Marketing Ability: It’s time we repackaged the cause of the disabled

  1. Al, something you said invokes our topic of “ethical engagement, and deserves a comment: “There is not enough engagement by non-disabled Africans like myself because we are afraid to be politically incorrect or to sound insensitive.”

    Caring people want to discuss the ways in which society disadvantages or even oppresses people who are “different” than the majority. They know that discussion is necessary for change. But simultaneously they may be apprehensive about putting forward opinions about sensitive or highly politicized issues, fearing that their lack of personal experience or even their lack of “standing” as a member of the majority may unintentionally trigger someone’s discomfort or worse.

    Those of us who are not disabled are afraid to offend the disabled. Many who are white are afraid to engage in discussion of issues that particularly beset people of color. Those who are not heterosexual, those without homes, those who are unattractive, those with mental illness, those who cannot read, those who are foreigners, those who have socially stigmatizing illnesses and so forth. Many of us are afraid to engage around these issues.

    However, as you have pointed out, the courage to engage is necessary for change to occur.

    Years ago, I participated in something called the Diversity Infusion Institute through the University of Missouri, where I was taught to be more aware of the diversity in my classrooms, and to make it safe and respectful for all students to be exactly who they are. During that experience, I learned both how easy it is to accidentally marginalize someone by talking when you come from a place of not knowing (why we’re all afraid). But I also learned that it can be just as easy to engage in these difficult conversations if you are willing to admit out loud to the limitations of your experience and knowledge, ask questions from a genuine place of curiosity (like you did with Representative Mach) and then be a listener – be open to what you hear and be aware that someone’s perceptions of their own circumstance is likely to be more authentic than whatever you imagine or your taught ideologies suggest.

    The only way to get good at these conversations is to try them, over and over, until you are comfortable. For one of my classes, I lead a session on our diversity where I let everyone label themselves, talk about labels and demographics and personal characteristics, and how labels may in some ways disadvantages us and in other ways advantages us (can you think of a way in which the label “disabled” might advantage someone?). These conversations are had with respect so that people feel safe to talk from their own, authentic experiences, and as such can be some of the most educational and perspective-shifting ever. One year, I had a young woman come to me after class to say that this was the first time in her life she felt safe enough to talk out loud about the fact that she was overweight, and what that experience was like for her. She thanked me profusely for making that conversation possible for her.

    Part of the lesson of Representative Mach is that her attitude is only half the equation. One of the most powerful ways to create social change is for the rest of us to recognize, accept and insist on dignity and a “whole humanness” orientation toward those who are disabled. When we come from that place, those conversations are genuine and much easier to have – and like the student in my class, I think there will be a lot of gratitude to you for making the conversation possible.

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