Autonomy

A group of people in a restaurant make a toast with beer glasses. Visible in the image are a blond, Caucasian woman and a tanned male wheelchair user who also has a vent tube at his neck. They are smiling and appear to be enjoying themselves.

The AID Mnemonic:

Autonomy is the ability to decide for yourself.

Ableism can rob people of their autonomy in to major ways:

  • When the places where disabled people live, work, and play aren’t set up for fair access
  • When others assume they know the needs and wants of people with disabilities

Access

You’ve probably had the experience of deciding to go someplace – maybe out to eat or to a favorite shop – only to find that they were closed. When this happened, you may have felt a mix of emotions… disappointment, maybe a little anger and resentment, or even shame (for not thinking to check the hours).

For people with disabilities, this kind of experience happens over and over again – even in places that are designated as accessible! Think about how many times you’ve seen a car without an accessible parking placard parked in a reserved spot. Or imagine trying to enjoy a dinner at a restaurant that is too bright, too loud, too hot, and too crowded.

Access problems even happen in virtual places. People share images without descriptions (not accessible to people with blindness or low vision). Videos often have no closed captioning. And – we include sarcasm in our social media posts without identifying what it is, making it difficult for people with some disabilities to “join in” on the joke.

What can we do?

  • DON’T use accessible facilities when you don’t need them (parking in accessible spots, using accessible toilets).
  • DO ask about accessibility when planning an outing (for example, when making a restaurant reservation, ask if there is space for a wheelchair).
  • DO add descriptions to images you share on social media (Diary of a Mom on Facebook is an excellent example).
  • DO listen to people with disabilities and understand their needs (some voices to start with).
  • DO bring accessibility problems up with business owners and management.

When we think about access and advocate for it, we put the power to choose back into the hands of people with disabilities.

Assumption

Assumption is another way that we take choices away from people with disabilities. Let’s take a really common example. You see a wheelchair user coming up a hallway toward a set of doors. Sensing that they want to go through the doors and wanting to offer help, you rush forward and open a door for them.

At this point, the wheelchair user is stuck. You’ve done something kind and it would be rude not to acknowledge that, but they really had no intention of going through the doors. In fact, they were headed down the hallway past the doors.

While you could argue that these kinds of social missteps happen all the time, regardless of disability, you may also want to ask yourself – “would I have been as eager to jump forward and open the door if the other person wasn’t disabled?”

What can we do?

  • DON’T assume a disabled person needs help.
  • DON’T call attention to your acts if a disabled person asks you for help (for example, saying “isn’t it lucky I was here to open the door for you?”).
  • DO ask if help is needed (and then respect the answer you get).
  • DO keep your hands to yourself (it’s never appropriate to touch someone or their mobility/adaptive equipment without being invited to do so).
  • DO listen to people with disabilities and understand their needs (some voices to start with).

In short, it’s never OK to assume. When we ask, we give others the choice to accept help (or not).

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