The dos and don'ts of disability inclusion

by Maheen Naseem
School of Arts and Social Sciences 

Maheen Naseem

I have lived with Spastic Diplegic Cerebral Palsy since birth. Growing up, whenever I walked into a room, I could not shake the strangeness of a thousand eyes staring right at me with pity, confusion, and, unfortunately, dominance. All I ever wanted growing up was to feel included. But sadly, even after 20 years of living with a disability, most of the world still don't know the Dos and Don't of Disability Inclusion.

It's a tricky game! 

Inclusion is the act of including someone in a group. Over the years, society has improved when it comes to including the disabled/ special needs/ differently-abled community. However, that doesn't mean that there is 100 per cent inclusion- No! That only exists in a perfect world. The world we live in today is far from perfect, and let's be honest, it will never be perfect. But that doesn't mean we can't at least try to improve.

I believe that inclusion is a tricky game because it's often subjective. You've heard the saying, "One man's dream is another man's nightmare". Well, it very much applies here. My happy place will not be yours. Similarly, an environment where I feel included might make you uncomfortable. It's all about different experiences. Yes, we can advise one another; but one can never really know unless they try it for themselves. Just like everything else, inclusion has some grey areas.

The language debate 

The language used to address the people within the disability community is one of the biggest grey areas present. However, you know some terrible words immediately that is offensive—for example, crippled, victim, poor, unfortunate, etc. The real debate revolves around three terms: disabled, special needs and differently-abled.

My experience with each of these terms

My issues with being called disabled started early—second grade, to be exact. My English vocabulary started increasing, and I came across words such as discomfort, disadvantage, disrespectful, discourage, etc. All words that are associated with negativity. So, naturally, after hearing the word 'disabled, my brain automatically took it negatively. Who likes to be labelled something negative? No one!

A couple of years down the road and the language improved. We were now known as people with special needs. This is how my brain reacted to the change in the terminology: 'Special needs... Special... Needs... Everyone has needs... My needs are special... Does that make me special? I'm special!'

It was like a breath of fresh air after years of focusing on the negative term 'dis'. People finally brought a positive word to light- Special! A couple of months went by, and I noticed that most people still behaved the same way despite the language development. Being special should make people want to hang out with you more, right? Wrong!

It turns out that just being called special doesn't exactly make you feel special. The more people used the term 'special needs', the more annoyed I got - eventually hating the whole term.

Flash forward to the present. Now people are more open to differences; they celebrate the fact that they are more open-minded and 'woke.' I got comfortable with who I am and then came across the word 'differently-abled'. A term that made me realise that we all are different, and instead of hiding it, I should be proud of my differences because I wouldn't be the same without them.

Other opinions

Some people feel the complete opposite of what I do regarding these terminologies. Some find the word disabled to be completely fine while finding differently-abled offensive and rude. This is exactly why the language grey area exists.

My advice regarding these changes in opinions is to ask someone you know who is disabled/ differently-abled/ has special needs. Some might not have any problem telling you what they are comfortable with, while some might be reluctant to share. If the latter is the case, you could observe the person's body language to determine yourself. If the person looks uncomfortable or angry with one of the terms, don't use that one.

There are also cases where people don't like any of these terms and prefer to be identified by their specific disability. The most common examples of this are people with autism. In my experience, they prefer the phrase 'having autism' over autistic, disabled, special needs, differently-abled, etc.

Normalising

Normalising, another grey area. Normalising is the action of creating something out of the ordinary into something very commonly known. People don't realise that some of the methods of normalising can make us upset and angry.

This especially is true when it comes to disabilities such as autism and ADHD. Society tries to make people with autism or ADHD comfortable by saying things like: "Everyone has autism/ADHD to some degree,"; "I know exactly what you're going through." ; "I think I might have a little autism/ ADHD".

Why is this wrong exactly? Think of it this way. You grow up and experience some limitations and difficulties in life. Then all of a sudden, someone comes up to you in an attempt to cheer you up and be more 'relatable.' Despite the sweet and 'relatable' attempts, you don't see them struggling like you or similar to you in any way. You are the only one who seems to be having issues. Will that make you feel good about yourself?

You don't need to be like them to be there for them.

Inclusion, the right way! 

I see all sorts of book publications releasing new additions of textbooks every year; why can't they at least try to release braille versions so the visually impaired can be equally educated?

I see schools opening different types of school clubs, even video game clubs! In my opinion, if your school can afford new technology for you to sit back and play Fortnite, they can certainly afford special education teachers to help students with dyslexia catch up with their work after school.

I also see teachers having workshops all year round. Now I don't know what exactly they are training or discussing about but the number of times I've read about a disabled/special needs/differently-abled student being mistreated by a teacher just because they didn't know how to handle the situation confirms that some schools to this day, don't discuss inclusion!

All my life, I've seen people in the disability community trying to learn how to interact with the ‘normal' population. Well, now, it's time for the 'normal' population to learn how to interact with us.