New Year's Resolutions for 2019

New Year’s Resolution written in white chalk on a blackboard, with three colored post-it's below

Making New Year’s Resolutions is usually a tiresome cliché, but this year I have some anyway. Specifically, I have three New Year’s Resolutions that relate to how I want to live in 2019 as a disabled person.

Resolution 1: I resolve to use less disability jargon, and explain it when I do use it.

Disability culture and politics often seems fueled and even defined by unique and highly specialized words. For example: ableism, inspiration porn, institutional bias, intersectionality, eugenics, erasure, emotional labor, or identity first vs. person first language. All of these terms serve useful purposes, giving voice to experiences and ideas that disabled people share but often have a hard time describing to others. Other groups and cultures have their own “insider” language too, but the disability community in particular seems to rely on words and phrases not only to express our ideas about disability, but to actually shape them.

Unfortunately, this can make disability culture and communication seem intimidating and closed to outsiders and newcomers. That includes many people who actually have disabilities but don’t organize their lives and identities around disability culture and activism. And this can lead not only to an exclusiveness that’s the opposite of our community’s supposed value of inclusion, but also a remoteness that makes important ideas about disability literally inaccessible.

That’s why in the new year I will try to use more familiar, accessible language to explain disability concepts and describe disability experiences. Some disability terms are important in themselves, and can’t be improved on, like “ableism.” But when I use them I will at least try to take the time to explain them. I’m also starting a year-long blog series on disability terminology, called The Disability Alphabet.

Resolution 2: I resolve to reevaluate my relationship with social media.

Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not going to delete my Facebook account or stop tweeting. I’m not going to stop watching YouTube videos. And I’m not going to start preaching the virtues of “limiting my screen time.”

I’m old enough to remember when it was common for “smart” people to boast that they didn’t watch TV, or even own a TV set. It feels like there’s a trend growing in that sort of direction with social media. It’s becoming fashionable to abstain, and subtly look down on people who use social media. The thing is, for a long time TV really was mostly crap. And at the moment, social media seems to be full of crap, too. But Social media platforms are also vital links and communication tools, especially for disabled people. And like TV, we can choose what to pay attention to and what to ignore.

So what do I mean by “reevaluating” how I use social media?

First of all, I won’t be so quick to dismiss reports about what these services do behind the scenes. And I want to be more aware of how the algorithms that determine what we see, hear, and read can affect how we think.

I also want to reach beyond my own “friend” and “follow” lists to people and publications that approach disability differently than I do. I want to look for interesting disabled people who are not activists, who are just starting out on their journey, or who are still grappling with what, if anything, their disabilities mean to them. I’ll never support disability approaches I completely disagree with … like sheltered workshops and segregated “residential’ programs. And I don’t think I’ll ever like gooey “inspiration porn.” But I will try harder to understand where people are coming from and why they may talk about disability with different priorities, perspectives, and tastes than I do.

Resolution 3: I resolve to speak to more people about disability issues.

Sometimes it seems like I have two personalities when it comes to talking about disability. Online, I’m an extrovert. In person, I’m a shy introvert. I can be nervous, almost embarrassed to talk in person about disability issues even with people I know and love very well. I want to be bolder, more willing to talk to people in my “real” life about disability experiences and issues.

As I’ve already indicated, I also want to connect more with people who are disabled, but aren’t engaged very much in disability issues, culture, or activism … people who don’t already tweet, comment, and blog every day about disability. I’m talking about proactively bringing up political and cultural issues about disability that I think are important to discuss, with people outside the safe and comfortable “disability bubble” I tend to inhabit.

A good test for this will be my 30th college reunion this summer. Will I be able to explain my disability writing, nonprofit work, and activism in a way my old classmates will understand? Will I be able to do it briefly, simply, without rambling or trying to explain too much?

