How You Can Fight for the Rights of People with Disabilities When You Don’t Have a Disability… and Aren’t an Adult
I’m a hearing person who signs ASL. I love being able to help out with interpreting or translating, but I can’t speak for deaf people. That’s not my place. (I mean, sometimes I can literally speak for them, if they are non-speaking, but I can’t speak for them in the metaphorical sense of deciding what they want and need and giving it a voice.)
People with disabilities are marginalized in many ways. From lack of social services to ineffective health care to lack of infrastructure and accessibility, they are underserved and underrepresented in the United States. But as an able-bodied person who wants to help, you walk a slippery slope. Because just speaking for people with disabilities can harm them.
How so? When we speak on behalf of people with disabilities, the message we send is that our voices matter more. The message received may also be that they are unable to speak for themselves. People with disabilities can be portrayed by the media as a burden. The Ruderman Foundation’s chilling White Paper explains that approximately once a week, a person with a disability is murdered by his or her caretaker, and that any media coverage received is likely to portray the murder as a “mercy killing.”
Speaking for minorities and marginalized communities always carries a secondary meaning: my voice matters more because I am the majority, so listen to me. We can double the positive message if we let marginalized communities speak for themselves.
People with disabilities don’t need us to speak for them - they know what they want and need. They need us to listen to them, and to use our privilege to make a space where their voices can be heard.
Are you a teenager who wants to help people with disabilities, but you aren’t sure how to start? Here are some things you can do…
If You Have Two Minutes
Donate to an empowering organization. Organizations such as the American Association of People with Disabilities are working all the time to improve the lives of people with disabilities. Even $5 makes a difference.
Share an article you found interesting. Did you read something that made you interested in hearing the voices of people with disabilities or helped you to understand the challenges they face? Maybe share it! Think about not sharing what is commonly known as “inspiration porn”. (Don’t worry, it’s not really porn - it’s when people with disabilities get called “inspiring” for doing regular things we all do. And it’s crappy.)
Share the voice of an activities with a disability. Don’t just share articles, social media posts and accounts, or voices of people who get you to care about disability, but share articles, social media posts and accounts, and voices of people who have a disability. One of the slogans for the disability rights movement is “Nothing about us without us.” Clicking “share” only takes a second, but you might open someone’s eyes.
Fax your Senator via Resistbot. Healthcare reform matters to all of us, and it matters a lot to people with pre-existing conditions, which would be most if not all people with disabilities. You can fax your Senator in less than a minute and share your concerns (don’t worry, you don’t need a fax machine) by using Resistbot, which does all the research and contacting for you on your behalf.
If You Have Fifteen Minutes
Read the voice of a activist with a disability. If you haven’t yet, get to reading. Some places to start might be Non-Speaking Autistic Speaking, Crippled Scholar, Cripperella, Words I Wheel By, or Autistic Hoya. Of course, no one person with a disability speaks for all people with disabilities, but you can listen to and learn from their experiences.
Call your Senator. Senators vote on health care reform, which has a direct impact on people with disabilities (and all people in the US). The best, most direct way you can impact your Senators and their vote is to call them. Don’t know how? Find your Senator and how to call them. You can say whatever you like, or find sample scripts here. If you can’t work up the courage to call (it’s not scary!), you can use resistbot to send a fax for you, which takes about a minute.
If You Have an Afternoon
Attend a protest or event. Don’t go to lend your voice - go to magnify others’ voices. Ask where help is needed, and help.
Read a book by an author with a disability. This article has some great suggestions.
“Donate” your birthday or other event to a foundation. Click a couple buttons on Facebook and maybe send an email to your relatives, and you’re raising money for a cause that matters to you.
If You Have More Time
Learn a little bit of ASL. Learning ASL (American Sign Language) is a great way to be better able to communicate with deaf people in your community. Even if you only learn a few basic signs, you could help in an emergency or just show you are interested in communicating. I set up a free online class here.
Volunteer with students or children with disabilities. You can look for a school in your area (maybe even your own school) with students with disabilities and see if you can provide extra assistance.
Provide long-term assistance to a person with disabilities in your community. Using your physical abilities to help assist members of your community who have disabilities is a great way to engage and assist in a practical way. Ask around!
Set up an annual fundraiser at your school or club. Donating a small amount of money is good. Having a fundraiser is even better. But a recurring annual fundraiser tends to grow and build support over time.
There is always something you can do, even if it’s small. Just because you can’t do everything, doesn’t mean you can’t do anything. If you read this article, you have two minutes - do something!
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.