem

Not every problem disabled people have is a failure to understand social situations.

Sometimes the problem is that our bodies are considered socially unacceptable.

No amount of social skills training will change our bodies.

No amount of social understanding will make typical movement and typical speech physically possible.

No matter what we learn, bodies and brains matter. We’re still disabled when we understand things.

It’s ok to be disabled. It’s not ok to be bigoted against disabled people.

If we want to get anywhere, we need to make sure that we’re solving the right problems.

Absolution seeking behaviors

Dear disability professionals,

We need to talk about your absolution-seeking behavior. When disabled people go to conferences, disability professionals flock to us and ask us to help them feel good about themselves and their field. This isn’t ok. It needs to stop, and you need to be part of stopping it.

This is never ok, but it’s especially bad when it’s a defense against listening. Disabled people often put themselves on the line to bear witness to the problems in the disability field. When we do this, the last thing it’s appropriate to do is seek out validation. It’s a time for reflection, not absolution.

Too many disabled disability advocates are having some version of this conversation with disability professionals:

  • Disabled Advocate: Your field is doing serious harm to disabled people. 
  • Disability Professional: Tell me about it! They’re all awful. But not me, I’m the exception. I’m one of the good ones.
  • Disabled Advocate: How?
  • Disability Professional: I am the exception because I recognize the uniqueness of individuals by doing Something Disabled Advocates Oppose and Another Thing Disabled Advocates Lobby Against. I’m sorry you’ve had such bad experiences with other people in my field, there are a lot of bad apples!
  • Disabled Advocate: Actually, the things you’re describing are the things we object to in your field, and here’s why.
  • Disability Professional: I agree with you! That’s why I do those things. I’m one of the good ones.

Please stop doing this to disabled people. Please stop assuming that you’re one of the good ones and that what we say doesn’t apply to you. Everyone seems to think of themselves as an exception because they have helped some people or had some sort of good intentions.

Please keep in mind that it is not remotely unusual to do good things in the disability field. Most people who have done great harm have also done some good. That doesn’t make you special, and it doesn’t erase anything you’ve done to disabled people. Good intentions don’t heal broken bones or broken dreams. Don’t seek absolution from us. Listen to us, acknowledge the problems, and find ways to do better.

Sincerely,
The disabled presenter who you called inspirational

Autistic people can have friends

One reason I started writing this blog is that I got tired of seeing social skills programs teach autistic people that they have to become normal in order to have friends.

It’s not true. There are a lot of autistic people who have friends without becoming remotely normal. Oddness and friendship are entirely compatible.

You can be autistic, seem autistic, and have friends who like you and enjoy your company.

Some people won’t like you, and that’s ok. Not everyone has to like everyone.

Some people will dislike you because they are bigoted against autistic people. That’s not ok, but it doesn’t have to ruin your life. Ableists don’t speak for everyone. Those people aren’t your friends. Other people can be.

You’ll probably always face ableism. Trying to be normal probably won’t make that go away; accepting yourself probably won’t make that go away either. You don’t need to change the whole world in order to have friends.

You can have friends as the person you are, in the world as it is now.

On bearing witness to the humanity of disabled people and the destructiveness of ableism

One of the most powerful things that we can do is to bear witness to the humanity of disabled people and the destructive consequences of ableism. When we bear witness to our humanity and to the things that others do to us, it changes the conversation. Our stories are powerful.

Some people have the privilege of being largely untouched by ableism. (Or being untouched by a particular kind of ableism.) Most people who are privileged in this way are also unaware of how deeply marginalized disabled people are being harmed. (I’m using disability as the primary example here, but this actually applies to ever kind of marginalization.)

We are dehumanized, and a lot of people don’t notice that it’s happening. They’re taught to overlook our humanity, and a lot of what happens to us is hidden from them. When people learn how to notice, they often start caring.

Bearing witness to our humanity means making it impossible to discuss disability in the abstract. It means making people have to notice that when they talk about disability, they’re talking about *actual human beings*. We do things. Some of us have jobs. Some of us are artists. Some of us write. Some of us are married. Some of us are fans of TV shows. Some of us are experts in our fields. Some of us cook. All of us matter. Making people notice us as real human beings changes the conversation about disability.

Speaking out about the consequences of ableism also changes the conversation. When institution survivors bear witness to what happens in institutions, it becomes much more difficult for people to believe that institutionalization is good for disabled people. When people speak out about what authoritarian childhood therapy did to them, it’s harder to pretend that compliance training is harmless. When people speak out about electric shock, it is much harder to pretend that people who are tortured with electric shocks think that it makes their lives better.

When disabled people talk about what it is like to learn the name of their disability by eavesdropping and googling, some parents listen. Likewise, when disabled people talk about what it’s like to grow up without accurate language for ourselves, some parents come to understand the importance of talking to children about their disabilities.

