Disability Wisdom Principles

Last week, I talked about the background behind the idea of “disability wisdom.” “Wisdom” is the concept of building trust across group lines by assuring the other that we are unprejudiced and see them as full and equal human beings.

So, how do we put this into practice in the context of disability? How do we assure another person, with a different set of physical or mental abilities, that we see them as a full and equal human being?

When I started preparing disability trainings, I came up with three broad principles that seem to embody disability wisdom. These principles are general, but they also help organize a number of accessibility and etiquette considerations into an overall framework. These are general principles to keep in mind when we meet someone with any kind of difference:

  1. Treat the person with the dignity and respect afforded to all people.

  2. This principle may seem so obvious as to not need stating. But, for those of us with disabilities, it is often known best in its violation. For example, we often encounter strangers who try to speak to others on our behalf, such as asking a friend what we want to order at a restaurant. Such behavior denies us our voice, a basic tenet of our humanity. The dignity and respect principle also gets violated when someone touches our bodies or mobility aids without our consent. As a child, I quickly learned to recognize when someone spoke to me in a “baby” voice, particularly when they used that tone with me but not with my nondisabled peers. All of these actions, though usually unintentional, can break down trust and mutual respect between two people.

    One of the simplest ways to afford someone dignity and respect is to “presume their competence”, a concept often articulated in the autistic community. That is, we can be wise by assuming that a new acquaintance has the ability to participate in ordinary interactions and activities, and to express autonomy. Signal this by speaking directly to the person in an age-appropriate way. Some people with disabilities may need supports or accommodations to participate in conversations or activities, but if you presume their competence, they will have the chance to make their needs known (see principle 3, below). If we start out believing that the people we meet are competent agents, we will be building the foundation of a mutually trusting relationship.

    Affording dignity and respect also means supporting people’s privacy needs. Always getting permission before touching is one essential way to do this. Addressing universal design concerns also protects privacy. For example, wheelchair-accessible restrooms and digital versions of medical paperwork both allow people with particular disabilities to access systems in a way that affords them the same privacy as anyone else.

  3. Treat the person as an ordinary other.

  4. Goffman described the wise as those who perceive a person with a difference as “an ordinary other.” For people with visible disabilities, this treatment may be the exception rather than the rule. Too often, we are either seen as extraordinary heroes or as helpless victims, not ordinary equals.

    One way to signal a perception of ordinariness is through language. Sometimes people worry about using words or phrases that are ability-centric in some way. English contains a number of common phrases such as “see you later” or “let’s go for a walk” which contain verbs tied to ability. Such phrases aren’t literal, however. Some people try to dance around these phrases in order not to offend. I vastly prefer it when people use these phrases in my company, because it signals that they are comfortable enough with me to use ordinary language. In a similar vein, I prefer it when people use direct language to address my disability, such as saying “blind” instead of using an idiom like “visually challenged” or “differently abled.”

    Ordinary treatment also means following the same conversational norms with a disabled person as you would with a nondisabled person in the same setting. So, if you would normally offer a simple “hello” and a smile to a stranger on the street, do the same if the stranger has a disability; no more, and no less. Again, interactions involving disability sometimes veer to the extremes, with strangers either completely avoiding us, or else launching into a deep conversation and sharing their life stories. We just want to be treated in an ordinary way.

  5. Treat the person as an expert on their own needs.

  6. Most of the time, people with disabilities can participate in the same ways as people without disabilities. However, there may be occasions when an accommodation is needed. When these cases arise, it is important for the person with the disability to direct the process as much as possible. Two individuals, even with the same medical condition, may have very different needs and preferences. The same individual may have different needs in different settings. Instead of guessing what the needs might be, just ask us, and we will tell you. Equally important is to respect the answer. A declined offer of assistance isn’t usually a personal rebuff; rather, it may simply mean that the assistance you were hoping to give isn’t helpful for that person at that time.

    Sometimes people wonder when it is appropriate to mention a disability in conversation. I have struggled with this issue myself, and to get some perspective, I posed this question on theDisability Wisdom Discussion Group Most people agreedthat it is fine to offer an accommodation or to ask about needs (e.g., “Do you prefer braille or large print material?” or “do you use captioning or an ASL interpreter?” Asking more general questions, such as “How does your assistive technology work?” or “how did you become disabled?” depends on the nature of the relationship you have with the person. While many of us don’t mind teaching about our disabilities, we may not always be in the mood for small talk, or have the time to answer questions. And, for some people, their disability resulted from a traumatic experience that they may not wish to discuss with new acquaintances. So, consider the intimacy level of the questions you ask in the context of the relationship you have with that person. At the least, you may want to open a new conversation with another topic before moving into disability-related discussion.


The three principles I’ve discussed are general enough to apply to a broad range of situations and relationships. I hope they serve as a good starting point when you think about inclusion, both on the individual level and the organizational level. Email meif you want to discuss specific applications of the Disability Wisdom principles in your work.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s