As fully committed Advocates of Life Skills and Opportunity (ALSO), we’re dedicated to supporting individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. As friends, family, and co-workers, you also have an important role to play. We invite you to join in the journey with these 8 effective ways to be a better advocate for people with disabilities.

An important aspect of advocating for individuals with disabilities is understanding ableism and how to eliminate it. Ableism is defined as “a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities.” These beliefs may exist, whether intentional or not. It is essential to recognize the impact of ableism and to better support people with disabilities to promote complete inclusion.

1. See the Individual and the Disability

Just like the rest of us, people with developmental disabilities are complex individuals. We have our own stories, fears, and dreams. Just as it would be unfair to judge a person by their height or weight, people don’t want to be judged by their disabilities.

We can get to know a person with disabilities by simply asking questions or engaging in small talk. Examples are:

  • Hobbies or recreational activities
  • Favorite foods
  • Favorite movies

You’ll likely find that you have a lot in common. This might open the door to more in-depth conversation about things like family, concerns, or life goals. Seeing the person and the disability demonstrates that you care, which is a powerful benefit.  

It’s often helpful to learn some general information about the disability to more clearly understand how the condition might affect someone’s daily function. By learning more about the individual and listening, you can form quality relationships and determine the best ways to provide support.

2. Engage in Active Listening

We’ve all had that sinking feeling when we’re trying to talk about something important, but the listener is distracted. Active listening is an important practice.  

To truly engage in active listening, we should show genuine interest in what’s being said by doing the following:

  • Looking directly at the person.
  • Making sure she/he is finished speaking before talking.
  • Asking follow-up questions.
  • Nodding or other non-verbal communication.

Sometimes, the person may have a difficult time communicating, either because of a related physical impairment or because they are feeling upset or anxious. It’s particularly important to be patient and to ask clarifying questions to ensure that you understand what’s going on.

3. Respect Rights in Decision-Making

Supporting people with disabilities involves being completely respectful of decisions about day-to-day life. This includes when to shower, who to spend time with, and what to eat. It’s also critical to honor major life choices such as where to live and work, healthcare, and legal matters.

Sometimes, the supported person may request assistance in helping to make decisions. This is where supportive decision-making comes in. In these cases, you can help by doing the following:

  • Helping them to consider the risks and benefits of a decision.
  • Assisting in exploration of options.
  • Facilitating consultation with an expert for additional advice.

As in life, mistakes happen. It’s important to help your loved one problem-solve through those rough patches, provide encouragement, and celebrate whatever they learn from the experience.

4. Promote Accessibility in Your Home and Local Community 

Imagine what it might be like, as you are excitedly arriving at the movie theater with your pals, and you can’t get up the stairs because you use a wheelchair. Frustrating, right? People with physical disabilities experience mobility issues on a daily basis. Although the Americans with Disabilities Act has greatly increased the existence of ramps, elevators, etc., it’s extremely beneficial if you, as a family member, friend, or co-worker, notify managers of any accessibility problems.

Technological advances have spurred the development of countless types of equipment to allow people with disabilities to function safely and independently in the home. Just a few of these are:

  • Remote sensors that automatically operate lights and lock doors.
  • Phone translators for people with hearing impairments or other communication difficulties.
  • Video monitoring inside and/or outside the home.

5. Respect Needs for Autonomy and Self-Determination

Sometimes, well-meaning family members or co-workers can affect an individual’s autonomy by doing things for the person supported that they are fully capable of doing themselves. Except when safety is a concern, we advise you to wait until she/he requests assistance. This allows people the opportunity to take control of the situation and make their own judgements.

Self-determination is described as being able to make choices based on preferences, beliefs, and abilities. According to the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, self-determination is a right. It emphasizes control over the following life choices:

  • Planning for the future.
  • Deciding the type and level of involvement in the community.
  • Making decisions regarding work, social interactions, and family supports.

When someone is able to be autonomous and determine their own future, they are better prepared to remain as independent as possible in the least restrictive environment.  

6. Support Self-Direction

Independence and individualism don’t necessarily mean ‘going it alone’ without help from others. It also means developing skills in self-direction, which is the ability to design an individualized plan for the kind of assistance necessary to achieve goals.

Self-direction allows people to put their own ideas into action. For example, someone may wish to move into their own home, get a job, attend college, or increase their social participation. In order to achieve such goals, they might need assistance in the following:

  • Solving transport and mobility issues
  • Assistance in personal care
  • Training in accessible technology
  • Job coaching

An individual who has abilities in self-direction designs their own scheduling of support people, directs needs, and makes decisions on hiring and firing.

7. Celebrate and Support Self-Advocacy

Thankfully, more and more people who have developmental and intellectual disabilities are able to live in their own home and participate in local community activities. Much of this progress is due to individuals with disabilities who actively advocate for themselves. Thanks to the hard work and determination of self-advocates, major strides have been made in supported employment, community inclusion, and many other areas.

The best descriptions of self-advocacy come from those with disabilities themselves:

  •  “Just stand up and be counted, that’s how I feel. I really can do that.”
  •  “We are all just people. People speaking out for their rights.” (Page 7)

Research has shown that self-advocacy can lead to several positive self-identities, such as being an independent person, being an expert, and being a business-like person (that is, working as an active contributor to a group process).

8. Advocate for Disability Inclusivity and Fight Against Discrimination

According to the World Health Organization, people with various types of disabilities regularly experience the following types of discrimination:

  • Denial of equal access to healthcare, housing, well-paid employment, or education.
  • Violations of dignity, such as abuse, prejudice, bullying.
  • Denial of physical access needs such as wheelchair ramps, automatic doors, and properly equipped restrooms.

Some may hesitate to be supportive of people with disabilities for various reasons:  lack of time, fear of ridicule, or not fully realizing how they can help. It’s important to support individuals with disabilities and work towards an inclusive society.

There are many ways that you can be an advocate for equality and community inclusion:

  • Make suggestions to government officials on how to incorporate inclusive designs into public areas such as parks, swimming pools, and community centers.
  • Speak up when you see someone being insensitive or discriminatory.
  • Push to include disabled voices in discussions and decision making on accessibility and inclusion.
  • Volunteer at a local community organization for people with disabilities.
  • Explore these additional resources to learn how you can make an impact.

A Better World for All of Us

We currently live in a society in which individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities are not fully appreciated and included as valued members of a community. The World Health Organization emphasizes that we need to let go of the stereotypes and empathize with the unique experiences of people with all types of disabilities.

Russel L. is a motivational speaker, poet, and advocate for people with autism and behavioral health disorders, has this guidance for us:

“My advice for families and caregivers would be, first and foremost, to listen to the needs and passions of the individual. Support and love them unconditionally and implement strategies to help assist them down the road of success, with them leading the way.” – Russell L . (Page 6)

As fully committed Advocates of Life Skills and Opportunity (ALSO), we are out to change misperceptions and overcome the negative stigma of having a disability.  We use our extensive skills, dedication, and training to support the people with disabilities, so that they can be recognized as productive members of an inclusive society. We invite you to learn more about our Mission, Vision, and Values.

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