Bearing witness also matters to other disabled people. We often learn to overlook our own humanity. We often learn to disregard the things that others have done to us. When other disabled people are unapologetically human, it’s easier to see ourselves as human. When other disabled people talk about the harm ableism does, it’s easier to remember that these things shouldn’t happen to us.

This doesn’t always work. When people with disabilities bear witness to our humanity and to what happens to us, we often get hostile responses. Even when some people are listening, there are usually also angry people who are not. Even when people are eventually willing to listen, they are often initially angry and mean. Those of us who talk about these things pay a price for doing so. Everyone has the right to decide for themselves whether this is a price they’re willing to pay in a given situation.

Your stories belong to you. Stories can be a powerful force for liberation, but you are not a liberation object. You are a person. You have the right to decide whether or not to tell your stories. If you choose to tell stories, you have the right to decide which stories to tell, how you want to tell them, and who you want to tell them to. (Including, whether or not you want to answer questions that people ask you.) You can also change your mind. Doing some advocacy work doesn’t make you an advocacy object, and it doesn’t strip you of the right to say no. No matter how politically or socially useful your stories are, they belong to you.

You can't fight stigma by making disability unspeakable

I’ve noticed that a lot of well-meaning people try to fight disability stigma by making disability unspeakable.

The logic seems to be like this:

  • They notice that when people are seen as disabled, they are respected less. 
  • They call this stigma, and think of stigma as a very bad problem. 
  • They then try to figure out how to make stigma go away so that people will be respected more.
  • They think that if no one was seen as disabled, there would be no stigma.
  • They try to get people to pretend that disability doesn’t exist.
  • They expect this to somehow improve the lives of people with disabilities. (On the grounds that if everyone ignores disability, there will be no disability stigma.)

This approach doesn’t work. Disability exists, whether or not anyone is willing to acknowledge it. When we try to fight stigma by ignoring disability, we send the message that disability is unacceptable.

When people are made to pretend that their disability does not exist, they learn that basic things about their body are unspeakable. When people are made to pretend someone else’s disability doesn’t exist, they learn that if they stopped ignoring basic things about them, it would be impossible to keep respecting them. These are not good lessons.

If you need to pretend someone isn’t disabled in order to respect them, you’re not really respecting them. You’re giving imaginary respect to an imaginary nondisabled person. People with disabilities deserve better. People with disabilities don’t need fake respect handed out as a consolation prize. People with disabilities need to be treated with real respect, as the people they really are.

If we want to fight stigma, we have to get real. Disability exists, and pretending that it doesn’t just makes the problem worse. Stigma is not caused by noticing disability; stigma is caused by ableist attitudes towards disability. It is ok to be disabled, it is not ok to be ableist, and it is upon all of us to build a culture that understands that.

"It's not just about wheelchair access"

I think that in disability discourse, wheelchair users face some fairly unique pressure to pretend not to be disabled. At the same time, wheelchair users are treated as the ultimate symbol of disability. In combination, I think there is very little space in which wheelchair users are allowed to talk about their actual experiences and needs. (Even in disability rights space.)

To some extent, all disabled people face some version of this. The thing I think is somewhat unique to wheelchair users is pressure to be the model of successful accessibility. There’s a misconception that accessibility is basically a solved problem for wheelchair users, and that we need to expand that model to all disabled people. This goes alongside a related misconception that the purpose of accessibility is to make disability irrelevant.

Wheelchair users face intense pressure to enthusiastically pretend that wheelchairs and ramps erase disability. This goes alongside pressure to have exactly the kind of disability that fits the story that others want to tell. The story goes: “Wheelchair users can’t walk. Wheelchairs and lifts and ramps solve that problem. If we had ramps everywhere, wheelchair users wouldn’t be disabled anymore.” The reality is much more complicated.

People get very angry when wheelchair users contradict this story. Wheelchair users are often not allowed to have access needs that don’t fit the story — and they’re also not allowed to have *abilities* that don’t fit the story. This anger is so intense that it’s dangerous for wheelchair users to stand and walk in public places. People also get angry at wheelchair users when a ramp is too steep, when it’s blocked, or when they insist that the existence of a lift isn’t good enough, they need to have the key so that they can actually *use* it. There’s not much room in the wheelchair access success story for talking about these realities.

There’s also not very much room in this success story for talking about the realities of growing up with a mobility disability. Children still grow up manhandled by therapists and pressured to learn to walk at all costs. Children still go through repeated surgeries aimed at fixing them. Children still get taught to allow adults to hurt them and touch them in ways that would be regarded as abuse if they were typically developing. Children are still pervasively excluded from educational and recreation activities and expected to bear it with a smile. Ramps and wheelchairs didn’t fix that, and accessibility advocacy should not make those things unspeakable.

