As someone with a genetic neurological condition that affects my balance and coordination, I’m often asked by other people how they can support those with disabilities.
I have thought about this topic often. But I also reached out to people with disabilities and educators, nurses, caretakers, and so on—both inside and outside of Unity—to ask them the question (just as I did previously when I contacted LGBTQIA+ individuals to ask how to better support their community).
1. Help to make things more accessible.
Although the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act requires businesses to make accommodations for accessibility, people who need special accommodations continue to find their needs unmet and often must call ahead to restaurants, concert or sporting event venues, and so on before making plans to go out.
If you are a business owner, make sure your space is accessible. Are there working elevators? Are there ramps? Are there accessible parking spaces? Are your bathrooms wheelchair accessible? Even if you don’t own a business but notice accessibility lacking at your place of work, bring it up.
If your business has a website, revise it to make content more accessible. Some useful updates are to include image descriptions in the alt text for people who use screen readers, add captions or subtitles to videos, and allow users to enlarge font sizes.
2. Don’t make assumptions.
It’s easy to “see” disability when a person is using a mobility aid or speaking through sign language. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control, of the 61 million adults across the United States who have a disability, 10 percent of these are invisible. Examples of invisible disabilities include fibromyalgia, Crohn’s disease, endometriosis, epilepsy, psychiatric disabilities, diabetes, and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Don’t assume someone always needs mobility aids. This was on my mind when I recently brought a cane to a concert. I didn’t need it to walk but to use it as a tool to help me keep my balance. If you see someone who usually uses a walker, cane, crutches, or even a wheelchair, understand that they may not always need to use them. You may see someone using a walker one day and walking unassisted the next day. Some conditions don’t require the use of mobility aids every single day.
While we can appreciate our differences, learning to see beyond individual circumstances to the spiritual truth of all people is the way to create connection and compassion.
It’s important to consider mental health disabilities and the battles people fight daily, even those that can’t be seen. Jennie Scott, a certified peer specialist and licensed Unity teacher, said, “People with mental health disability are often not supported by family members due to stigma, and due to the fact that they have an invisible illness. Also, the high percentage of people with a chronic substance use issue are often also having a related mental health problem.”
Not making assumptions about people is always good practice, regardless of ability. You can never fully know everything others are dealing with. Keeping this in mind can help you face the world with more empathy, compassion, and kindness in general.
3. Focus on better communication.
People don’t always ask for what they need. However, you can empower them to feel comfortable asking for help when they need it. Make it clear you want to be accommodating and you want to know how to be of help.
If you see a person with a disability struggling to do something and you ask whether you can help, don’t be offended if they decline your assistance. What may look like struggling to you may simply be their taking a little more time to complete a task.
Show them you are listening and you value what they have to say. For example, if you see someone in a wheelchair, you may want to sit down to be at their eye level when having a conversation. If you see someone with an interpreter or assistant, talk directly to the person, not their interpreter or assistant.
4. Pay attention.
My father, who has the same progressive condition I have, uses a walker or a wheelchair when he goes out. When I asked my mother about their experience, she said, “When your dad and I are out and about, some people are in such a hurry they don’t pay attention. So simply be aware of the disabled around you as you move through the world and take a second to offer kindness.”
Just as you try to be more aware of pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists when you are driving, make it a goal to be more aware of the people in your life in general. Take time to slow down and be mindful of the world around you.
5. Learn more about their experiences.
There are many myths and misconceptions about disability. As author Greg Burkholder said, “Even basic words like blind and deaf are misunderstood.” It’s common for hearing people to believe that those who experience deafness can’t hear anything and only experience silence, but this isn’t always true.
Fortunately, today, we have easy access to information. Seek out books about disability, online writers or podcasters who deal with disabilities, and movies and television shows that accurately reflect the experiences of those with disabilities.
6. Volunteer for and donate to organizations helping people with disabilities.
There are a number of organizations doing great work for those with disabilities. Ability First, the American Association of People with Disabilities, and the United Disability services are excellent examples. You can also seek out local organizations and volunteer opportunities.
In Unity, we believe our inner divinity—a connection to all that is—transcends any human condition we may experience. While we can appreciate our differences, learning to see beyond individual circumstances to the spiritual truth of all people is the way to create connection and compassion.
We strive to see the wholeness in everyone, and while that may show up differently for each of us on the human level, there is a deeper, spiritual essence within. As Rev. Joy Wyler, J.D., said, “When we speak about spiritual wholeness, we must put down the ‘perfect’ Barbie-doll examples flouted by society and instead lift up the true image of divine wholeness within each of us.”