March is disAbility Awareness Month, a time we dedicate to recognizing and understanding different abilities and needs. Everyone is different, but one of the biggest issues faced by people with disabilities is how to be seen as the unique person they are outside of their differences.  

Too often people are seen as a disability rather than a person.

For many, the disabling condition inadvertently becomes how people are labeled. Even the most well-meaning person can be guilty of this, such as referencing a colleague as, “You know Josiah, the blind gentleman;” or striking up a conversation with someone and making it about their disability, such as letting a deaf person know their cousin’s neighbor knows sign language (which is great, but maybe this deaf person doesn’t sign as their primary means of communication and maybe they’re a huge Philly sports fan and that would have been a great topic to lead with to get to know them). 

Trust me, I get it – it’s better to be aware than not aware of disabilities, but sometimes being a bit too aware can be harmful.

Here are some steps you may want to try to be aware of people’s differences without singling them out: 

Remember that everyone is different, and how life impacts them is diverse. People may have intellectual, physical, and/or developmental challenges as well as conditions that we can’t be aware of just by observing them. The more open we can be to the complex framework that makes us who we are, the less likely we are to focus on the specific aspects that stand out in others. 

The biggest expert on someone’s disability is the person with the disability. It’s important to pay attention that, in our efforts to be inclusive and accommodating, we’re not deciding for the person with a disability how they should be assisted.

It’s also important to communicate in ways they’re comfortable, such as using the language they use. If they refer to themselves as neurodivergent, we need to be mindful to use their description rather than what some may call autistic. Additionally, we want to avoid our own stigmatizing language such as describing someone as wheelchair bound, but instead using the more accepted description of “someone who uses a wheelchair.”

We also need to work together to ensure we, as well as our friends, family, and colleagues, are up to date on resources, laws, and policies impacting folks with disabilities. Locally we have access to resources from Disability Rights Pennsylvania  as well as the Division of Intellectual disAbility Services (IDS) – DBHIDS. It’s important to get involved and know where our votes are leading and how our elected officials can help foster a more inclusive and accommodating environment. Equally important is understanding the Americans with Disabilities Act and how accommodations are required of employers, public venues, and schools.  

Lastly, ask questions and stay curious about others and what it takes to create a safe and equal space for them.  

About the Author: Shannon Ruane is a Certified Rehabilitation Counselor and a Licensed Professional Counselor.  She maintains a private counseling practice in Philadelphia.