Inclusion doesn’t just happen when a disabled person is watching. It starts before they enter a room and continues after. Even if you don’t see a disabled person around, you can influence your environment for the better. How can you be disability inclusive in everyday life?
Our words and attitudes shape each other. These lead to actions. Here are ways to reflect on your words and habits to make the world better for disabled people.
Disability Inclusive Speaking
Attitudes shape words and words shape attitudes. The way you talk shows people what you think is and isn’t appropriate. It can influence their attitudes, too.
So, maybe you want to speak in ways that show caring and respect for disabled people.
Be prepared, though: Change is awkward. And if you really want to challenge yourself, then that means thinking about the words you use.
Don’t Compare Disability to Everyday Life
How often have you heard or said these?
- I like to organize everything. I’m so OCD!
- That politician’s supporters must be brain-damaged.
- The weather is so bipolar lately.
- I swear my boss is psychotic.
- That internet troll is probably an autistic neckbeard who won’t leave the basement.
People like to use illnesses and conditions as quirky ways to say something is extreme or bad. But this means co-opting other people’s struggles.
I don’t say, “it’s such a custody battle” if I’m in a tough spot. Nor do I sigh, “I’m so homeless” if I’m on the move. That would be messed up! Real people go through these things. I won’t compare my fleeting problems to some of their lives’ hardest struggles. Those are big deals.
So, why would it be any better to do with mental illness or disability?
If you compare your inconvenience to someone’s disability, it implies they’re the same. It must not be a big deal if you throw the word around so freely. If their OCD is just like your love of spreadsheets, then if they say they’re having a hard time, they’re probably not working hard enough, right?
This attitude isolates disabled people. When people don’t take your disability or illness seriously, it’s hard to talk about it. You don’t trust they’ll respect your needs. So, you face your problems alone.
If it’s not your struggle, then it’s not your adjective. Try picking different words.
Think About Your Insults and Metaphors
This year, I prepared to tell my sister, Katie, she has an intellectual disability. She was asking questions and I thought it was time. But how do you sit someone down, take her hand, and tell her she’s not as smart as most people?
It shouldn’t have to be hard. But while I planned the talk, I started to notice how often people talk about intelligence to put someone down. It’s everywhere. I’m not just talking about the r-word either.
Many put-downs come from disability:
- Intelligence: stupid, idiot, dumb, brain damaged, etc.
- Mental health: crazy, insane, demented, deranged, psycho, etc.
- Other: lame, special needs, “what’s your defect?”
It’s one thing for me to notice this as her sister. But what is it like for her? To get these constant little reminders that society thinks not-so-smart people are bad? That the world thinks a part of her, which she can’t change, is degrading?
I quietly stopped using these words years ago.
Instead of stupid, I might call people reckless or rude. Instead of insane, I might call something strange or unreasonable. I pick words without ties to disability. It’s more specific, anyway.
Besides, in these wordings, disability implies someone can’t do better. It phrases a problem as a passive event instead of an active choice someone made. In a way, it lets them off the hook.
How Much Does It Matter?
I won’t call these slurs or compare them to the R-word. I know they’re common. Many disabled people ignore them and some use them.
Still, our words reflect attitudes and stereotypes. They imply our opinions. So, how far are you willing to go?
I see a few options:
- Use these words casually, like most people do.
- Use them for bad ideas, but not people.
- Choose words with no ties to disability or mental illness.
If you want to be extra disability inclusive, then think about it. What messages do you want people to hear?
It was so hard explaining intellectual disability to my sister. I didn’t want her to think she was “stupid” or “dumb” when society says these things are awful. I hope that someday, these talks won’t have to be so hard.
Disability Inclusive Habits
Disability inclusion matters even if you don’t know if a disabled person is in the room. If you pick up these habits, then you make life easier for disabled people.
Don’t Judge Weird or Quiet People
Have you ever wondered about that wallflower who avoids eye contact and wears black hoodies? Or that guy on the bus with headphones who rocks back and forth?
It’s likely not sinister. In fact, many disabled people:
- Avoid eye contact
- Are “picky eaters”
- Struggle to focus with background noise
- Have sensitive ears/eyes/skin/etc.
- Wear simple, comfy clothes
- Use long words
- Have a monotone, childlike, or “odd” voice
- Move slowly
- Get overwhelmed easily
It’s not for fun. It’s part of being disabled.
When everyday tasks are harder, you try to adjust. Maybe you don’t wear makeup because your clumsy hands struggle with complex tasks. Or you use headphones and hoodies to shut out stressful input.
The world says, “be yourself.” But then, when neurodivergent people do these things, it often says, “stop being weird and rude.”
But it’s not an easy thing to do. Some of these things are automatic and others are needed for getting through the day. It isn’t realistic to ask a neurodivergent person to stop being “weird.” That “weird” stuff may be keeping them afloat.