The success story has even less room for talking about pleasure. Harriet McBryde Johnson said it better than I could, so I’m going to quote her:

“We need to confront the life-killing stereotype that says we’re all about suffering. We need to bear witness to our pleasures. …

Throughout my life, the nondisabled world has told me my pleasures must be only mental, never physical. Thinking to help me, it has said my body is unimportant. I respectfully disagree. For me, the body—imperfect, impermanent, falling apart—is all there is. Through this body that needs the help of hands and machines to move, that is wired to sense and perceive, comes all pleasure, all life. My brain is only one among many body parts, all of which work through one another and cooperate as best they can.”

McBryde Johnson, Harriet. Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales from a Life (p. 255). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition.

Treating wheelchair users as a symbol of disability successfully erased has the effect of silencing wheelchair users. I think that a lot of us have been complicit in this silencing, and that we need to address this in disability culture. Partly for the sake of better solidarity with wheelchair users; partly because the silencing is hurting all of us.

I think that all disabled people face pressure to see ourselves as characters in a story about accessibility. Sometimes we’re expected to write the story. Sometimes we’re seen as characters in a story someone else is writing. Sometimes we’re supposed to believe that the story has already been written, and that all we have to do is get people to read the book.

I think that wheelchair users face particularly intense pressure to pretend that the story has already been written and has a satisfying ending. That’s not something any of us should envy. It’s not privilege. It’s silencing. And I think we need a lot less silence and a lot more solidarity. It doesn’t have to be this way, and it isn’t always this way. When we have space for honesty about the realities of disability, our communities are a lot stronger.

Wheelchair users are not a collective accessibility success story. Wheelchair users are people. None of us are stories. We’re all people. No amount of accessibility is going to make our bodies and brains irrelevant. Disability rights advocacy shouldn’t be about erasing difference. The point is not sameness; it’s equality. Accessibility is about building a world that treats us all as fully human, differences and all.

Disabled presenters tend to face really intense ableism. One way this plays out is that audiences laugh at us when we talk about serious things.

This happens particularly frequently when:

  • Nondisabled professionals or our parents are also on the panel, or presenting right before or after us.
  • The audience is primarily parents of disabled children/adults.
  • The audience is primarily professionals who work with people with intellectual disabilities.
  • We talk about a desire to be taken seriously.
  • We discuss our objections to being treated like children.
  • We describe being proud of a personal accomplishment.
  • We describe being treated inappropriately by a professional.
  • We describe how we felt as disabled children.

When audiences do this, it’s not nice laughter. It’s a way of asserting power. That laughter means “I don’t have to take you seriously”.

As a disabled presenter, it’s often possible to insist on respect. It’s easier said than done. It gets easier with practice, but the practice often hurts. Here are some things I’ve found helpful:

It can help to remind yourself that you know what you’re talking about, and the things you’re saying are important:

  • You’re presenting because you know what you’re talking about.
  • People should take your expertise seriously. When you talk about the things you know, they shouldn’t laugh at you.
  • Your accomplishments are not a joke. People should not laugh or be condescending about them.
  • People who treat you like a baby are doing something wrong. Your desire to be treated in an age-appropriate way is not a joke. People shouldn’t laugh at you for talking about it.

When an audience laughs at you, it can help to make it uncomfortable for them:

  • Don’t smile, and don’t laugh yourself.
  • Wait for the audience to stop laughing. 
  • Wait a second before going on to make it feel awkward. 
  • One option: Ask the audience “Why is that funny?” then continue.
  • Another option: Repeat what you said before people started laughing.

Try to avoid nervous laughter and nervous smiles:

  • It’s taboo for disabled people to talk about disability.
  • Talking about taboo topics can be embarrassing.
  • When we’re talking about embarrassing things, it can be natural to smile or laugh nervously.
  • If you seem embarrassed, the audience is more likely to feel like the topic is embarrassing and laugh to get rid of the embarrassment.
  • If you laugh, the audience is more likely to feel like it’s ok for them to laugh.

Making jokes on purpose:

  • Making jokes can be a way to control what people are laughing about.
  • This can be easier than getting them to not laugh in the first place. 
  • In these contexts, it can be better to avoid self-deprecating humor. 
  • It’s usually better to make jokes about ableism.
  • (This isn’t a hard-and-fast rule though, do what works for you.)

For instance, say you’re giving a talk about educational discrimination:

  • This is self-deprecating: 
  • “I was this ridiculous little kid in third grade. I was so enthusiastic, but I couldn’t even read. I’d hold up the books and pretend. My imaginary friend may have stolen the cookies, but she sure didn’t read for me.”
  • This is making fun of ableism:
  • “My teachers kept assigning me worksheets that I couldn’t do. They kept making me read in front of the class, even though I could never do it. They kept telling me to just do it. And they say we’re the ones who lack empathy and theory of mind.”

