Image caption: Young women in India holding up signs that say “I’m here because I value diversity and inclusion in disability,” “I am here because I believe in active living for a person with disability,” “I am here because I stand for disability rights,” “Say no to electric shocks,” and a few others.
Stranger: What do you do?
Me: I’m a disability advocate.
Stranger: *Blank stare* Oh. *changes subject*
If I had a dollar for every time I had this or similar–“Is that like teaching special needs kids or something?”–interactions with someone, I certainly would have less student loan debt! Seriously, though, people tend to become very uncomfortable when I mention this passion and career of mine. The discomfort is partly due to society’s fear and of and misconceptions about disability. It is also due to a lack of understanding about what a disability advocate actually is. If you told someone you were an astrophysicist, for example, they may not know the particulars of your job, but they have at least heard of it. As best I can, I want to clarify what a disability advocate is and does.
Disability advocates first and foremost value the equality, independence, inclusion, and inherent worth of people with disabilities. An advocate promotes these ideals in day-to-day interactions, at community events, or at the state or Federal levels of government.
One can be an advocate formally or informally. By “formally,” I mean disability advocacy is your main job that you get paid to do. “Disability Advocate” is an actual job title at many agencies and organizations. However, you can also be an advocate but have other job titles and be a part of other industries as well. For instance, my background is in social media, communications, and public relations. So, I’m an advocate AND a PR/social media professional. CEOs and policy analysts are not the only advocates at disability-focused organizations. Some people prefer to work towards equality behind the scenes.
Informally, many more people are disability advocates. They may have “day jobs” completely unrelated to advocacy, but are still fierce defenders of disability rights when the opportunity arises. This could be anything from asking a local business to become accessible by installing a ramp or adding a braille menu, to lobbying their congressman or participating in a rally.
Personally, I believe that small changes lead to bigger changes. Advocating on a small scale by talking to your bar stool neighbor about your disability–or not focusing on your disability and talking about sports or current events like everyone else–is just as valuable as larger scale advocacy efforts. Both are necessary in different ways. Sometimes an advocate must stand for what they believe in and take legal action or protest. Other times, simply talking to someone and explaining your beliefs and needs makes all the difference in the world.
Advocates come in all shapes and sizes, from all nations, races, religions, and so on. Many people with disabilities are themselves disability advocates, but not necessarily. Many nondisabled people are disability advocates. Parents, children, siblings, and friends of people with disabilities are sometimes advocates. There is debate about whether a nondisabled person should or can advocate for disability rights. The self-advocacy movement emphasizes that people with disabilities advocate for themselves without intervention from nondisabled people. Many people do not appreciate others speaking for them. I don’t want to wade into that debate in this post, but I will say that nondisabled people can be great allies and advocates if they have the right mindset.
The CEO of a national disability rights organization is a disability advocate. Stella Young was a disability advocate. The people in the above photo are disability advocates. The people who protested access barriers and crawled up the Capitol steps in 1990 are disability advocates. The father of a child with Down syndrome who was fired for asking his coworkers to stop using the “R word” is a disability advocate. The woman who calmly explains that her disability makes her unique and beautiful when a guy at a bar asks “What’s wrong with you?” is a disability advocate.
I am a disability advocate.