Remembering Darick Williamson

Last week, unexpected sad news came to the Louisiana Center for the Blind (LCB) extended family. Darick Williamson, cane travel instructor and a teacher of future cane travel instructors, died suddenly from a heart attack on March 22, 2018. Darick was my cane travel instructor when I was an LCB student ten years ago. He also taught and mentored several of my blind friends who are now teaching cane travel in schools and adult training centers across the country.

Like many LCB alumni, I have struggled to find words that can give adequate voice to Darick’s legacy. I could share stories of the adventures I experienced under his instruction, the lessons I learned about orienting myself and moving about in unfamiliar environments, and the confidence I gained through even (and especially) the scariest of those adventures. I could share how, as a man who happened not to be blind himself, Darick truly understood and conveyed his belief in blind people’s ability to travel safely and efficiently. But I cannot find the words to fully capture the impact he made, directly and indirectly, on hundreds of blind people through his students who became cane travel instructors themselves and passed his philosophy on to their own students. Instead, I will simply share his obituary, and a link to his writings for the Professional Development and Research Institute on Blindness (PDRIB), in the hope that his words will continue to educate and inspire.

Darick’s Blog Channel
Darick’s Obituary

The Superhero Hangs Up Her Cape [Reprint]

“Treating disabled people like superheroes allows organizations like Inclusion Alliance to ignore the discrimination faced by people with disabilities, such as the payment of subminimum wages to disabled workers and the inability of many blind college students to gain accessible materials for their education. The superhero mentality surrounding independent disabled people is holding back true and meaningful change.”

Most people enjoy winning contests and getting trophies. But for disabled people, an award can be a mixed blessing. In this article from the NFB Braille Monitor, Sophie Trist contrasts her experiences receiving two awards. One, a second-place Braille Challenge trophy, was one she earned as a child for winning a braille reading contest. The other, an “Adult Spirit Award,” was one she received merely for being a college student who is blind. Through this contrast she reflects on the complex feelings associated with getting accolades when one is disabled, and the struggle to determine whether or not those accolades are deserved.
The Superhero Hangs Up Her Cape

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.

Disability Wisdom Principles

Last week, I talked about the background behind the idea of “disability wisdom.” “Wisdom” is the concept of building trust across group lines by assuring the other that we are unprejudiced and see them as full and equal human beings.

So, how do we put this into practice in the context of disability? How do we assure another person, with a different set of physical or mental abilities, that we see them as a full and equal human being?

When I started preparing disability trainings, I came up with three broad principles that seem to embody disability wisdom. These principles are general, but they also help organize a number of accessibility and etiquette considerations into an overall framework. These are general principles to keep in mind when we meet someone with any kind of difference:

  1. Treat the person with the dignity and respect afforded to all people.
  2. This principle may seem so obvious as to not need stating. But, for those of us with disabilities, it is often known best in its violation. For example, we often encounter strangers who try to speak to others on our behalf, such as asking a friend what we want to order at a restaurant. Such behavior denies us our voice, a basic tenet of our humanity. The dignity and respect principle also gets violated when someone touches our bodies or mobility aids without our consent. As a child, I quickly learned to recognize when someone spoke to me in a “baby” voice, particularly when they used that tone with me but not with my nondisabled peers. All of these actions, though usually unintentional, can break down trust and mutual respect between two people.

    One of the simplest ways to afford someone dignity and respect is to “presume their competence”, a concept often articulated in the autistic community. That is, we can be wise by assuming that a new acquaintance has the ability to participate in ordinary interactions and activities, and to express autonomy. Signal this by speaking directly to the person in an age-appropriate way. Some people with disabilities may need supports or accommodations to participate in conversations or activities, but if you presume their competence, they will have the chance to make their needs known (see principle 3, below). If we start out believing that the people we meet are competent agents, we will be building the foundation of a mutually trusting relationship.

    Affording dignity and respect also means supporting people’s privacy needs. Always getting permission before touching is one essential way to do this. Addressing universal design concerns also protects privacy. For example, wheelchair-accessible restrooms and digital versions of medical paperwork both allow people with particular disabilities to access systems in a way that affords them the same privacy as anyone else.