Don’t beat yourself up when things go wrong:

  • Presenters/panelists with disabilities face intense ableism.
  • It’s going to hurt sometimes.
  • The problem isn’t that your skin is too thin; the problem is that people are hurting you.
  • A thick skin is still worth developing.
  • If an audience laughs at you, it’s their fault, not yours. They shouldn’t act like that.
  • It’s messed up that we have to develop skills at deflecting ableism and insisting on respect. 
  • It’s also worth knowing that these skills exist and can be learned.
  • It gets much easier with practice, but no one succeeds all the time.
  • When a talk goes bad, don’t beat yourself up, and don’t blame yourself for the audience’s ableism.
  • You’re ok, they’re ableist, and the things you have to say are still valuable when they’re not valued.

These are some of the methods I’ve used to deal with audience ableism. There are others. What are yours?

Tl;dr Disabled presenters face a lot of intense ableism. In particular, audiences often laugh at us. Scroll up for some methods for insisting on respect.

When audiences at disability conferences laugh instead of listening

A challenge to disability professionals and disabled presenters at conferences and panels: Please find a way to respond to the routine contempt that presenters with disabilities are treated with.

I’ve gone to a fair number of disability-related conferences in the past few years. At nearly every conference, I saw an audience laugh at a presenter/panelist with a developmental disability. This happened particularly often to presenters with intellectual disabilities, but I also saw it happen to autistic presenters and presenters with speech disabilities. 

This isn’t a matter of random jerk encounters; it’s a major cultural problem. Even disability professionals who pride themselves on inclusivity and respect tend to behave this way.

This isn’t nice laughter. It’s not a response to something funny. It’s a response to presenters talking about what they’re proud of, what they’re good at, or talking about wanting control over their own lives. People also laugh similarly when parents and siblings talking about their disabled relative wanting autonomy or objecting to being treated like a little child. This happens all the time, and it needs to stop.

If you’re moderating a panel and the audience laughs at a panelist, here’s one method for shutting this down:

Be proactive about taking the panelist seriously:

  • Don’t look at the audience while they’re laughing, and *especially* don’t laugh or smile yourself.
  • Wait for the audience to stop laughing.
  • Pause briefly before going on. This will make the laughter feel awkward.
  • Ask the panelist a question that makes it clear that you respect what they’re saying.
  • You can explicitly ask “Did you mean that seriously?”
  • You can also be a bit less direct, and say something like “That sounds important. Can you say more?”
  • You can also ask a follow-up question about the specific thing they were saying. 

I think that we all need to be proactive about changing this culture. (Including disabled presenters who get laughed at; we need to insist on being taken seriously. More on that in another post).

There are more ways to shut down disrespectful laughter and insist on respectful interactions than I know about. What are yours?

Disability doesn't come with extra time and energy

I’ve heard a lot of advocates of inclusion say things like “kids with disabilities work twice as hard as everyone else” or “my employees with Down’s syndrome never come in late or take a day off.”

This sounds like praise, but it isn’t.

The time disabled people spend working twice as hard as everyone else has to come from somewhere.

There are reasons why kids aren’t in school every waking moment. There is a reason why vacation time exists and why it’s normal to be late occasionally.

People need rest. People need leisure time. People have lives and needs and can’t do everything.

Being disabled doesn’t erase the need for down time. Being disabled doesn’t erase the need for play, or for connections to other people.

Working twice as hard as everyone else all the time isn’t sustainable. Praising disabled people for doing unsustainable things is profoundly destructive.

People with disabilities should not have to give up on rest, recreation, and relationships in order to be valued. We have limited time and energy just like everyone else, and our limitations need to be respected.

It is not right to expect us to run ourselves into the ground pretending to be normal. We have the right to exist in the world as we really are.

If you’re feeling bad about your kid after an IEP meeting

Content note: This is directed at parents, and it’s about mitigating damage that can be done by the stigmatizing language in the IEP process. It expresses sympathy towards parents who are feeling things that can be harmful to disabled kids (as well as a call for parents handle those feelings constructively). This post may be triggering to people with disabilities who have been harmed by these kinds of attitudes. 

The IEP process can be really hard on kids, parents, and families. In order to get your kid the services they need, you’ve probably had to describe them using some awful language. It likely violated every one of your instincts about how parents ought to describe their kids. You may have had to do it anyway, in order to get your kid access to education.

It’s pretty normal to feel awful about either yourself or your child after describing them in such negative terms or allowing others to do so. It’s wrong, and it feels wrong, and you often can’t do anything about it — and it often comes along with pressure to believe that this is being caused by your child’s disability. If you’re finding that you feel that way, it’s important to do something about it. Kids are generally very aware of how adults in their lives feel about them. Feeling that way about your kid on an ongoing basis is really damaging to them and to your relationship with them. Don’t beat yourself up; do find ways to mitigate it.