By the way, when I say I want to talk to more people about disability, I don’t mean being more generous with intrusive questions from strangers. While I have a pretty high tolerance for answering questions like, “What’s the matter with you?” and “How do you drive?”, I don’t plan on opening myself up more to strangers’ morbid curiosity. That’s one kind of emotional labor I don’t need more of in 2019. (Emotional labor is the kind of social interaction work that over time takes an emotional toll. See? I explained it!)

What are your resolutions for 2019? Or, do you stay away from resolutions entirely? Feel free to share and comment below!

Disability Blogging Resoultions

Cork bulletin board with a white rectangular piece of paper pinned to it, reading: Resolutions 1., 2., 3.

A blog post by my favorite political blogger had the exact opposite of its intended effect on me. It has encouraged me to blog some New Year's Resolutions. I will, however, try to follow Atrios' advice and set resolutions for myself, rather than sanctimoniously pushing them on others.

Here are my Disability Blogging Resolutions for 2017:

1. I will maintain a consistent weekly and monthly schedule.

This means posting a Weekly Reading List every Monday, a regular blog post on some disability topic every Friday or Saturday, a Disability Blogger Linkup the second Friday of each month, a Monthly Wrap-Up once a month, and an occasional Throwback Thursday repost from the Disability Thinking archives. It’s less than I used to post, but I am busier lately. If I can manage it, quality and consistency at this point is probably better than quantity.

2. I will write more about my own experiences with disability and the evolution of my disability thinking.

To start with I want to do more “I Used To Think …” posts, exploring specific ways my thinking about disability changed from one stage of my life to another. Beyond that, I want to share more about my personal disability experiences, and bring those experiences to bear more often in posts about current disability issues and culture.

3. I will make my writing about disability issues and activism more accessible.

To be honest, this one is also a little bit of a suggestion for other disability bloggers too. I think that one probably harmless way we can “reach out” to people who aren’t dialed in to disability issues … both non-disabled people and disconnected disabled people … is to cut down on the activist and sociology jargon, and when we do use it, explain it. There are good, solid reasons to use terms like “ableism,” “intersectionality,” “eugenics,” “erasure,” "inspiration porn," etc. They give names to real-life experiences that are otherwise hard to describe and pinpoint. But, these terms also tend to widen the gap between people who are active in disability issues and culture, and those who aren’t. Often, the crucial difference is education, or lack of it, and integration in a supportive disability community … or the reverse and very common experience of isolation in forest of non-disability. It’s not just terminology. I want to at least try to make what I write informationally and conceptually accessible to people outside the active disability blogging and activist communities. Being mindful about terminology is just one fairly easy place to start. We’ll see how it goes. And I invite readers and fellow bloggers to give it a try, too.

This seems like a doable list of resolutions. Please feel free to hold me to these commitments as the new year progresses!

#DisabledPeopleProblems

Photo of a green supermarket mobility cart

I just did a Twitter search for #DisabledPeopleProblems, because I wondered if anyone had made use of the hashtag to highlight the smaller problems and dilemmas that only disabled people have to deal with. I found a few tweets, but not as many as I thought I would.

I’m not talking about the big issues, like accessibility, discrimination, and messed up service systems … but rather the sorta hard, kinda annoying little things we deal with every day that don’t rise to the level of injustice, but which stick in our craw anyway.

For example, this afternoon I went shopping. My list was medium sized. That meant I had to decide whether to go the the big, full-service supermarket that’s got good parking, and always has plenty of mobility carts available, but is also usually crowded and hard to navigate? Or, do I go to my neighborhood, second-rate grocery store that only has one mobility cart, (that I don't care to risk riding on), but does have smaller shopping carts that are easier to push, and the store itself is both smaller and less crowded? On the other hand, it’s not very nice, and there’s usually at least one thing on my list that I find they don’t have. Which means another shopping trip.

As I said, these are not terrible problems. Most of the time, I can afford whatever is on my shopping list without having to completely rework my monthly budget, or dropping items off the list purely because of cost. I drive and have a car, so I don’t have to worry about adhering to someone else’s schedule … whether a friend or, say, a paratransit bus. I can get my groceries from my car to my kitchen, usually in just two trips, though to be honest, for me that is by far the hardest part of shopping. Things could be a lot worse, and for many disabled people, they are.

