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October 10, 2023

7 Ways to Advocate for Accessibility and Disability Justice

July is Disability Pride Month! Every year, July serves as a time to remember the advocates who have led the way for disability justice and accessibility, and for us to center those with disabilities in our continuous fight for liberty and justice for all.  

The world we live in does not center disabled people. From physical and digital inaccessibility to the continued fight for marriage equality for disabled people,  there is still a way to go in our efforts to foster and live in an accessible society.  

Recently, Raven Solomon Enterprises was able to gather with a few creators and advocates in the realm of disability inclusion and accessibility, and they offered so many incredible insights that we want to share with you.  

Catarina Rivera, MSEd, MPH, CPACC is a LinkedIn Top Voice in Disability Advocacy and a TEDx SpeakerXuan Truong, LCSWA is a career counselor and community organizer who also sits on the board for Disability Rights and Resources, a Center for Independent Living in North Carolina.  

Thank you to Catarina and Xuan for their time, leadership, and efforts that contributed to this list of actions we can all take to demonstrate allyship to disabled communities!

Here are seven ways you can demonstrate allyship to those with disabilities and to disabled communities.  

1. Understand Terminology

 As allies for accessibility and disability justice, we must first understand what these terms mean.  

Here is how Truong understands these terms:  

Disability Justice: Approaching and advocating for equity and justice for any and all disabilities from an intersectional lens.   

Accessibility: The baseline; being able to get into a physical or digital space or go to an event, just like a non-disabled person would. Inclusion and belonging can only happen in accessible spaces.   

#DisabiltyJustice A world in which every body and mind is known as beautiful." -Patty Berne, ”Sins Invalid”

2. Honor History 

One turning point in the fight for accessibility came with the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Understanding the history of the ADA is pivotal in advocating for accessibility and disability justice. 

The ADA was passed in July 1990, and this is why Disability Pride Month is celebrated in July!  

The ADA mandates that, regardless of ability status or disability, no one can be discriminated against in employment, transportation, public accommodations, communications, or access to state and local government programs and services due to their physical capabilities or needs for accessible accommodations.

Since the passage of the ADA in 1990, disabled communities all over the country have been recognizing and celebrating Disability Pride Month. However, we still have a long ways to go regarding disability inclusion, equity, and accessibility.  

It is important to know that just because something is ADA-compliant doesn’t make it accessible – the ADA itself has significant room for improvement.

Image depicting various participants, some visibly disabled, in the Spring 1990 protests in Washington, D.C

This Disability Pride Month presents a somber tone as a leading activist in the passage of the ADA, Judy Heumann, passed away earlier this year.

Judy Heumann, a Disability rights advocate, in front of the ”TED” sign, pictured in her wheelchair wearing a red sweater

Judith "Judy" Heumann (1947-2023) was an internationally recognized disability rights activist, widely regarded as “the mother” of the Disability Rights Movement. She was a leader in the historic Section 504 Sit-In of 1977 and instrumental in developing and implementing other disability rights legislation.  

Judy's story is featured in the Oscar-nominated documentary Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution, a film I recommend everyone watch!  

In understanding the history of inaccessibility and the lived experiences of disabled people, we can further center not only disability, but disability pride.  

3. Center Disability and Disability Pride

The Disability Pride Flag features red, yellow, white, blue, and green pastels at a diagonal angle across a solid black background.

In conversation with RSE Content Manager Ryan McKeel, Catarina Rivera explained what Disability Pride means to her.

Rivera shared:

“Disability Pride means I’m proud of who I am and all the parts of me, defiantly and powerfully. In a world that tells me I’m less than: less worthy, less valuable, less capable - I resist all of it.”

Rivera also emphasized that disability identity and pride can be complex and hard, in that “being proud of (my) identity doesn’t erase the inaccessibility in our world.”

Similarly, she shared that her visions of a more accessible society are those wherein disabled people can participate just as any nondisabled person can.

To that same point, Xuan Truong shared that she centers her vision of an accessible future where accessibility is a given.

In her response, Truong was able to help us explore a few understandings of models of disability present within our society.

4. Familiarize Yourself with Models of Disability

Understanding the various models of disability is important for accessibility and disability justice advocates because it allows for a more nuanced and comprehensive approach to addressing disability-related issues. Models of disability provide different perspectives on how disability is understood and experienced.

Note that these are just a few of the understood models of disability, and the list below is not exhaustive.

Medical Model of Disability:

- Disabilities are viewed as medical conditions that require diagnosis and treatment with the goal of "curing" individuals with disabilities. However, this approach often overlooks the broader social and environmental factors impacting disabled people's lives.

Social Model of Disability:

- Instead of attributing disabilities solely to individuals, the social model recognizes that the world is primarily designed without considering the needs of people with disabilities, leading to social barriers and exclusion.