It can help a lot to remind yourself that nothing about your child’s disability causes this kind of language. No child should ever be described this way, including yours. They’re not being described this way because of the things they can’t do — they’re being described this way because the system is ableist and often unwilling to respond to disability constructively. It’s not their fault, and it’s not your fault — it’s an awful fact about our culture’s attitudes towards disability.

You wouldn’t say that a baby is failing because they’re not talking — it’s just part of being a baby. If someone said that a typically-developing eight year old was failing because they can’t write 10 page papers, most people would be outraged. Your child’s development isn’t failure either, and they deserve appropriate education without stigma or panic. They are allowed to have a body and a brain, and they deserve to be respected as a human being. Language that treats them as a collection of deficits is cruel, and doesn’t reflect reality.

Your child’s differences aren’t a failure. Their development is what it is, and that’s ok. It’s ok to be different. It’s ok to have a disability. It’s ok to need appropriate education. Their need for appropriate education is not failure, it’s just that you sometimes have to cooperate with a system that wrongly describes it that way.

One way you can show yourself that it shouldn’t be this way is to write a better description of your kid after the fact. Rewrite what your child is learning, and what you’d like them to learn. Write about what the barriers are, and what kind of help they need. Write about their rights, and where you see that they might be violated. Write about them as the child who you know and love, not a collection of scary deficits. (It can also help to write down ten of your favorite things about your kid.) Their disability does not call for freaking out. It’s just part of who they are, and that’s ok.

Tl;dr IEPs describe kids using cruel stigmatizing language that doesn’t reflect reality. Having to cooperate with them anyway can do serious damage to parent-child relationships. Rewriting a new and better description of your child can help to mitigate this damage.

Learning to listen

One of the reasons this blog is called “Real Social Skills” is that the skills needed in order to listen to people with disabilities are not seen as “social skills”. 

Disabled people who communicate in unusual ways are usually seen as having a social skills problem. People who don’t understand what disabled people are saying are *not* usually seen as having a social skills problem. The disabled person is almost always blamed. It doesn’t have to be like this; it’s a problem with our culture; this is something that we can change.

Listening to other people (disabled or not) involves a lot of skills. No one is born knowing how to understand what others are communicating — we all have to learn how to listen. And we’re never done — there is always more to learn about listening and understanding other people. We should all have an expectation that learning skills for listening to people who communicate atypically is part of that. No one is too young or too old to learn to listen. 

For instance, all of these things are listening skills:

  • Understanding what someone who has a heavy CP accent is saying
  • Maintaining a conversational rhythm with someone who takes longer than most people to process or express themself
  • Having a conversation with someone who doesn’t make eye contact, and figuring out alternative ways to tell when they are and aren’t paying attention
  • Noticing when repetition is communication 
  • Understanding the indirect communication of people who can only use the limited core vocabulary words available on their communication devices
  • Giving someone who has been through intense compliance training the space they need to express their own thoughts rather than yours
  • Paying attention to what someone who speaks oddly is saying rather than writing it off as rude or cute 
  • Listening to someone who has both communicative and non-communicative speech, and figuring out which words are and aren’t intended as communication
  • Listening to someone who has both voluntary and involuntary motion, and figuring out which gestures are and aren’t communication
  • And so on.

No one is born with fully-developed listening skills. Learning to listen effectively is a lifelong process. Learning to listen to people with communication disabilities needs to be part of that.

Some signs that a place might be an institution

Lack of accomodation for disability:

  • An organization workign with disabled or elderly or sick people ought to have a clue about access and adaptability
  • If they don’t, it’s a major red flag
  • Some examples:
  • If there are a lot of people who need wheelchairs, and none of them have personally-fitted chairs, that’s a red flag. If everyone is using an institutional wheelchair, it’s probably an institution
  • If there are a lot of residents who have limited use of their hands, and no one has any adaptive equipment for doing things like changing TV channels, it’s probably an institution

People conflate patient/client opinions with family opinions

  • For instance, if they claim that everyone there wants to be, but then they only talk about what family members say about it
  • If it’s a place people can be put into by their family members without any attempt made to see if they consent
  • If all the information on a website is for family members or social workers, and none of it is directed at people who might live in or get services from a place, it’s probably an institution

If people need staff assistance or permission to contact the outside world

  • If people who can use phones independently don’t have access to phones without asking first, it’s probably an institution
  • If there are no computers available, or all the computers are in public places, it’s probably an institution
  • If you need a password for the wifi and the residents don’t have the password, it’s probably an institution
  • If nobody has a personal cell phone, landline, or computer, it’s probably an institution

Concepts of functioning levels

  • If a place claims to be a last resort for people who can’t function in a normal setting, it’s probably an institution and it’s probably doing horrible things

Bragging about mundane things as evidence of being wonderful places:

  • It’s very common for institutions to loudly proclaim that they have a pool, TVs, a barber shop, a charity shop people can work in, or other such things
  • If they think this is deeply impressive, something is wrong
  • Things that wouldn’t be particularly notable in an apartment building or neighborhood shouldn’t be particularly notable just because elderly or disabled people are involved
  • If people think they are, it’s probably an institution, and it’s probably intentionally confusing clients about what it means to be free and in the community

If people involved are required to regularly praise it

  • Everyone is disgruntled with workplaces or other aspects of their life sometimes
  • Free people express this sometimes
  • If everyone involved in an organization says it’s wonderful, and you can’t find anything people it serves are willing to complain about, something is wrong
  • This is particularly the case if the wall or website is full of testimonials about how great it is
  • And also particularly the case if people are regularly required to sing songs praising the place

If there isn’t serious regard for the privacy of people the organization serves

  • For instance, if there is a description of every single resident and their activities available on a public website, something is wrong
  • If you are brought into someone’s room without their freely given consent just so you can see what the rooms look like, it’s probably an institution

Disabled people go to disability conferences — and everywhere else, too.

I’ve been going to a lot of disability conferences recently.

Almost every presentation I’ve attended has been addressed solely or primarily to a nondisabled audience. This is odd, because there have also been very visibly disabled people at all of these conferences. (And since all the audiences contained me, they also always contained at least one disabled person.)

Even when there were very visibly disabled people in the room, people still did this. Even at conferences that have been running for a long time and *always* have multiple significantly disabled people present, people still addressed their presentations to a nondisabled audience.

For whatever reason, very few people prepare remarks with the assumption that disabled people also want to learn more about disability. I don’t know why this is, but I do know that it’s a pervasive problem.

I’ve observed this problem even in lectures on the importance of presuming competence and remembering that disabled people have things to say. Even in that context, I’ve heard “you and I can do x, but they…” or “you and I can assume that others will listen to us, but they…”. And this is even when there are multiple people in the room who are visibly disabled and unable to speak.

It’s very strange. There’s some kind of cultural bias that causes people to ignore the perspectives of disabled people so automatically and thoroughly that they forget that their perspectives even exist. It can be hard to notice that you’re doing this. It’s worth putting active effort into acknowledging disability perspectives. Having the right intentions isn’t usually enough.

When you’re lecturing on disability, it’s worth thinking about questions like:
Am I saying “you and I” or “we” to mean “people who don’t have a particular impairment”?
If so, how can I use the example I want to use without making disabled audience members “they”?
Am I addressing the disabled people in the room, or am I assuming a nondisabled audience?
Am I saying anything that is relevant to or targeted to the disabled people in the room?
If not, why not?
Is there a way to fix that?

Actually, this is good practice even if you’re *not* addressing disability-related topics. Disabled people are everywhere. We have the same range of interests as anyone else. There’s likely a disabled person in your audience (especially if your remarks are recorded, but even if they are not.) It’s much better to assume that there are always disabled people in the audience, and to speak accordingly.

Tl;dr: Disabled people exist, and we go to disability conferences — and everywhere else, too. If you’re giving a talk, assume that disabled people will be in the audience, and prepare your remarks accordingly.

Assistive technology does not cure disability

When I get into an airplane, I don’t turn into a bird.

All assistive technology is like that.

Airplanes are not wings, and wheelchairs are not legs.  Rolling is different from walking, and it’s ok that it’s different. Typing is not speaking, it’s typed communication. Reading braille isn’t seeing with fingers, it’s tactile reading. And so on. Assistive technology is important, and worth respecting.

Airplanes are amazing. I respect them without pretending that they are wings. Likewise, other people respect me as a competent human being without pretending that an airplane has turned me into a bird.

Assistive technology enables people with disabilities to do more things. It does not turn us into nondisabled people — and it doesn’t need to. We do many things differently, and that’s ok. Respecting us means respecting us as we really are, including acknowledging that our assistive technology exists and matters.

You can do more when you remember that you’re disabled.

People with disabilities are often taught the anti-skill of pretending to ourselves and others that we have no disability-related limitations.

Most people (disabled or otherwise) have the related anti-skill of assuming that everyone present has pretty much the same physical and cognitive abilities. (Or, in other words, that no one present has a disability that significantly affects physical or cognitive functioning.) This often leads to the assumption that people who aren’t doing a task either haven’t been told what to do, or aren’t sufficiently motivated to do it.

These two anti-skills can make it very, very hard to solve problems when something goes wrong for disability-related reasons.