  3. Treat the person as an ordinary other.
  4. Goffman described the wise as those who perceive a person with a difference as “an ordinary other.” For people with visible disabilities, this treatment may be the exception rather than the rule. Too often, we are either seen as extraordinary heroes or as helpless victims, not ordinary equals.

    One way to signal a perception of ordinariness is through language. Sometimes people worry about using words or phrases that are ability-centric in some way. English contains a number of common phrases such as “see you later” or “let’s go for a walk” which contain verbs tied to ability. Such phrases aren’t literal, however. Some people try to dance around these phrases in order not to offend. I vastly prefer it when people use these phrases in my company, because it signals that they are comfortable enough with me to use ordinary language. In a similar vein, I prefer it when people use direct language to address my disability, such as saying “blind” instead of using an idiom like “visually challenged” or “differently abled.”

    Ordinary treatment also means following the same conversational norms with a disabled person as you would with a nondisabled person in the same setting. So, if you would normally offer a simple “hello” and a smile to a stranger on the street, do the same if the stranger has a disability; no more, and no less. Again, interactions involving disability sometimes veer to the extremes, with strangers either completely avoiding us, or else launching into a deep conversation and sharing their life stories. We just want to be treated in an ordinary way.

  5. Treat the person as an expert on their own needs.
  6. Most of the time, people with disabilities can participate in the same ways as people without disabilities. However, there may be occasions when an accommodation is needed. When these cases arise, it is important for the person with the disability to direct the process as much as possible. Two individuals, even with the same medical condition, may have very different needs and preferences. The same individual may have different needs in different settings. Instead of guessing what the needs might be, just ask us, and we will tell you. Equally important is to respect the answer. A declined offer of assistance isn’t usually a personal rebuff; rather, it may simply mean that the assistance you were hoping to give isn’t helpful for that person at that time.

    Sometimes people wonder when it is appropriate to mention a disability in conversation. I have struggled with this issue myself, and to get some perspective, I posed this question on theDisability Wisdom Discussion Group Most people agreedthat it is fine to offer an accommodation or to ask about needs (e.g., “Do you prefer braille or large print material?” or “do you use captioning or an ASL interpreter?” Asking more general questions, such as “How does your assistive technology work?” or “how did you become disabled?” depends on the nature of the relationship you have with the person. While many of us don’t mind teaching about our disabilities, we may not always be in the mood for small talk, or have the time to answer questions. And, for some people, their disability resulted from a traumatic experience that they may not wish to discuss with new acquaintances. So, consider the intimacy level of the questions you ask in the context of the relationship you have with that person. At the least, you may want to open a new conversation with another topic before moving into disability-related discussion.

The three principles I’ve discussed are general enough to apply to a broad range of situations and relationships. I hope they serve as a good starting point when you think about inclusion, both on the individual level and the organizational level. Email meif you want to discuss specific applications of the Disability Wisdom principles in your work.

What Is “Disability Wisdom,” Anyway?

Readers may wonder why this site is called “Disability Wisdom.” I want to address this question in two posts. Today I’ll define what disability wisdom is (and isn’t) and where the concept came from. Next week, I’ll describe concrete things you can do to develop “wise” relationships across ability lines.

On the first day of my ph.D. program, my advisor, Dr. Geoffrey Cohen, gave me a chapter he had written that was titled “a barrier of mistrust.” In it, he described the worries of many ethnic minority students as they wonder if their teachers’ expectations of them are affected by racism. The mistrust that these worries engender can interfere with cross-race mentoring relationships. Dr. Cohen included a quotation from Irving Goffman, a well-known sociologist who wrote about stigma in the 1960’s. Goffman described “wise” people as those people who don’t themselves bear a stigma, but who are connected with someone who does, and who treat the stigmatized person as if he or she had no stigma. He wrote,

Wise persons are the marginal men before whom the individual with a fault need feel no shame nor exert self-control, knowing that in spite of his failing he will be seen as an ordinary other.

