Advocating Without Consent
In January, a comedian defended the use of the word retarded. Not only did he say that we should use it but he went on to target individuals with Down syndrome. This sparked a full-blown fight between the Down syndrome community and this comedian's fans. The things his fans said were awful—so awful that I refuse to repeat any of it. However, the things people who were advocating for individuals with Down Syndrome said were sometimes just as awful. I saw this fight happening, but I rarely saw someone with Down Syndrome have the chance to speak up. The voices of advocates and fans were so loud that even when someone with Down Syndrome had the chance, they did not have the space to be heard.
This situation got me thinking. Why do people think it's OK to treat others this way? It's human nature to be uneasy around the unknown. When we do not add diversity to our life, we become fearful of new things. But this wasn't fear; this was cruelty. How did we come to this? It is because we have not let those with a disability speak up. We have removed their voices and replaced them with our own.
We have removed their voices and replaced them with our own.
Twenty percent of the population has a disability, yet they are under-represented in our culture. The #metoo and #timesup movements were huge stepping stones in our fight for equality, and yet I never saw someone with a disability get the chance to speak up. The Golden Globes spoke about inclusion and equality this year, but no one with a disability was represented. During the #metoo movement, we failed to talk about the fact that individuals with intellectual disabilities are seven times more likely to be sexually assaulted. Thankfully, NPR came out with a piece in the middle of January, bringing this discussion to light. Before that article was released, very few people thought about this. The women's march I attended in January did not once discuss the disability community and how they have a higher risk of abuse, harassment, and pay gap; too often they are overlooked when we talked about these issues. We have shut out the voices of individuals with intellectual disabilities because their voices do not always sound like ours. Because of that, advocates come forward to speak on their behalf, and the voices of the disability community get drowned out. We need to stop advocating without consent.
We have shut out the voices of individuals with intellectual disabilities because their voices do not always sound like ours.
Where does that leave us then? What do we do when people spew hate speech, or when movements are created, and they leave a population out? You advocate next to them, not for them. You don't like what someone said? Ask an individual with an intellectual disability what to do. Don't pick a battle if it is not your battle to fight. Hold space for those who need it; do not take up that space.
January was one hell of a month for the disability community. I am not saying you can not advocate, but asking you not use your voice so loudly that you drown out the voices of those you are supporting. I am just as guilty of this as anyone else. It's easy to get caught up and passionate about creating change, but we have to check our ego and ask those we are advocating for what to do. If you want to advocate for individuals with an intellectual disability, then you better be spending time with them and asking them how to help. Personally, I've been thinking a lot about my business and the way I use my voice. Starting in March, I will be doing a series of interviews with women who have a disability and are the breaking the mold. I'm excited to share the stories of all these fantastic women, but mostly excited to help challenge and change the way society views the disability community.