This kind of conversation tends to happen a lot:

  • Someone: You need to do the thing.
  • Disabled person: I’m having trouble with the thing.
  • Someone: “Can’t you just do the thing this way that sounds reasonable but is actually impossible for you?”
  • Disabled person: “You’re telling me it’s possible in tones of absolute conviction and are making me forget that I won’t be able to do it that way. Ok, I’ll do the thing from now on.”
  • The disabled person, predictably, fails to do the impossible thing.
  • Someone with an entirely reasonable need for the thing to get done: Why didn’t you do the thing?!
  • Disabled person: I don’t know. I’m sorry, I’ll try harder, I’ll do it from now on.
  • This, predictably, doesn’t work either. 
  • The task doesn’t get done, because it’s impossible to do things that way.
  • In these situations, disability is neither acknowledged nor accommodated, and things end badly for everyone.

Or, to give a less abstract example:

  • Aubrey has severe ADHD. She’s been fired from several jobs for failing to keep track of things and missing key deadlines, and she’s on thin ice at her current position. Blair, Aubrey’s boss, is running out of patience for the problems caused by Aubrey’s overdue work.
  • Blair: Aubrey, you’ve missed several deadlines, and it’s causing serious problems for the team. What’s going on?
  • Aubrey: I’m having trouble keeping track of everything.
  • Blair: Most of us here use to-do lists on our cubicle whiteboards. I’ve noticed you don’t have a to-do list on your whiteboard. Can you do that from now on?
  • Aubrey (who has never, ever used a to-do list successfully): Ok, I’ll start using a marker board and meet my deadlines from now on.
  • Blair believes that everyone can use to-do lists, and has never thought of the possibility that anyone might not be able to.
  • Blair is making a suggestion that from his perspective is completely reasonable and possible. 
  • Aubrey responds to Blair’s certainty, and forgets that her limitations will prevent that from working for her. 
  • She believes, in the moment, that if she tries hard and takes enough responsibility, she’ll be able to use the to-do list and meet her deadlines this time. 
  • Even though that’s never worked before, and there’s no real reason to believe that it will work any better this time.
  • Trying hard doesn’t make disability go away, and it doesn’t make impossible things possible.
  • Aubrey, predictably, fails to use the marker board, because that strategy doesn’t work for her. And she, predictably, gets fired, because the tasks need to get done and she’s not doing them.
  • From Blair’s perspective, Audrey was given a lot of patience, guidance, and multiple chances.
  • Blair has a legitimate need for the work to get done.
  • This is probably going to keep happening, so long as Audrey tries to rely on willpower to solve problems rather than honest assessment of her capabilities.

When others expect us to do impossible things, it can be hard to remember that they are impossible. Particularly if we’re told that they’re easy or that everyone can do them. Especially if we are surrounded by people who are successfully doing the thing.

All of this can be very disorienting, especially if someone whose opinion we care about is angry or disappointed. It can be surprisingly difficult to keep in mind that disability is real.

It’s also crucially important. Agreeing to do something impossible that “everyone” can do doesn’t magically give us the ability to do it. It just sets us up for failure.

We are all much better off if we face reality and spend time doing things that are possible. Everyone else does. It’s well-known that expecting people to do impossible things is counterproductive and demoralizing. Only exceptionally unreasonable employers expect people to lift 300lbs, sprout wings and fly, turn lead into gold, or decrypt 128-bit encryption keys in their heads.

It’s just as unreasonable to expect disabled people to do things that our impairments make impossible. One limitation we share with everyone is that pretending that something is possible won’t make it possible. We are much better off acknowledging reality, working with our brains and bodies rather than against them.

This is hard. Remembering the truth often requires us to fight through shame and disorientation, or to violate serious taboos. No one succeeds at this 100% at the time, but it does get easier with practice. It’s also really, really worth it.

Whenever you are able to stop trying to do an impossible thing through sheer force of will, it makes it more possible to do things. You don’t have to overcome disability to do things that matter. You just have to find things to do that are actually possible, with the abilities you actually have. The things that you really can do are worth doing.

You may be saying that about your student’s parent

Content note: This post is mostly intended for k-12 classroom teachers, but probably applies to other groups as well.

When you teach, it’s really important to be mindful of the fact that people from all walks of life have children. 

When you say something about a particular group of people, you may be saying it about a student’s mother, father, or parent. It’s important to keep that in mind when making decisions about how to discuss things. (Including things that it’s 100% your job to teach your class about).


When you express an opinion about a group of people, your student may hear it as “I think this about your mother”, “I think this about your father”, or “I think this about you and your family.” Don’t forget that, and don’t assume that you will always know who is in the room.

It’s worth speaking with the assumption that there are people in the room who know a member of the group you’re talking about personally. When you’re working with kids, it’s worth speaking with the assumption that this person might be their parent or someone in a parental role.

This is important whether what you’re saying is positive, negative, or neutral. If you speak in a way that assumes that what you’re saying is theoretical for everyone, it can make it very hard for a child to whom it is personal to trust you. And you can’t assume that you will always know a child’s family situation, or that you will always know how a child feels about it.

