Where Do You Learn About Disability?

by David Morstad


Advocacy, social media, and current political campaigns have been attempting to remind everyone – or, perhaps telling us for the first time – that people with disabilities make up the largest minority group in the US.

Good to know.

Assuming that the majority of the nation is therefore populated by presently-abled people in communities, workplaces, and houses of worship; and, assuming those same people are also generally inquisitive and anxious to know more about this very significant minority group, where do they go?  What is the source of information that, having experienced it, people might say, “Now I have a clearer understanding”?


I wouldn’t recommend it.  Popular movies and television are most likely to feature characters who are either sentimental overachievers, or tragic souls trapped in horrible circumstances, and hence are on a quest to end it all.  The recently released Me Before You tells the familiar tale of a man with a disability seeking assistance to end his own life.  The ‘better dead than disabled’ theme is indeed popular in Hollywood (The Sea Inside, Million Dollar Baby, Whose Life is it Anyway, etc.).  Beyond the unfortunate fact that the actors are almost never people with disabilities, the stories themselves are simply not reflective of the vast majority of people with disabilities who are leading fulfilling lives.

The internet?

This can be a valuable source, particularly if you are reading blogs and perspectives of people who know disability first-hand. I’d suggest starting with Dave Hingsburger, a thoroughly excellent writer.  On the other hand, caution and skepticism on the internet are good things.

It is a grand understatement that misinformation and the feel-good portrayal of people with disabilities being patronized simply abound on social media.  These portrayals are more about the audience than the person at the heart of whatever story is being exploited.  That explains why such stories have been aptly named Inspiration Porn.  Avoid them. They have little to teach you.

Pretending you have one?

The so-called “disability awareness” activities that are so popular in schools have serious weaknesses when it comes to understanding. Several years ago, writer and founder of Disability is Natural, Kathie Snow, wrote a piece that should be required reading  for anyone preparing to use disability “simulation” exercises or puppet shows to raise awareness.  She writes,

“Instead of promoting an understanding of what it’s really like to have a disability, simulations frequently perpetuate negative reactions (“Wow! I’m glad I’m not like that!”) which reflect pity, sadness, superiority, and/or even greater misunderstanding.

There is no method that can truly teach others ‘what it’s like to have a disability,’ any more than one can be taught what it’s like to be of a different ethnicity, religion, or gender.”

It’s about relationship

Vanier2For truth and insight, there is only one authoritative place to go, of course.  Nobody knows more about a disability than the person who has it. Sit down. Have coffee. Talk to people, but be prepared.  Not every conversation is about disability, barriers, sadness and frustration.  Sometimes people just want to talk about the weather, sports, friends, and what’s going on in the world.  That said, you may also discover that disability is indeed about dealing with some challenges; but maybe not in the way you first thought. You may find that poverty is almost always a threat; or that employment, housing, transportation, access to healthcare, and funding for support services are the things that occupy a greater place of concern than the disability itself.

You may also discover a bit of your own vulnerability, and the fact that the power of friendship and community strengthens us all.

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