What is inclusion? While the term is used in many ways, I will define it here as meaningfully including and involving disabled people in everything and including them in ways that are accessible to them. I believe that inclusion needs to include disabled people. But I do not think that this is happening nearly enough.
Regularly, I see people without disabilities dictating policy and practices based on what they believe. Yet, the lived experiences of disabled people, who the policies and practices directly impact, are ignored.
How can someone claim to be inclusive when they exclude the very people they are saying they are including?
A common situation that I see is when there is someone who may communicate differently or is non-speaking and the people around them claim to be their voice to advocate on behalf of them.
At times, that may be true. We all have people in our lives who advocate for us — our teachers, family, friends and partners. However, we are also our own advocates, and non-speaking people are no exception, as they also have a voice and are capable of advocating. If someone preaches that they are inclusive, I believe that they need to listen to these perspectives instead of trying to speak over them.
Another common situation I see is when a non-disabled person physically cringes or gets upset when a disabled person does anything related to their disability, like presenting traits of their disability or referring to themselves in their preferred language, like identity-first language.
Despite significant advocacy from disabled people across the world advocating for identity-first language, I still commonly see the use of person-first language, like “person with autism,” “with autism spectrum disorder,” or “with hearing loss.”
I believe that the exclusive use of this language is problematic because it continues to exclude disabled people from their own advocacy. Notably, surveys and research have shown that disabled people do use identity-first language, and in many cases, prefer identity-first language.
One survey from Autistic Not Weird highlighted that just over 75 per cent of autistic people use “autistic” to describe themselves. Similarly, the Mental Health Commission of Canada explains that many autistic people identify as “autistic,” while many deaf people use “deaf.” Furthermore, an article from the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that “autistic” is the most agreed on term while “person with autism spectrum disorder” is the least agreed on and most offensive term.
Even when citing these surveys and research, I find that many people continue to use person-first language with everyone — even when corrected by a disabled person. If someone preaches that they are inclusive, I believe that they need to listen to disabled people and use the language they are using.
To be inclusive, I believe that you need to accept all characteristics of disabilities. You need to accept how someone does something, moves and understands their world. If someone preaches their inclusivity, they need to accept the characteristics of disabled people and advocate for acceptance.
Ultimately, I think it comes down to your inclusion not being inclusive.
We need to intentionally listen to the voices and lived experiences of disabled people. We need to listen to and respect someone correcting us on language use. We need to challenge societal expectations surrounding disabilities, and the idea that, if someone cannot produce as much, they are less. We need to move far past praising disabled people for being brave and take steps to dismantle and disrupt those harms.
So how might you become truly and meaningfully inclusive?
I suggest that you need to do some work. This includes de-centring yourself in your advocacy and instead, reaching out to, listening to, and following disabled people. You need to meaningfully include all disabled people — and their multiple intersecting identities — in your work and practice. It is hard and difficult to unlearn harmful ideas and perspectives, but it is meaningful and important work.
This op-ed was written by a University of Saskatchewan undergraduate student and reflects the views and opinions of the writer. If you would like to write a reply, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Noah Munro is a fourth-year undergraduate student studying in the College of Education.