Charity Model of Disability:

- Under the charity model, disabled individuals are seen as recipients of care, and acts of kindness are offered to help them. This approach often fails to address the systemic issues that contribute to the challenges faced by disabled people, and it can perpetuate dependency rather than promote empowerment and autonomy. Systems of imperialism often further this model (“Creating the Cultural Other” Baskin, 2022).

Care Model of Disability:

- According to the care model, disabled individuals are often perceived as helpless and in need of constant care. While recognizing the importance of providing support, this approach can inadvertently reinforce stereotypes and undermine the capabilities and agency of disabled individuals. Systems of colonialism often further this model (“Disability as a Colonial Construct” Ineese-Nash, 2022)

Identity Model:

- In the identity model, a disability is considered an inherent part of an individual's identity, shaping their experiences, perspectives, and sense of self. This model acknowledges that disability can be an integral aspect of one's identity.

Truong shared something that helped put all of these models into perspective:

“Ableism is so rooted in our society that oppression often looks like charity.”

By familiarizing themselves with these models, IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility) advocates can foster inclusivity, challenge biases and stereotypes, and promote systemic change through intersectional lenses.

One of the main ways we can advocate for change and inclusivity is through our language.

5. Use Inclusive Language

Stock imagery of six individuals of various identities and visible disabilities, many in conversation with each other. Courtesy of enterprisedrive.co.uk

As I once did, some might even shutter at the word “disabled.” For many, referring to someone in any sense by their disability seems rude and offensive.

The truth is, though, that disability is an identity and not simply just a diagnosis. If you’re nervous about the word disability, ask yourself: why does the word disability make you nervous? This might be the perfect opportunity for some self-reflection and unlearning.  

    “Disabled is not a bad word.”  

In conversations with and about disabled people, it is important to understand the difference between person-first and identity-first language.  

Here's a breakdown of the key differences between the two: 

Person-first Language

Person-first language emphasizes the person before their disability, placing the individual as the primary focus of the sentence. It seeks to emphasize the person's humanity and worth beyond their disability.  

Examples of person-first language include: 

  • "She is a person with a disability." 
  • "He has a learning disability." 
  • "They are an individual with autism." 

Person-first language aims to prevent defining individuals solely by their disability, promoting a more inclusive and respectful approach to communication. 

Identity-First Language 

Identity-first language recognizes and acknowledges that disability is an inherent part of a person's identity. It places the disability terminology before the person, highlighting that the disability is essential to who they are.  

Examples of identity-first language include: 

  • "She is a disabled person." 
  • "He identifies as an autistic individual." 
  • "They are a Deaf person." 

Identity-first language is embraced by many disabled individuals and disability communities as a way to reclaim and affirm their disability identity.

It is important to note that individual preferences for person- or identity-first language can vary. The key is to be respectful and use the language preferred by the individual in question. When in doubt, asking individuals how they like to be referred to is always best.

6. Expand Your Understanding of Disability

Stock image of a group of friends with various visible and invisible disabilities.

Both Rivera and Truong highlighted in their discussions the importance of understanding that disability is not a monolith.

“There is diversity in disability. 25% of the population has a disability, and roughly 70% of that population have invisible or non-apparent disabilities. Disability can look very, very different for different people,” said Truong.    

Whether someone is born with a disability or develops or acquires one later in their life, one’s disability may very well be a core part of their identity. I, too, have had angst surrounding associating disability with one’s identity, but I believe that comes from how society has shaped how we view disability: as a disadvantage.

While not to trivialize or make light of any lived experiences, disabled people bring a nuanced and enlightened sense of the world to any space they enter. That, to me, is an incredible advantage to any space.

To that point, Rivera shared that being disabled impacts her leadership style in that “being a disabled leader makes me more empathetic, understanding, and inclusive… I try to get curious instead of making assumptions. I ask questions.”

Rivera further emphasized that she longs for a world where community care is widespread and “disabled people can be seen as the experts on innovation and adaptation.”  

7. Follow Disabled Content Creators

 To support disabled voices and advocates all year long, I recommend staying engaged with disabled content creators. Here are just a few to get you started:

·      Imani Barbarin

·      Nina_Tame

·      Clara Holmes

·      Meryln Evans

·      Garrison Redd

·      Tiffany A. Yu

A book at the top of my reading list is “Disability Visibility” edited by Alice Wong. The book features 21 first-person essays from disabled people who are accessibility advocates and community organizers.

Cover of ”Disability Visibility: First Person Stories from The Twenty-First Century,” edited by Alice Wong, next to a photo of the editor.

In the coming weeks, I invite us all to make actionable progress toward being a better ally and advocate for disabled communities.

Follow more disabled content creators, point out inaccessibility in either policy, procedure, or physical space to leadership at work, or simply listen to and read about the experiences of disabled people in our society.

As we continue to grow as Inclusive Individuals™, we must make space for disabled voices and experiences to be ever-present in our journeys of allyship. 

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Raven Solomon

Raven is a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Speaker, Author, & Strategist who helps organizations understand generations, racial equity, and their intersection.

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