Three ways you can support your disabled friends
Imogen Kars provides some helpful hints on how to support your friends with disability.
Around one in six Australians have a disability – but despite being one of the largest marginalised groups in the country, there’s still a myriad of systemic obstacles for us to navigate. The world as we know it is not very inclusive of people with disabilities. From a lack of media representation causing harmful stigmas, to a lack of accessibility and widespread prejudice, disabled people deal with a lot on a daily basis and it’s not just strangers, the media, and bullies that perpetuate harmful narratives for disabled people – it can also be well-meaning friends, family, colleagues, and acquaintances who sometimes royally miss the mark.
We often forget that society is built upon the shoulders of billions of individuals, so it’s important to step into action on an individual level as often and as passionately as we can. Supporting our disabled friends is not just a step forward in your individual relationship – it’s also a step forward for the greater plight of the disabled community.
Three ways you can actively support your disabled friends:
1. Don’t assume – instead, ask
One of the most annoying things about having a disability – visible or invisible – is the notion that you can’t think, do, speak, or act for yourself. Due to the media representations and stigma surrounding disability in our society, it’s common for able-bodied people to want to step into the limelight for us and forge our future, guns blazing! We don’t want that though – unless we specifically tell or ask you to speak for us.
Assumptions can be the downfall of a thriving and healthy relationship with your disabled counterpart. These nagging assumptions can pop up in every aspect of friendship with a disabled person; from assuming they don’t want to go to certain events, assuming their disability is an all-round woeful and pitiful experience, or assuming their needs and desires.
Sticking with assumptions is a dangerous path to go down. When you don’t ask, and instead assume, you’re actively sustaining the narrative of the helpless disabled person. This is not only unhelpful and unsupportive to your disabled friend, but it’s also disempowering the disabled community. While every experience differs, it’s an assumption that your disabled friend needs help or support with certain activities in their day-to-day life.
Let’s consider a fabricated example. Your new friend Tara is in a wheelchair. You met Tara six months ago at work. She has been in a wheelchair for eleven years. When Tara invites you around to her house for a cup of tea you – out of love and support – take control of the tea-making duties and tell Tara to stay where she is and rest up. In your eyes this is a kind-hearted gesture, but for Tara it’s the fiftieth time she’s been made to feel disempowered this week. The only difference is this time it’s worse because you’re supposed to be her friend.
Instead of assuming, ask. Ask about your friends’ needs, their experience and their day-to-day life and, most importantly, ask if they need help. It could make a world of difference for them if you simply ask.
2. Don’t let accessibility be an afterthought
The world is not designed for disabled people so you’re going to have to keep that in mind when socialising with your disabled friends. Every disability is unique so everyday adventures like heading to your local coffee shop, heading out on a bushwalk, and even grocery shopping can look a little different for us. Accessibility means something different for everyone, so make sure to ask exactly what your friends’ boundaries are and keep an ear and an eye open for them.
Accessibility also doesn’t just refer to the physical layout of a place. It can also stipulate how long your friend can hang out for, their energy levels, or the kinds of places they can eat to name a few variables. I’m lucky enough to not have to consider any physical accessibility issues with my disabilities. Instead, I ask my friends to be patient with me and understand that I might need to cancel last minute or even change the nature of the hangout.
3. Consume more media by disabled people
This one is an important step forward, not just for your friend’s welfare, but for the betterment of the disabled community. It’s 2021 and by now it’s no secret that the media greatly influences the world around us.
From news updates to social media, books, movies and ads, the narrative of the disabled person is usually told by able-bodied folk spinning a dramatised, false, and harmful perspective for us without our input or consent. When able-bodied people consume media like this it truly does influence their thoughts, opinions, and behaviours towards the disabled community, sustaining systemic obstacles and creating barriers to support.
One of the most impactful ways able-bodied people can unlearn and open their mind to the truths of the disabled community is to consume books, movies and information created by disabled authors. Learning about the nuances of disability through the experiences of disabled authors and creatives is an amazing first step to trying to better your understanding of the disabled community.
Imogen Kars is a journalist, media educator and activist based on the shores of the Great Barrier Reef. She is passionate about social justice, gluten-free tortillas and slow and sustainable travel. You can find her work at earthcorrespondent.com