For instance:


  • Many parents are in prison, have been imprisoned in the past, are facing trial, are on probation, have been arrested, have been accused of crimes, have been convicted, are on house arrest, are facing some other kind of court-ordered punishment or similar.
  • Many parents are police officers, prison guards, judges, prosecutors, probation officers, or in a related role.
  • Many parents (and children) have been the victims of violent crimes. (Including crimes committed by police officers.) Some children may have lost parents this way.
  • All of these people are parents, and most of their children go to school.
  • Some of their kids may be in your class, and you may not know this.
  • Even if you do know about the situation, you probably don’t know how they feel about it.
  • Kids have all kinds of feelings about all of these things (including, often, complicated mixed feelings).
  • If you want to talk about prison issues, crime, justice, legal reform, or any of that, it’s important to keep in mind that whatever you say about one of these groups of people, you may be saying it about a student’s parent.
  • And that you don’t know how they feel. 
  • Speak in a way that gives them space to have opinions, and to be both personally affected and part of the class.
  • If you say “we” and mean “people who aren’t personally connected to this issue”, kids are likely to feel that you are distancing yourself from them and their parents.
  • It’s better to speak with the assumption that what you’re saying applies to the parents of one of your students, and that they may have complicated thoughts and feelings about this.

Similarly:

  • People of all races have children of all races. When you say something about a racial group, you may be saying it about a student’s parent.
  • People with all kinds of disabilities have children. When you say things about disabled people or disabilities, you may be saying it about a student’s parent.
  • (Including blind people, deaf people, autistic people, people with intellectual disabilities, wheelchair users, people with conditions that usually shorten lifespan, and every other kind of disability).
  • When you talk about teenage pregnancy, keep in mind that some students may have parents who were teenagers when they were born.
  • People of all political opinions, including abhorrent opinions, have children. When you say something about members of a political group, you may be saying it about a student’s parent.
  • People who work at McDonalds have children. When you talk about McDonalds workers and people in similar roles, it’s extremely likely that you’re talking about a student’s parent. (Especially if you teach in a public school).
  • Many people who do sex work have children. If you say something about strippers, porn stars, escorts, phone sex operators, dominatrixes, or whoever else, you may be saying it about someone’s mother, father, or parent.
  • People of all faiths and ethnicities have children (who may or may not be raised in their faith). If you say something about a religion or its followers, you may be saying it about the parent of one of your students.
  • And so on.

Being more abstract again:

  • People from all walks of life have kids, and you may be teaching some of their kids.
  • Keep that in mind.
  • Whatever you say about a group of people, you may be saying it about your student’s mother, father, or parent.
  • If you speak about it like it’s an abstract issue that couldn’t apply to anyone in the room, it’s likely to be really alienating.
  • This is true even if what you say is positive or sympathetic.
  • Kids need to be seen and acknowledged. If you speak as though they’re not there, it gets harder for them to trust you.
  • When you speak about a group of people, speak with the assumption that at least one student in the room has a parent who is a member of that group.

(To be clear: I’m not saying don’t talk about these issues. Sometimes it’s 100% your job to talk about these issues. What I am saying is, keep in mind that it may be personal, that you may be talking about a student’s parent, and that you won’t always know that this is the case. Taking this into account makes it possible to teach everyone in the room.)

tl;dr When you’re teaching, keep in mind that the kids in your class probably have parents, and that you don’t know everything about their parents. Their parents may come from any and every walk of life. Keep this in mind when you talk about issues and groups. You may well be talking about a student’s mother, father, family, or parent. 

Believing in ourselves as disabled people

As disabled people, it can be very hard to learn to believe in ourselves. We’re often taught not to.

We’re told over and over “believe in yourself, and you can do anything!” and that if we work hard, we can overcome disability. That sounds positive, but it actually teaches us that we’re not worth believing in as the people we really are.

In the name of believing in ourselves, we’re told to ignore key facts about ourselves. We’re taught that believing in ourselves means that if we ignore disability as hard as possible, it will go away and we’ll be ok.

But ignoring reality doesn’t change it. No matter how we feel, no matter what we believe, our bodies exist and matter. Our limitations stay important.

We need to get real, and we need to believe in ourselves for real. We have real bodies. We have real minds. We have real limitations. We are real people, worthwhile as we really are.

Believing in ourselves means self awareness and self acceptance, including of our disabilities. We can believe in ourselves enough to stop fighting with our bodies and brains, and to start working with them rather than against them.

We can understand our limitations, and face them without shame. We can accommodate our disabilities. We can take our strengths seriously, and respect our capabilities in an honest way. We can enjoy things and have good lives. We can figure out for ourselves which things to do, and how to do them.

We can’t overcome disability — and we don’t need to. We are worth believing in as the people we really are.