Module 4: Ableism and Accessibility
Responsibility for blunting racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist thoughts and actions is shared between individuals, organizations, and society. In every work and learning environment that you enter, you have the opportunity to create a more inclusive space for people with disabilities. The aim of these modules is to gain knowledge, awareness and skills that will enable learners to take effective actions that combat discrimination and create more inclusive and safe environments, so the experience of learning is a rich one with opportunities for you bring your full creative self too and be meaningfully engaged.
It is acknowledged that the power dynamics between the student who may be experiencing or witnessing discrimination and the perpetrators who may be in a position of authority or status (this can also be another peer) can make challenging or speaking up difficult and sometimes scary. There are different factors that weigh into a person’s decision to act and are not always clear-cut reasons nor are they the same for everyone. Whatever the reason, the decision you make should be one that you are comfortable with.
Being informed about the options available to you can help you to determine how you wish to respond and the steps that can be taken, the supports available and the possible outcomes. In some circumstances, the decision to address concerns and incidents does not rest with only you. Once a disclosure is made, processes to respond to situations of discrimination or harassment are triggered such as an investigation or duty to report and respond, as impacts can go beyond individuals directly involved impacting the large group or organization.
Deciding how to respond does not have to be a decision you make on your own and without support. You are encouraged to reach out to program faculty and staff within your institution. There may also be a variety of campus services from which you can also seek advice, will assist you with getting connected to the proper supports and bringing a complaint forward. Remember you do not have to handle things on your own.
Here are some strategies that you may wish to consider:
- Take Responsibility: Once you enter a work or learning environment, your actions (and inactions) become a part of its social fabric; you will become interwoven with that environment’s values and behaviours. Likewise, your values and behaviours will be felt by those around you. As a contributor to that environment, own what that contribution looks like. Self-auditing the misconceptions and negative attitudinal behaviours we carry about people with disabilities is crucial to taking responsibility and unlearning thinking and behaviours.
- Do Your Own Research: By completing this Pressbook, you’ve begun the first step. Educate yourself about the history and present-day realities that people with disabilities face in the workplace. Don’t stop at this Pressbook. To go further, share resources with peers in a work or learning environment, and encourage co-workers to do their own research as well.
- Witness and Respond: Before responding to an act of ableism or discrimination that you have witnessed, consider the power dynamics that exist in the situation, and if the perpetrator will retaliate against the target of the incident, others in their identifying community, or even yourself.
- Assess Your Work Environment: Understand your organization’s positions and actions towards dismantling ableism and existing barriers. This will involve active participation and not just expressions of support. Ask about your organization’s policies on ableism, anti-discrimination policies, resources and support, and call out any areas where you see gaps.
All of these approaches, aim to exhibit good ally behaviour. This looks like assessing the people, power, and place where discrimination happens before taking action. This also looks like taking an intersectional approach to dismantling ableism. People hold many identities targeted for discrimination that include racial, gender, sexual, cultural, ability, and age.
The Social Model and Disability Justice Model affirm the role of society in stigmatization and oppression. It follows, then, that transformation is a collective responsibility that involves allies.
Six Behaviours and Actions for Allies
Ostrove et al. identified six types of behaviours and actions for effective allies (931-935).
- Extend appropriate help, but do not always assume someone wants help. Ask if they want assistance. For example, say, “Can I provide assistance?” or “Can I get that for you?” (Claire 1). Recognize the agency and autonomy of persons with disabilities.
- Recognize that disability is one of the multiple dimensions of identity; provide space for conversations about challenges.
- Participate in advocacy campaigns and disability movements.
- Build relationships and learn to be comfortable around persons with disabilities.
- Be open to learning about the history of social understandings of disability, and the lived experience of persons.
- Engage in respectful and non-patronizing and non-condescending discussions.
Action derives from deliberate thought or else it remains random, purposeless and even harmful. For allyship to be meaningful, it must be rooted in a shared commitment to an imagined world that transcends the current logistics of oppression. Some in the Black rights movement suggest the centrality of love. For example, James Baldwin writes in Letter from a Region in My Mind, “If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. . . .” That might seem utopian considering the violence of slavery and segregation, but love, including self-love, creates spaces for persons to articulate and share stories inscribed on bodies and minds. In sharing those stories, persons with and without disabilities find a common purpose to reshape the understandings of disability/ability and ab/normality and reinterpret and expand accessibility.
Navigating the professional world as a person with disabilities or chronic illness is challenging, particularly in industries with less representation. But you do not have to do it alone.
Watch the video below of Kate Tutu, Ryerson alumni, providing insights and advice for students with disabilities navigating new workspaces.
In addition to the strategies and insights mentioned in the video, consider these tips for creating a more inclusive space for yourself in the workplace:
- Become Comfortable Communicating Needs: Whether you have a visible or non-visible disability or need accommodation within a workplace or learning environment, it is important to be comfortable communicating your needs if/when you feel the need to disclose. Shifting your perception of disability is crucial in order to become more confident in advocating for yourself without guilt. The environment is the disabler; the individual is not the problem – society is.
- Become Familiar with your Workplace and Learning Environment Rights: Laws exist to prohibit discrimination within the workplace, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t occur. It’s important to be aware of your rights and protection to be equipped to document and report any discrimination. The list below is just a starting point.
- Seek Employee Resource Groups or People that Relate to You: Navigating the workplace alone can be challenging or overwhelming. Frankly, finding people you relate to can make it easier. Seek out existing employee resource groups; if they don’t exist, think about creating them. These groups can be safe spaces to discuss issues like microaggressions and frustrations in the workplace and get support from your community.
- Seek out a Mentor and Community: Canada has a number of diverse Disabled professional groups that you can connect with, which are general or industry-specific. The list below is just a starting point.
A Word on Self-advocacy
The concept of self-advocacy is associated with confidence, resilience, empowerment and a layered identity (Goodley 342; Anderson & Bigby 113). Research involving college students with intellectual disabilities suggests a correlation between engagement in self-advocacy and:
- Successful college adjustment (Murray et al. 41);
- The development of a sense of belonging (Vaccaro et al. 677);
- Successful academic outcomes (Lombardi et al. 119);
- Embracing disability as part of self-identity (Anderson & Bigby 113).
Test et al. identified four dimensions of self-advocacy:
- Knowledge of self,
- Knowledge of rights,
- Communication (negotiation, assertiveness, problem-solving),
- Leadership is defined as “awareness of the common needs and desires of others, working with others, group dynamics and responsibilities” (Test et al. 50) is desirable, but not essential.
Although self-advocacy is important, it must not crowd out consideration of other factors external to individuals that impact learning and work performance. These include environmental factors, family support and parental role modelling, campus climate, and workplace culture and supports. Moreover, emphasizing self-advocacy at the expense of other factors has potential negative implications. First, it transfers social responsibility from organizations to individuals who must communicate the accommodations necessary to perform work/learning-related activities, while not addressing the parties on the negotiating table – i.e., educators and workplace supervisors. Second, it implies that self-advocacy facilitates problem-solving and eliminating or mitigating barriers to access. But it does not adequately consider the emotional energy that self-advocacy demands. Therefore, self-advocacy is best conceived as part of an ecological system that comprises institutional, parental/family and peer supports.