Things Disability Activists Shouldn’t Do

“Please don’t!” in bold black letters, next to a yellow smiley face, on a white background

I hope this list of “don’ts” isn’t just a list of my personal pet peeves. I tried to focus on bad and harmful habits that are at least somewhat common among disability activists, especially new ones. I’ve also tried to stick to ideas and rhetorical practices that are specific to the disability community … not just annoying personal qualities anyone might have. And while I personally disapprove of them, I hope people will read this list as helpful, not scolding. I have done most of these things at some point in my life as a disabled person. I probably still do some of them sometimes now. None of us is perfect. But at least we should have some idea of where perfection might be found, and where it decidedly can’t.

So, if you’re going to do disability activism, here are some things to avoid:

Don’t complain about “other minorities” having more power, recognition, support, etc. than disabled people.

I can’t count how many times I’ve heard a disability activist complain about the disability community’s lack of recognition and power by implying that other “minorities” are somehow better off than “we” are. First of all, it’s not true. Second, our movements and communities overlap. There are disabled people who are also people of color, LGBTQ+, immigrants, etc. So our “groups” aren’t even totally separate. Finally, justice isn’t a limited commodity to fight over, and resenting other peoples’ perceived status or advantages is corrosive, offensive, and pointless.

Don’t compete for power, recognition, and support with people who have disabilities that are different than yours.

This is another variation on the same habit of zero-sum competition. “Severely” disabled people think more “mildly” disabled people hog all of their their resources, and vice versa. Every disease and condition wants to be considered the top priority, and simultaneously viewed as the most disadvantaged. Different disabilities do include different experiences, hierarchies do unfortunately exist between disabilities, and total unanimity among disabled people is neither possible nor even desirable. But deliberate competition and resentment between disability groups for shares of a supposedly limited pie is terribly destructive, and helps exactly nobody.

Don’t try to improve perceptions of your disability by saying that it’s better than having some other kind of disability,

“It’s my legs that don’t work. There’s nothing wrong with my mind!” may be the ugliest and yet most common line of argument disabled people use to sidestep stigma and bolster their social status … as if people who DO have “something wrong with their mind somehow deserve prejudice and condescension. Disability activists should fight ableism, not try to doge it or deflect it onto others.

Don’t accommodate people with some kinds of disabilities and then make accommodating others a lower priority.

This should be obvious. If you believe non-disabled people should make things accessible to your disability, then you should do all you can to make everything you do accessible to people with any disability. And yet, disability organizations regularly treat certain accommodations as extras or ad-hoc “if requested.” This is an especially common problem for people with intellectual disabilities, as well as for blind and deaf people.

Don’t attempt to craft a more “positive” image of disability by centering people perceived to be more conventionally attractive or appealing.

This practice of handing leadership and the proverbial microphone to the kinds of disabled people thought to be most appealing and relatable … white, young, physically disabled, (not mentally or intellectually), and verbally articulate … is at least somewhat understandable from a conventional P.R. perspective. But it is also deceptive, exclusionary, and wasteful. It’s a rarely questioned or even acknowledged practice that the disability community, in particular, needs to think about a lot more than it does.

Don’t try to police who should and shouldn’t qualify as “disabled.”

People with chronic illness, mental illness, and learning disabilities are often regarded as marginal or provisional “members” of the disability community … and not just by non-disabled people. If a person has a condition of any kind that they have to think about and adapt to every day, and if they are affected by ableism, (even misplaced ableism), then they should be considered disabled, with no caveats or asterisks. Disability is more than wheelchairs.

Don’t judge or disparage individual disabled people for choices they make for themselves in their own lives.

This is tricky. It’s fine to criticize fellow disabled activists for activism tactics and disability ideas you disagree with. But it’s a good, unifying rule of thumb to hold back any disapproval you may feel for any disabled person’s individual life choices. For example, a disabled person living with their parents or in a nursing home, choosing not to learn how to drive or pursue employment, the words they choose to describe their own disabilities, and whether and how they may strive for medical cures and therapies, should be off limits for individual judgment. As disabled people, we should all be fully aware of the many complex forces, circumstances, and reasons each of us has for doing the things we do in our own personal lives … and the utter folly of judging how any one disabled person handles their life.

Don’t dismiss other disabled people’s claims of ableism simply because you happen to think their specific claim might not be valid.

Some disabled people experience far more ableism than others. Those of us who are disabled but also benefit from generally good social status and support sometimes find it hard to believe just how horrifically some disabled people are treated. Skepticism is good! But some of us take a little too much pride in grilling other disabled people about their own stories. You don’t have to believe everything another disabled person says, but there’s essentially no value in loudly disbelieving them in a public way. And there is really no down side to giving fellow disabled people the benefit of the doubt. Also, really, really bad stuff does happen to disabled people, even if nothing so terrible has ever happened to you.

Don’t try to claim that you can’t possibly be ableist, or do or say an ableist thing, because you yourself are disabled.

Ableism is woven into the fabric of society. Disabled people are members of society. So it’s not only possible for disabled people to harbor some ableism, it’s unsurprisingly common. And having a disability doesn’t make anyone immune to being ableist. You, too might be ableist from time to time. It’s not good, but it’s not the end of the world either. Just realize it, deal with it, and try to do better.

What other “don’ts” would you suggest for disability activists?