Yet, these are my little dilemmas, which I only really have to deal with because of my particular kinds of disabilities. I’m not complaining or comparing. I just think it’s interesting to explore the second or third-tier problems we deal with as moderately disabled people. And thinking of them as a variation of #WhitePeopleProblems helps, because that phrase carries with it a similar kind of ironic awareness about just how relative “problems” can be, depending on where you find yourself in society and identity.

What are your #DisabledPeopleProblems?

Language, Disability and the Mashed Potato Mountain

Photo of Devil's Tower, Wyoming at night, from the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind

I have been thinking a lot lately about "person first" and "disability first" approaches to referring to disability and disabled people. I'm going to use this blog post to work through my thoughts on the subject. The following is what I think this is all about. I could be wrong, and I would be happy to hear from others who have different thoughts.

For a long time, (not sure how long,) saying "person with a disability" (person first language) was almost universally understood to be the progressive, social model way of talking about disability. It was the formulation advocated and taught by disabled people, (people with disabilities), to non-disabled people who inappropriately called us "disabled people," "handicapped," or "differently-abled." This is what I picked up in the early 1990s, when I was making the transition from someone who happened to be disabled into being a conscious part of the disability community. I was waking up to my disability identity and part of that was using "person first" language.

Fast forward to now, or maybe 2 to 5 years ago, and there is a pretty energetic counter-movement within the disability community towards saying "disabled person," and viewing "person first" language as an ableist, medical-model imposition by non-disabled people who are all too eager to "able-splain" our disability experiences to us. A lot of disabled people, myself included, maintain an uneasy tolerance for both approaches. We're not quite ready to condemn the formulation outright. But although we say it's a personal choice, it feels like there is an unspoken implication floating around out there that people who still use "person first" are uncool, maybe a little self-hating, and certainly misinformed.

As it was explained to me, the reasoning behind "person first" language is to emphasize our personhood, and more significantly, to assert that disabilities are merely characteristics, not defining qualities or end-state outcomes. Disabilities are "things" that we "have", not what or where we are. There is supposed to be some sort of comfort in that, a way of shrugging off disability as "nothing but a thing" ... not anything that means anything beyond dry practicalities.

The rationale for switching back to "identity first," as I understand it, is that "person first" seems to "protest too much." It feels a bit too eager to argue our personhood when our personhood should be beyond repeated linguistic justification. Also, many of us do feel that we are at least partially defined by our disabilities. Some disabilities are much more integrated into a person's life than others. An amputee may reasonably feel that his or her disability really is separate, almost incidental, and external to him or herself. That's harder to believe if you have cerebral palsy, quadriplegia, or autism, which have with physical and social effects that permeate pretty much every part of your life. And living your whole life with disabilities makes it even less sensible to believe in the separateness or insignificance of disabilities. Finally, many of us maintain that "disabled person" underscores the ways that we are "disabled" by an ableist society, which is a key concept of the social model of disability.

I have mostly switched to using "identity first" language when referring to myself. On the one hand, I came of age in the disability community at a time when "person first" was the way to go. So, I don't feel any ill-will about it, and I think there are good arguments in favor of using "person first."

On the other hand, I have come to feel instinctively that my disabilities are woven deep into the fabric of my life and personality. I no longer see my disabilities as some kind of add-on or baggage I carry with me. I am a disabled person. At the same time, saying that doesn't make me feel the least bit bad or "less than," any more than saying I was gay, if I was gay, or black, if I was black, or a woman, if I was a woman. It's an identity that includes certain physical experiences and social disadvantages, but it's part of me, so there it is.

Which leads me to think that maybe "person first" and "identity first" are also markers of where a person is in his or her journey with disability. Maybe "person first" really does make sense for people still working on how they relate to their disabilities. Maybe "identity first" signals a kind of final or maybe intermediate peace or equilibrium with disability. Again, that sounds a lot like a value judgment, but I really, honestly don't mean it to be. As I said before, some kinds of disabilities really are more external and can be kept at arms length and it works fine, while other disabilities make that stance almost nonsensical. So that's another factor.