As I read the chapter and especially the quote from Irving Goffman, I was mentally transported back to a time in my own life when I began to experience my own barrier of mistrust. Like many people born with a stigma, my awareness of discrimination was gradual. But around the time I started fourth grade, I was socially mature enough to put it all together. Over a period of years, I came to understand that others could see and I could not. I also came to understand that people often treated me differently from others. But it wasn’t until the fourth grade that I put those things together: I awakened to the irrefutable fact that others treated me differently precisely because they could see and I could not. I became strikingly aware of the fact that adults worried about my safety more than they worried about the safety of my peers, spoke to me in a more infantilizing way, and gave me less freedom and independence. My peers, too, seemed to either handle me with too much care, or else used my blindness as an opportunity to pull tricks on me. As my tenth birthday approached, I entered a serious crisis of mistrust. I was unsure when praise from a teacher was genuine and when it merely meant I had exceeded her expectations for a blind child. I questioned whether kindnesses from classmates were real, if they came from pity, or if they were part of a trap. I had trouble identifying who wanted to be my friend, and who merely wanted to be my helper. Although I encountered instances of blatant discrimination and exclusion, mainly from adults, it was the ambiguous interactions that made me most wary, the ones where I couldn’t quite tell if I was inferior in the other person’s eyes.

 Wise interactions include quiet reassurances that can break down the barrier of mistrust. Dr. Cohen described wise interactions as those assuring the stigmatized person of his or her equality. He focused on the situation in which a white teacher is giving constructive criticism to an ethnic minority student. These students may worry that constructive criticism is a sign that their teacher views them as unintelligent because of their ethnicity. However, Dr. Cohen and his colleagues found that teachers can allay this worry by simply stating up front that they have high standards for all of their students and that they believe in the student’s ability to learn and grow. In their research, my advisor and his colleagues repeatedly found that such “wise feedback” was better received by ethnic minority students and motivated them to work harder, compared with criticism given without the “wise” preamble. Further, the encounter with wise feedback increased the students’ trust of the school system and its authority figures, which had far-reaching implications for their academic achievement in the years thereafter.

As I moved into my teens, I started gravitating toward people and relationships that conveyed similar cues of wisdom. For me, I often picked up “wise” vibes from people who challenged me. The teachers who sparingly gave praise or high grades, and the brutally honest friends who told me things I didn’t always want to hear, were people I felt I could trust to regard me as an equal. I trusted people most who either didn’t mention my disability at all, or if they did, who did so in a casual, nonchalant way. Most of all, people struck me as “wise” if I knew they were treating me in the same manner as others around me.

Disability wisdom does not mean jumping to make the disabled person happy. It is neither talking down to the disabled person nor putting them up on a pedestal. It does not mean treating the disabled person with kid gloves. Instead, disability wisdom is merely the act of treating the disabled person as an “ordinary other” and extending the same human courtesies to that person as to anyone else.

And, there is one more element to disability wisdom that warrants mention. Goffman wrote that in the company of the wise, the stigmatized person need not censor him or herself (“exert self-control”). Goffman further described how the wise can become honorary members of the stigmatized group, and encounter some stigma themselves merely by associating with those people who bear the stigma.

In my preteens and beyond, as I became fully aware of unfair treatment from others, I often became angry, and verbally confronted this treatment. My actions were often met with social sanctions; adults considered me defiant and insubordinate, and some of my peers considered me rude. I began to wonder if I had only two choices: I could either confront discrimination, and risk being disliked, or I could quietly accept discrimination, and risk being disrespected. The wise people in my life have given me a third option. They validate my anger, and lend me their support. They still like me when I choose to be loud, and they still respect me when I choose to be quiet. They join forces with me to challenge discrimination, even if it means that they carry some of my stigma on their shoulders. Part of wisdom, then, means using your talents, your privilege, and your voice to amplify the cries of stigmatized individuals for justice

Importantly, Irving Goffman was writing fifty years ago, when many things were still seen as properties of individuals (and “men”). I don’t believe in a dichotomy between people who are wise and people who are not. Rather, wisdom is a property of the relationships we build. On next week’s post, I want to discuss some concrete things we can do to develop wise relationships, particularly when one person in the relationship has a disability and the other does not.

In the meantime, what are your thoughts? Do you have a particular relationship that bore the hallmarks of disability wisdom? Tell us in the comments!