A woman with Down syndrome practices yoga in a studio.

The AID Mnemonic:

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

Article 1, United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights

We are all born with the right to human dignity, but our society often has different ideas about how that plays out. People who experience different forms of prejudice, including racism, sexism, ageism, and ableism – just to name a few – are often forced to live through hurtful experiences and indignities.

Access and Dignity

The state of Colorado recently made history when its people elected the first state lawmaker to use a wheelchair. Building staff at the state’s 130-year-old capital quickly set to work on improvements that would make Representative David Ortiz’s workplace more accessible, but they struggled with one important place. The speaker’s podium, where representatives lead legislative sessions, was off-limits to Rep. Ortiz because it was only accessible with steps.

While Rep. Ortiz could have allowed staff to lift him and his wheelchair to the podium, he declined on account of safety. Even without safety as a problem, no other representative had to go through the indignity of being lifted to the podium – why should Rep. Ortiz?

The story was resolved after nearly a year, when a lift was installed. But it’s just one example of the indignities people with disabilities experience when access is limited.

What can we do?

  • DO ask if others need accommodations to access an event (it’s a good idea to ask everyone you invite – you never know who has a hidden disability!).
  • DO plan ahead so that access needs for people with disabilities are met in ways that are comfortable to them.
  • DO advocate for change at places with limited access.
  • DO listen to people with disabilities and understand their needs (some voices to start with).

Language and Dignity

The ways we use language reflect our core beliefs. The content of our language is explored in more detail through the FOE mnemonic, which includes functioning labels, outdated/insulting words and phrases, and euphemisms. In this section, we’ll discuss how we speak and the ways that can hurt people with disabilities.

Patronizing, or speaking to someone disrespectfully, usually happens in one of two ways:

  • The speaker uses childish tones or language (for example, using “baby talk” or speaking in a higher pitched voice than usual).
  • The speaker ignores the disabled person and speaks to a caregiver or attendant instead.

Samantha Renke, an actor, presenter, and disability rights activist, shared several ways that she has been patronized in an article for the U.K.-based Metro. In the article, she describes being asked if she was capable of signing a consent form for veterinary treatment for her kitten. She also describes occasions when doctors addressed her personal assistant instead of her when discussing a medical procedure.

What can we do?

  • DON’T use baby-talk when speaking to a person with a disability.
  • DO speak to people with disabilities using your usual tone of voice.
  • DO speak directly to disabled people and not to caregivers or personal attendants.
  • DO adjust your position if a disabled person is unable to see your face (for example, come out from behind a high counter or sitt down to speak to a wheelchair user when the conversation will take more than a minute or two).
  • DO listen to people with disabilities and understand their needs (some voices to start with).

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