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A person leaning next to a person in a wheelchair at a ball field
Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

Lately I’ve noticed a particular thread on social media, shared by parents of kids with disabilities. First, let me acknowledge that the concern is real. And, as Ellen Stumbo pointed out recently, “An inclusive education does not always mean friendships for our kids with disabilities.”

Full disclosure: I am not a parent of someone with a disability. But this is clear to me: Disability is not the variable on which the development of friendships pivots. In fact, it turns out, developing friendships is a challenge for many children--indeed, for virtually all humans who want such relationships. So the response of some of the parents has given me pause. Namely, seeking out so-called “special” activities for their kids; that is, segregated activities that include only others with disabilities. The argument seems to be that people (including kids) with disabilities are more accepting of other people with disabilities.

My experience suggests otherwise. First, not all people with disabilities are actually accepting of others simply because they have disabilities. Example: I worked with a young adult who repeatedly said, “I don’t want to hang out with them” (referring to similar-aged peers with disabilities). When explored further, the issue was that he didn’t define himself by his disability status. And he did not want others to do so either. He wanted to get a regular job and earn a paycheck. He wanted to live in an apartment (with or without someone he chose). He wanted to do things he liked to do and to try things he’d never tried before. You know, just like most people. Not really that surprising, is it?

Second, the assumption that people will get along well with others simply because they share a disability label (specific or not) is also flawed. I’m not saying that people with disabilities don’t--or even shouldn’t--have friends who have disabilities. People can develop and be supported in the relationships they choose, with whom they choose. But, for example, if I have depression and only have the opportunity to hang out with others who have depression, maybe we’ll become friends.Or maybe we’ll discover that we have nothing else in common. While this is not necessarily a problem, friendships are often built on shared interests or values.

Finally, developing friendships doesn’t just happen for anyone. It’s not easy. Because it requires skills. But skills can be developed. It may take longer for some. It may be more challenging for people with certain disabilities (e.g. intellectual disabilities, autism spectrum disorder, other developmental and/or neurological differences, etc.). Yes. People may need support. Again: skills can be developed.

It's important to think about the unintended consequences of the decisions we make, especially when we have the kind of influence that parents do on their children. Or that those who support people with disabilities have on the people they support (including adults). It is true that being in so-called inclusive settings does not guarantee that someone will find friendship. However, not even having the opportunity to be with others who don’t have disabilities will all but guarantee they won't be included in some important aspects of life.

So here’s our question to the #StopMakingItWeird fandom: What have you (or others you know) done to support people to develop friendships AND be inclusive, in ways that are similar to what you do other words, in ways that are not weird? Please share!

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We're SO EXCITED to present at the MN APSE Conference next Wed 9/11/19!

We'll be discussing the weird things human service professionals say, like, "We're going in the community..."

Tell us some of the other weird things you've heard people in the human services field say... We want to share them in our session!

(Image credit to Open Future Learning) #StopMakingItWeird

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When I see any media coverage on disability, it automatically grabs my attention. I’ve come to notice it grabs my husband’s attention as well. It is not uncommon for us to be watching the news when, after a story of disability “inspiration” (aka: inspiration porn) comes on, he immediately remarks, “Well, that was weird.” This recent commercial put out by Special Olympics is a perfect example. If you haven’t already seen it, I recommend you take a look.

Here are the top 3 ways this well-intended campaign is making it weird:

1. The commercial.

While the intention appears to be “inspiration”, the commercial’s tone is highly paternalistic. The phrase, “You have earned it,” is repeated throughout this commercial. This makes me wonder---who is entitled to tell people with disabilities what they have or have not earned? The “experts”? Their parents? You? Perhaps even more troubling is the contradiction created by the phrasing, “The right to hold a have earned it.” When is the last time someone told you that you have earned something that is a presumed right (living, working, and learning in the real world)? Yes, that would be very weird. Putting this statement into a nationally broadcast commercial sends a message that people with disabilities must, in fact, earn the opportunities that are presumably rights for people who don’t have disabilities.

2. The pledge.

The so-called Inclusion Pledge falls flat and, worse yet, further perpetuates negative stereotypes about people with disabilities. Special Olympics is hitting this campaign so hard they’ve created a unique URL for this purpose. If you visit the website you will be invited to sign an Inclusion Pledge. The contrast between this pledge and the Pledge to Stop Making It Weird Is dramatic. The Inclusion Pledge states, “I pledge to look for the lonely, the isolated, the left out, the challenged and the bullied. I pledge to overcome the fear of difference and replace it with the power of inclusion. I #ChooseToInclude.” The fact that people with disabilities are being referred to here as “the isolated, the left out, the challenged, and the bullied” implies that if you have a disability you must be one of these things. But what if you’re not? What if you experience a disability but don’t feel left out? What if you don’t experience a disability but do? What if you simply do not want to be referred to as “the challenged” (and haven’t we moved beyond that language anyway)? Additionally, the pledge challenges the signer to “look for” those people [emphasis added], but suggests no other action outside of quit being afraid and include. Imagining myself as someone who doesn’t have the experience of knowing people with disabilities, I picture signing this pledge, feeling pretty good about myself, putting on my Sherlock Holmes jacket and hat, going out into “the community” with my spyglass and proclaiming, “Hey! I found one!” and then having absolutely no idea what to do next. Weird, indeed.

3. The revolution.

If the revolution truly is inclusion, does that mean Special Olympics will be dramatically changing their 50-year model of segregated programming for people with disabilities? Special Olympics has arguably become one of the largest and loudest authorities on disability, telling the public throughout their existence that people with disabilities are “special.” And by “special” they imply “others” who need activities that exist outside of mainstream activities---special sports teams, special education, special housing, special jobs. I’ll just get right to it, “special” = MAKING IT WEIRD.

Finally, what the revolution website fails to make clear (intentionally or otherwise) is that this campaign, at its core, is little more than their 50th Anniversary fundraising campaign. This press release states that “the revolution” is a 5-year campaign with a fundraising goal of $100 million. Yes, $100 million. Imagine the impact that kind of money could have by supporting people with disabilities to find real jobs. Ironic, perhaps, that the press release also claims the campaign is about "changing perceptions of people with 'ID'", while simultaneously using archaic and offensive labels such as "the challenged". Because making people feel sorry for “those people” will certainly change perceptions of people with “ID”, right? Well if not, it will at least--most likely--help them achieve that astronomical fundraising goal. After all, they have earned it.

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