One thing is absolutely clear. All of this matters. Language discussions like this should probably be less contentious than they often are, but they're not pointless. Like the guy building the mashed potato mountain in Close Encounters said, "This means something. This is important."

#CripTheVote: Notes On “Crip”

#CripTheVote with logo, a voting box with four disability symbols on the front

While #CripTheVote has gotten a lot of disabled people excited about participating in this year’s elections, a few folks have questioned our decision to make “crip” a key component of the hashtag. Since the complaints and concerns have been mostly expressed carefully, thoughtfully, and with respect, we feel it makes sense to explain ourselves a bit further, for those who might be interested.

Here is our thinking:

- Selective use of “crip” or “crippled” by people with disabilities is a conscious act of empowerment through “reclaiming” a former slur as a badge of pride. “Selected use” means we don’t use it all the time, in every situation. We exercise judgment in when and where it’s appropriate to use.

- “Crip” and “cripple” are also used ironically, to convey a bit of edginess, humor, and confidence, from a community that people tend to assume will be sad, bitter, and boring.

- Disabled people who identify with “crip” or “cripple,” generally share a strong sense of disability pride and deep involvement in disability activism and culture. We know what the social model of disability is, we are familiar with “person first” language, and we take pride in our disability identities. Calling ourselves “cripples” isn’t a sign of self-hatred or ignorance of disability history … quite the contrary.  

- “Crip” and “cripple” have been used this way by at least some disability activists for decades. It’s not a particularly new practice. It has, however, grown to be more inclusive, as the disability rights movement itself has gradually become more inclusive, both of people with all kinds of disabilities, and of people who have other important identities.

- “Cripple” as an actual label or insult is not just “politically incorrect,” it is archaic. It is a term from a bygone era, largely out of use even by ableists. That is not true of all negative disability terms. For instance, “handicapped” and “retarded” are both used much more often, and are therefore more risky to play around with than “cripple.” That’s why you won’t find many disability activists and proud disabled people using “handicapped” or “retarded” either as reclaimed terms or ironically.

- We chose to use #CripTheVote because it sounded more interesting, hard-edged, and likely to spark interest than safer, more “accurate” terms. It’s the difference between saying, “Rock The Vote!” and saying “Young People Really Should Register And Vote.”

- All that said, using “Crip” or “Cripple” this way isn’t to everyone’s taste. That’s fine. Some people have painful personal histories with the word. Some people despise irony and don’t like messing around with language. Some people feel it’s just too risky.

-We are not speaking for everyone, especially the disability community. We believe there is room for multiple hashtags and conversations--there’s something for everyone.

- However, context does matter, and if you read through the tweets that have come out of the #CripTheVote hashtag, you will see that is has inspired the very opposite of ignorance, stigma, or medical model paternalism.

- For a deeper look into the issue, read Crip Theory, from Wright State University.

Thinking Today

Illustration of a head in profile with four colored gears inside representing thought

I've said this before, though I don't know exactly where, so I feel justified in saying it again. If you want to know what it feels like to navigate everyday life with a physical disability, think about the last time you spent a day or more in air travel.

First of all, you can do it. It's not impossible. You can also have a good time doing it, and the payoff can be fantastic. However, it is tiring, there's lots of planning required, and if one small thing goes wrong or something isn't what you were assured it would be, it can quickly make the whole experience exponentially more frustrating and exhausting. Also, the central feature of the experience is that you are very much at the mercy of a glitchy system that you as an individual have almost no power to control in the moment.

That's what everyday errand-running is like for many if not most people with physical disabilities. Like I said, it's not unrelieved horror. There's no reason to feel sorry for us. But it is tiring and stressful, and we have to do a lot more delicate planning than most people do in their everyday lives. And when barriers crop up, like inaccessible buildings or no parking spaces, it's almost unbelievably draining ... just like air travel.

