The ABCs of Good Disability Awareness

Yesterday was World Sight day. Tuesday was World Mental Health Day. In the United States, this Sunday is White Cane Safety Day, while this entire month is National Disability Employment Awareness Month. And the disability-themed calendar entries aren’t just limited to October; check out this list of disability awareness days, weeks, and months

Most people enjoy participating in disability awareness campaigns. They have fun making signs, passing out pamphlets, or speaking to kids in schools. Most people seem to agree that disability awareness is a good goal to achieve.

But in disability communities, the term “awareness” raises some eyebrows. It’s not that we don’t support educating the public; far from it. It’s that the aim of “spreading awareness” has been used to back some truly reprehensible depictions of disability. For example, in 2009, the organization Autism Speaks promoted one of its awareness events with a video featuring images of children playing by themselves, alongside an ominous-sounding, disembodied voice saying “I am autism….I know where you live, and guess what, I live there too….I work faster than pediatric AIDS, cancer and diabetes combined…There is no cure for me…I am still winning, and you are scared, and you should be……” an “awareness-raising” depiction of autistic children as monsters, (with no mention of the adult self-advocates they might become). Another organization, the Foundation Fighting Blindness, posted a video last year that was titled, “What would you do if you couldn’t see your child?” The silent film featured images of children playing at the park, which became progressively blurrier to simulate loss of peripheral vision. While this film might have done a decent job of simulating peripheral vision loss, it failed to capture the ways in which blind parents interact with their kids outdoors, contributing to dangerous stereotypes that result in too many children being taken from their disabled parents.

Both of these attempts at disability awareness treated the disability as a one-dimensional enemy, completely ignoring the multidimensional lives of people affected. Fortunately, in response to mass protests, both videos were taken down by their creators (although the autism video is still in the Youtube archives). But it is clear that not all awareness is good awareness. We don’t want our disabilities regarded as enemies, nor do we just want people to know we exist. What we seek in an awareness-raising event is a real, tangible shift of public attitudes. We want people to come away from awareness events with a willingness to become our allies, an openness to consider us as equals, and a zeal to support changes that remove barriers keeping us from equal participation.
So, how do we construct awareness campaigns that effect real positive changes?

Early in my psychology studies, I learned about the “ABCs” of attitudes. Attitudes consist of affect (a fancy word for feelings), behavior, and cognition (a fancy word for thoughts or knowledge.). So, here are some ideas for the ABCs of an effective attitude change campaign. I welcome additional feedback about what has worked well in the comments.

Feelings are powerful motivators. Disability awareness messages often play on feelings, but too much of the time, they rely on scaring learners or making them feel sorry for people with particular disabilities. A good awareness campaign need not rely on fear or pity. Instead, invite people with disabilities to tell their stories and share themselves with the group. We tend to be more inclusive toward people we feel are similar to us, or when we identify emotionally with their experiences. So, let disabled guest speakers provide a window into their lives, their hobbies and interests, and their dreams. Share autobiographical accounts written by disabled people, or on social media, share blogs such as Autistic Hoya, Where’s Your Dog, or Claiming Crip.
Sometimes, good awareness means making people feel a little uncomfortable with the status quo. Encourage learners to critically examine their own knee-jerk reactions to disability and think about how they can modify their prejudices. Share accounts of discrimination and the prevalence of abuse, poverty, and other socially constructed injustices disproportionately affecting people with disabilities. Make learners a little angry about problems they have the power to solve collectively.

The best awareness campaign does no real good unless it drives people to action. Once you’ve gotten learners emotionally invested in the problem, suggest concrete actions they can take to support people with disabilities. Examples of actions include:

  • Donating funds to a self-advocacy organization of disabled people;
  • Signing up for legislative alerts, and contacting legislators to urge action on disability rights laws;
  • Attending town hall meetings to advocate for improved public transportation in their town;
  • Identifying access barriers on their college campus or at local businesses, and reporting them to authorities;
  • Starting or joining a committee to promote inclusion at their place of worship;
  • If they are in a hiring position, making job applications accessible and advertising job openings in disability forums;
  • Making their photos and videos accessible on social media;
  • Consciously working to improve their one-on-one interactions with disabled people, ensuring they treat the person with dignity, as an ordinary other, and as an expert on their own needs. Learn more here

Accurate information is an important part of awareness. Teaching about tools like the white cane can be very beneficial, especially when it opens up further dialogue. But any information presented must be accurate. I am continually shocked to see how many disability awareness activities happen without the leadership of disabled people. If you can’t find a disabled person or two to lead your event, at least find someone to fact-check your written materials or comment on your videos. Much better to get some critical feedback on a video before it’s released, than to release it and then deal with a ton of unexpected backlash from disability advocates. One place to find disabled individuals is on the Disability Wisdom Discussion Group
Accurate information might include education on the ways in which disabled people perform activities. It’s also OK to include information, from disabled people, on the challenges of disability. We know that having a disability isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and presenting a balanced account is essential. Along with this, it’s important to respect the boundaries of our expert teachers with disabilities. Although many of us are willing to teach at a formal event, we may not be able or willing to teach when we’re busy shopping, for example, or we may wish not to talk about deeply emotional aspects of disability with people we don’t know well. A good awareness campaign may involve multiple expert teachers with different disability experiences, who are willing to participate in different ways. And, when you can, encourage ongoing contact between teachers and learners. After all, the need for good awareness doesn’t go away when a disability awareness month is over.

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