Instead, let them be if they seem all right. And if they look stressed, you can always ask if they’re OK and if they need anything. Even if they’re fine, it lets them know they have an ally in you if they need one.
If people stopped judging odd behavior, then life would be easier for neurodivergent people. Everyone should get to be themselves and take care of their needs.
Be Kind to People Who Don’t Get the “Obvious”
I’ve seen this happen all the time online:
Person A: *makes funny meme reference*
Person B: I don’t get it.
Person C: No one explain it!
It feels isolating to be Person B. Especially if you’re neurodivergent and you don’t always get social cues or you sometimes miss things. People often say things you don’t get. And when they don’t make time to explain, you end up left out yet again.
Or worse, they blame you.
Confusion Isn’t a Choice
I once started an internship-type job with an unclear onboarding packet. I read it a few times and wasn’t sure about a few of the steps. So, I reached out to my new boss to clarify. The response?
“Did you even read it? You need to put in the effort if you want to succeed here.”
I tried, but I still had questions. In the end, I had to out myself as neurodivergent, including the details of that, to stop feeling like I was in hot water. (I prefer to do that after people have seen my strengths and gotten to know me.)
When different things are obvious to you, you may:
- State the “obvious” because you want to help other people get it
- Not know when someone is sarcastic
- Over-explain things
- Under-explain things
But if you fumble, people may react with judgment or sarcasm. “Thanks, Captain Obvious!” They might call you rude, awkward, or condescending when you were doing your best.
These types of interactions add up. Over time, neurodivergent people can feel like something is “wrong” with them. Why else would people act with disdain or anger when they try to join conversations?
And sometimes, it does help to voice “obvious” things. Maybe not everyone knew them. But criticism can make neurodivergent people hesitate to say anything.
I can look at a certain Rubik’s cube pattern and tell you the next step for how to solve it. To me, that’s obvious. But it isn’t obvious to most people. Would it be fair if I looked down on people who didn’t get it?
Being disability inclusive means knowing that we all think different things are “obvious.” This is because we all have different brain types, backgrounds, and skills.
Try pausing if you get annoyed with someone who acts confused or states the obvious. See if you can respond with grace instead. It’s just different thinking. Start by assuming they’re doing their best.
Recognize Different Needs
Part of being disability inclusive is recognizing that some things are harder for some people. And it might not be obvious to onlookers. For example:
- Standing for a long time at parties can be hard for people with chronic pain.
- Shopping requires lots of motor skill tasks in a place full of sensory input. That’s not easy when you’re dyspraxic.
- Sitting still for long meetings can be hard for people with ADHD.
- Eating new food can be a risky gamble if you have allergies or sensory processing disorder.
But most people don’t wear cute shirts declaring their disabilities so everyone knows. Instead, they try to handle it quietly. Yet stress builds up anyway.
To someone watching, the person might look antsy, tired, or awkward. But inside, they’re struggling. And you can’t tell the difference unless they tell you.
Some of this is about interacting with disabled people. For example, if you visit a depressed friend who admits they’re too tired to clean, you have a choice. You could make them feel bad about it or talk behind their back later. You could also act like it’s no big deal. Or you could offer to help clean together.
When People Criticize Your Needs
Next time people discuss different needs, pay attention. For example, what do you do if you see an online calling picky eaters childish? Do you join in? Do you ignore it? Or do you stop and point out that sometimes, a “picky eater” is disabled and doesn’t deserve stigma?
I’ve read those posts. I have sensory processing disorder (SPD) and it makes tastes feel more intense. I wish I could be carefree about food, but I can’t. It’s as if restaurants served mostly cardboard, boiling water, gravel, and worms. And if you wanted something edible, you’d have to order from the kids’ menu.
When people say picky eaters are spoiled and entitled, it doesn’t feel great. Yes, I’ve seen those online posts. So do family members, friends, and caregivers of disabled people. The opinions they hear can influence how they act.
So, will your voice be there? What will it be saying?
Intolerance of disability can be even harder than the disability traits themselves. If everyone took the time to think and speak up, life would be so much easier for disabled people. And we could order from the kids’ menu or fidget in peace.
When Disabled People Don’t See You Being Disability Inclusive…
…It still matters.
Family and friends of disabled people will see you doing it. Some won’t even know their loved one is disabled. When they see what you say and do, it shows them what you think is acceptable to say and do. And they remember that the next time they see this person.
It also sends a message to everyone. It’s not just people who know a disabled person well. School counselors, nurses, HR workers, coworkers, and all types of people can help or harm a disabled person. How should they treat disabled people? Your attitude shows them what you think is right.
You have the power to shift what other people think is normal. You can use this to help or to hurt, by accident or on purpose.
What do you want to show people? What can they learn from you?
Disability-inclusive habits start with you. What can you and others do to make the world a better place?