Super Bowl Ads

Picture of an old-style TV set with four disability symbols on the screen

There were two Super Bowl ads last year featuring disabled people, and it looks like there will be two more this year.

Obviously, TV ads run during the Super Bowl have more potential to influence American popular culture and attitudes than ordinary, everyday. Not every ad is either memorable or ground-breaking, but the opportunity, the audience, is there.

The problem is that it is so easy to make completely well-meaning, disability-themed ads that send the wrong kind of message. The message is almost always positive, but that’s not the same thing as helpful, or inclusive, or empowering. Some ads that “celebrate” disabled people distance them at the same time. And then there are the ads that use disabled people to flat-out make us go "awww" and maybe cry a little ... like we are both the Clydesdale and the dog that Budwiser Super Bowl ad. Appearance doesn’t always equal progress, and warm, mushy feels aren't really what we are looking for.

That’s why I sort of agree with the Advertising & Disability website blogger that it’s better to show a disabled person incidentally in an ad about something else than to construct an ad around a disabled person or some sort of heightened, carefully spelled out “message” about disability.

With TV and movies, there’s time and space to have both deep disability focus and incidental, background disability. But in ads, there’s just not enough time to say anything very effectively about disability, other than, “We exist, and we’re fine.”

Which is actually a pretty good message. It goes to far to call it “ground breaking,” but it’s nice to see and I think it helps.

The Shelf Life of Disability Jokes

Illustration of an old-fashioned microphone in front of a line or red theater curtains

I am a pretty big fan of Jerry Seinfeld’s TV work. There’s Seinfeld, obviously, which left a hell of a lot of graffiti in permanent marker on the interior surfaces of my mind, including at least one really great disabled character, Danny Woburn's Mickey Abbott. And more recently I have mostly enjoyed Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee. On each episode of the show, Jerry interviews a comedian while driving them around in some kind of amazingly cool car, and then getting coffee at a coffee shop.

The most recent episode features Kathleen Madigan and her comedy partner Chuck Martin. I’m writing about it here because the show included two disability moments … an impromptu riff by Jerry with an assist from Chuck, and a joke from Kathleen.

First, while driving, Jerry spotted a banner reading “Celebrate Disabilities.” He read it back in his trademark “Can you believe this?” voice, and he and Chuck riffed on how obviously weird it was to cheer about being disabled.

Later on, Kathleen talked about a comedian she knows with Cerebral Palsy who also at one time had a drinking problem. Her line to him was that you can’t have both … you have to pick one! Because, you know, two serious problems that affect your communication are unsustainable. She threw in a mock “CP voice” just to illustrate, just to help the joke along.

I enjoy comedy. I may even qualify as a comedy nerd. So I am very reluctant to condemn disability-themed comedy bits on impulse. But these were not very impressive disability jokes, for one very specific reason.

It’s not because the jokes were hurtful or offensive, though it shouldn't be a surprise if some disabled people are offended, certainly by Madigan mimicking how people with CP talk. The real problem is that both jokes rely on faulty premises and too much feigned ignorance. I believe that Jerry Seinfeld must understand on some level that a cheery-looking sign reading, “Celebrate Disabilities” isn’t nonsense ... maybe a bit too cheerful for my taste, but not a contradiction. He has to be at least a little familiar with the idea of disabled people having some pride, and attempting to get other people to view them more positively. Jerry's joke implied that the sign makes no sense, but I don’t think the’s that ignorant … so the joke doesn’t ring true to me.

Similarly, I suspect that Madigan, (a veteran comedian, not a rookie), knows perfectly well that plenty of disabled people have a drinking problem. She may even be dimly aware that disabled people are statistically more likely than the average person to have drinking problems, for a variety of reasons. Now, I do think there’s a kernel of truth in her joke … that having two significant conditions at once is probably harder than having just one. There's a legitimate bit of dark irony there. But then her joke also depends on the idea that while her friend’s CP isn’t optional, alcoholism is. I mean, alcoholism is more readily controlled than Cerebral Palsy, but not by as much as Madigan’s joke would imply. And again, she thinks her story will be funny because of the surprise factor … a guy with CP and he’s an alcoholic?! But how many actual audiences today would think this surprising?

