What Is Disability Spread?

When I was in the sixth grade, our science class took us on a field trip to the Imax theater. I haven’t the slightest idea what the film was about, I think about some ocean creatures. What I do remember, clear as day, was walking into the theater with my group of girlfriends, talking and laughing. As we approached a flight of stairs to go to the second floor, I was quite rudely stopped and separated from my friends. An adult ordered me to get into the elevator, with just one random boy from another class. I asked the boy why he was in the elevator, trying to figure out what the heck just happened? He said he had broken his foot recently and was on crutches.

For those of you who are new to the blog, I am totally blind and use a white cane to walk. But I have no trouble climbing stairs. Yet many of my blind peers and I are regularly presumed to have difficulty with physical tasks like climbing stairs, lifting heavy objects, dressing ourselves, or even being out in the rain without a raincoat.

The disability psychologist Beatrice Wright coined the term “disability spread” for this phenomenon. It’s the mistaken belief that people with one impairment have difficulty in other areas of life as well. It might look like presuming that a blind person can’t climb stairs, or presuming that a Deaf person or someone with a speech impairment is lacking intelligence. It might appear as someone speaking to an adult like a child because they are seated in a wheelchair or because they are a little person; shouting at a blind person; or asking a Deaf person if they can get a driver’s license.

It seems there are at least two reasons for disability spread to occur. First, people might over-estimate how many different areas of life are impacted by a single disability. For example, people may presume that vision is necessary to climb stairs safely, not recognizing the compensatory methods that blind people use to perform this task. Secondly, people may see one disability symbol (like a white cane or a wheelchair) and this may cue a more general disability stereotype in their minds. Unfortunately, the generic disability stereotype is often associated with images of incompetence and dependency in a general sense, not just needing support with specific activities. This may cue well-meaning folks to treat us like children or otherwise doubt our ability to monitor our own safety.

Importantly, disability spread can also work in reverse. Some people truly have multiple disabilities. Sometimes, people with multiple disabilities may be treated as if they only have one disability. Often others will focus on whichever disability is most visible or obvious, even if the person’s other, more hidden disabilitie(s) are actually more impactful.

It is also important to say that my not wanting to be assumed to have other disabilities does not in any way invalidate the worth of people who actually do have those disabilities. There is nothing wrong with having a physical or an intellectual disability. But assuming I have those other disabilities is stereotyping me without recognizing my individual strengths and limitations. And, whether I have an intellectual disability or not, I deserve to be treated with dignity and respect

So how do we avoid engaging in disability spread, or its opposite? Well, the incident that happened to me in sixth grade had an easy solution. They could have simply asked me if I had any trouble with stairs, and after I said no, let me go upstairs with my friends. If they were really worried about liability and the overconfidence of an 11-year-old child, my teacher could have even called my parents that morning to double-check. Either action would have avoided the embarrassment and indignity of being segregated for an accommodation that I did not need.

The bottom line is that we are the experts on our own support needs. If you aren’t sure what our support needs are, ask us and listen to what we tell you. That way you can never get it wrong.

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