CHICAGO—People without an apparent disability have something of which they are probably not even aware: “non-disabled privilege,” a speaker told attendees at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2012 Diversity & Inclusion Conference & Exposition in Chicago.
During a concurrent session held Oct. 23, 2012, Josh Crary, diversity programs advisor for the Berklee College of Music in Boston, explained that non-disabled privilege means that “the world accommodates and validates your way of moving and communicating” and that “you’re free to go anywhere without worrying about accessibility.”
Crary, who was born with choroideremia, a rare inherited eye disorder that causes retinal deterioration and blindness, spoke candidly about some of the experiences he has had since he began to lose his sight at age 14. For example, he said he once had a driver stop at an intersection and insist upon leading him the rest of the way across a street he was already navigating without assistance.
Crary said he has also been stopped by strangers on the street to ask how he became blind and has been grabbed from behind as he walks down stairs. Though he acknowledged that these efforts were probably made with the best of intentions, they can be highly insulting—not to mention unsettling—for someone with a visual impairment.
He explained what non-disabled privilege means.
- People don’t stare at you.
- People don’t assume you’re unable to do things.
- Strangers don’t routinely violate your personal space.
- People don’t tell you regularly that you are inspiring or admirable.
“There’s a right time and place to ask questions,” Crary said. If you don’t have a prior relationship with someone, for example, then it’s inappropriate to ask personal questions, such as “What happened to you?”
Most people understand the concept of racism, but are less familiar with the concept of “disablism”—the belief that people with disabilities are inferior to nondisabled people.
Often, people believe that an individual’s impairment causes problems in the workplace or elsewhere, but Crary refutes this notion. “At first, an environment might not work, but it’s because the environment is not universally accessible,” he noted.
Aversive disablism is a “subtle, unintentional bias that people fail to recognize in themselves,” noted Crary’s co-presenter and colleague, Kevin Johnson, director of the Office for Diversity & Inclusion at Berklee. Aversive disablism “usually doesn’t involve open hostility or hate,” he explained, but he claims that it is based on negative feelings such as discomfort, pity, sympathy and fear—feelings that can lead to avoidance of people with disabilities and physical differences.
“Recognize that people with disabilities and physical differences don’t have something wrong with them,” Crary said.
At Berklee, Johnson and Crary work in partnership with human resources on culture change, joint training and educating one another on issues and trends. Their efforts target the needs of employees and students, Johnson explained.
Among several recommendations, the pair suggests that attendees focus on “people-first language,” such as referring to someone as “a person who uses a wheelchair.”
Johnson encouraged employers to follow and share 10 general etiquette rules concerning people with disabilities. The list was developed by Rhoda Olkin in 1999 and includes tips such as:
- Don’t stare.
- Don’t talk about all the people with disabilities you know.
- Don’t assume the person needs help, and don’t begin helping without asking.
- Be clear about to whom you are speaking (for example, don’t look at an interpreter when speaking to a person who is deaf).
- Don’t be afraid to say you don’t understand someone’s words or their meaning.
- Don’t worry about using words that seem counter to the disability (for example, “do you see what I mean?” to a person who is blind).
- Don’t touch someone’s assistive device without permission.
Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
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