This happens a lot to “observational” comedians. They base their jokes on shared confusion, an assumed common bewilderment over seemingly inexplicable contradictions in everyday life. But as time goes on, we learn stuff. Many things that were confusing in the ‘80s and '90s are pretty familiar to most people now. That’s one reason why disability jokes don’t work the way they used to. It’s not just because they are offensive. It’s also because most audiences now are more knowledgeable about disability and actual disabled people, so they're not as perplexed and bewildered as the comedian is, or pretends to be. If the comedian asks, "What's up with that?!" and 80% of the audience can give a logical answer, then it's not that funny.

By the way, was Madigan talking about Josh Blue? And if Josh Blue told a CP + alcoholism joke, would it be funnier? How about Jerry taking Josh Blue out for coffee in a cool car? I would watch the hell out of that.

What Would Mom & Dad Do?

I have been thinking a lot about how parents of disabled children talk about, share, and interpret their experiences … and with whom. I am thinking partially about the #CrippingTheMighty thing, a clash a website about disability that has a distinctly parent-centered and traditional disability paradigm flavor, and adults with disabilities, most of them bloggers, and people who consider themselves disability activists and proud participants in disability culture. One of the biggest points of contention is whether it is responsible and ethical for parents to share intimate details about their disabled children, and whether it’s ever okay for parents to share negative stories about their kids, or publicly describe their own darker, more despairing feelings about their children’s disabilities.

Black silhouette of a father and mother with a child between them holding their hands

I find myself wondering whether my mother or father would have gone on social media or blogged about their feelings and experiences when they had a disabled child they named Andrew, if such technologies had been available to them 48 years ago. As it happened, I don’t think either Mom or Dad ever did anything to share their feelings or thoughts on disability publicly. They talked with close friends and family of course, thought I doubt they did even that very often. I know, or I was told, about an incident where one of my mother’s friends sharply delivered Mom a bit of a verbal smackdown when she was having a very low moment, a few months after my birth. It’s my mother herself who told me about it years later … how her friend said something like “Well, it sure would have been easier if he’d never been born, wouldn’t it?” probably in a very sarcastic and severe manner. Mom said this was a major turning point for her, shifting her abruptly from “Why me?” mode into the “Get on with it” mode she pretty much stayed in until the day she died … at least as far as me and my disabilities were concerned.

The point is she never made any of this public. I guess that’s what I am doing now. Mom died about ten years ago, but now I’m wondering anyway whether it's ethical for me to share this story about her. Mom never made a public issue of me or my disabilities, or her feelings about them. It’s not because she was ashamed, or to protect me from some perceived embarrassment. I think it’s because of some very old-fashioned, WWII-era, “Greatest Generation” old-time liberal, and WASP values. Don’t call attention to yourself. Don’t puff yourself up or brag. Don’t complain about things for yourself. Fight for social justice, but don’t make it personal. Don’t be selfish or narcissistic. Keep private things private. Don't share your feelings with strangers, just to share your feelings. Don't look to others for validation.

Mom and Dad imparted these values to me, and they have mostly served me well. Over time, I have had to revise some of them, most notably by loosening the unwritten taboos against self-advocacy. When you are, in fact, part of an oppressed minority … in my case disabled … self-advocacy is a necessity, not an indulgence. I have also come to appreciate the benefit and value of talking publicly about the disability experience, though I still mostly prefer philosophical and policy discussions over introspection.

I don’t think it would ever have occurred to my parents to share their deepest feelings about me and my disabilities in anything like social media, blogging, or essays published in something like “The Mighty” or the “Huffington Post.” On balance, I think that’s to their credit. On the other hand, if they had been persuaded to share, they might have done it really, really well, and I think they would have had all the necessary instincts of self-criticism to prevent them from making fools of themselves, or me, in the process. So maybe it's a loss that they never really had the opportunity.

Maybe what we should shoot for is for parents of disabled kids to feel a bit more free than my parents did to share their experiences, but with a bit more of their reticence and their discretion. Would that be so hard to achieve?

Inspiration Without Inspiration Porn

Green highway-style road sign reading InspirationFirst read this …

Charles Roberts, America News - November 11, 2015

… and marvel at the stunning insensitivity it took for this woman to congratulate herself for doing a good deed, after “stubbornly” overruling a disabled veteran who said several times he didn’t need or want her help, and forcibly helping him anyway. It takes a lot for a news item to stun and offend me personally, but this one had me swearing aloud to my iPhone.

Now read Dominick Evans’ terrific blog post about the story:

Dominick Evans - December 16, 2015

Yes, it’s “Inspiration Porn” again. Why are we so bothered by people who are just trying to be kind? Why won’t we leave it alone?

Because it keeps happening, it’s genuinely disturbing, and people keep finding ways to make it even worse.

Still, I hate being a sourpuss. Just because I loathe sentimentality, doesn’t mean that all sentiment is wrong. Just because I don’t exist for your inspiration, doesn’t mean it’s wrong to feel inspired by whatever happens to inspire you. The alternative to Inspiration Porn isn’t gross negligence, like stepping over a disabled man choking to death in a McDonalds. There are decent, acceptable ways to be decent, kind, and helpful to disabled people.

Can you do a "good deed" for a disabled person without offending them?

Is it possible to do inspirational stories about disabled people without being smarmy and condescending?

Yes and yes!

First ask, "Can I help you?", and then respect the answer. And if the answer is "No thank you," or even just plain "NO!", don't take it personally. How each disabled person answers depends on many factors. I’m not often asked if I need help. When I am, I usually say, “No thank you, I’ve got it” because I’ve got it. Sometimes I say, “No thanks,” then pause a moment, survey my situation, and say, “Actually, yeah, that would be great, could you …?” and then I tell the person exactly how they can help. Sometimes, I say, “Yup!” right away, and hand them the whatever that I’m trying to carry while inching my way down some stairs. The point is, it’s fine to ask, I call the play, and the only really offensive thing is if you don’t listen to my answer.

What about pictorial depictions of bravery, kindness, perseverance, inspiration, like Facebook memes or YouTube videos?

Never snap a photo, never shoot a video about a disabled person without the disabled person's consent. It doesn’t matter that you admire the thing you are depicting. It doesn’t matter that you do it to make people happy or uplift them, or teach them a lesson about gratitude. What matters is the result, and if the disabled person isn't on board with the situation or being used in your little morality play, any good you think you’re doing will be undone.

Above all, make sure the disabled person has a voice in the story or scenario or whatever it is you’re focused on. If you write about an actual, named, identifiable disabled person, ask the disabled person to comment and include what they say. You’ll discover pretty quickly whether they think the situation is amazing and remarkable, or pretty standard and nothing to crow about. And that should be your guide on how to think about it, too. Follow the disability rights movement motto: "Nothing about us without us."

If you focus on a disabled person overcoming adversity, ask questions about that adversity and why it is there. Stories of individual courage and character are uplifting, but disability discrimination and hardships don't happen in a vacuum. The problems disabled people face usually come from or are made worse by the bad choices and neglect of actual people and institutions that should be challenged. Battling institutional ableism doesn’t translate so easily to cute Facebook posts that make people go, “Awww!” but that’s part of the point. And anyway, fighting discrimination IS inspiring!

Finally, remember that not every disabled person craves "going viral." Most disabled people just want to get on with life. Believe it or not, many of us strongly prefer anonymity! Most importantly, we all want to be treated as people, with three full dimensions, unique points of view, and complex feelings, not cardboard cutouts employed to symbolize abstract values, or tools to make you feel swell and become Internet-famous.

But what if I can’t follow all these conditions and still tell my story?

Simple … just don’t tell the story! Sometimes, a little restraint is the best, most uplifting gift of all.

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