People with disabilities are not professional development objects

Some people, often disability professionals, interact with disabled folks in creepy ways.

Here’s one way this plays out:

  • Person with a disability: I am going to bake a fancy cake. I am going to the fancy cake store to get ingredients. I hope they have the sugared roses in.
  • Disability professional who happens to be in the store: Oh wow, a real live disabled person with the exciting disability widget I’ve been reading about in the Journal of Professional Development In Supporting Widget Use!
  • Disability professional: Hey, you have an Exciting Widget. What kind of widget is it? Is it model 8A series 27? Do you have widget syndrome? I’ve heard that the New Widget is particularly good for people with widget syndrome. Has that been your experience?
  • Person with a disability: …

Other things of this nature:

  • “It’s so nice to see that you’re choosing to use the Exciting Widget and be independent.“
  • “Have you ever considered getting a dog instead of using the Exciting Widget?”
  • “Do you find that the Exciting Widget allows you to use a wider range of toilets?“
  • “Are you allowed to use the Exciting Widget at work?”
  • “Did you find the rehab difficult? I know it’s been hard for some of my clients.”

In effect, the disability professional is thinking something like this:

  • Being really fascinated with disability
  • Assuming that all people with disabilities are just as fascinated as they are, and:
  • That they are endlessly interested in talking about disability and equipment and therapy
  • Or that they’re living classroom models
  • And then treating them as though being visibly disabled in public constitutes permission to ask invasive personal questions and initiate detailed conversation about disability

It’s not ok because:

  • Decisions about adaptive equipment and mobility are intensely personal and private
  • It’s not ok to ask random strangers intimate questions about their bodies
  • Being disabled in public just means that someone is living their life
  • Being visibly disabled in public doesn’t mean someone is endlessly fascinated with disability, or that they’re remotely interested in discussing disability and equipment and therapy with you.
  • The world is not your classroom. It’s the world, and the people in it have agendas of their own. It’s not ok to treat them as objects for your professional development
  • People with disabilities should be able to live their lives without being asked inappropriately intimate questions by strangers

Some concrete examples:

People with disabilities are just living their lives. A person with a disability doesn’t owe it to anyone, including professionals, to participate in their disability fandom.

For instance:

  • Wheelchair users are using wheelchairs to get around. Their wheelchairs are not an invitation for you to participate in the wheelchair fandom and discuss wheelchairs, disability, treatments, or your professional development with them.
  • Blind people are not an opportunity to participate in the cane fandom, the O&M fandom, or to discuss your opinions about the relative merits of canes and dogs
  • All of those things require consent, and being disabled in public does not constitute consent.

And particularly if you are a professional:

  • It’s important to keep in mind that being a disability professional is a choice, and having a disability isn’t
  • And for professionals, equipment conversations are a form of talking shop; for most people with disabilities they are intimate and personal.
  • People with disabilities are not necessarily interested in using their personal lives as fodder for your shop talk
  • If you see someone with a disability in a public place, all you know is that they have a disability. That doesn’t imply anything about their interests or their willingness to answer invasive personal questions.
  • And more generally: as a professional, you have a responsibility to be rigorously ethical in the way you interact with people with disabilities
  • If you’re being invasive and asking inappropriately intimate questions of random disabled strangers in public, you’re probably doing a lot of even more inappropriate things with clients
  • People with disabilities who depend on you for services might not be in a good position to assert boundaries; it is your responsibility to avoid putting them in that position and rigorously respect boundaries on your own initiative
  • You can’t simply rely on your professional culture to teach you appropriate boundaries; there are too many professionals who don’t have this skill.
  • You have to actively seek out boundaries education on your own initiative
  • One professional who is really good at this is Dave Hingsburger. He wrote a good introduction called Power Tools. It explains a lot of practical things about power, disability, and boundaries in practical concrete ways.

Short version: People with disabilities are not education objects. Don’t ask people with disabilities invasive personal questions about their bodies or adaptive equipment choices. If you’re a disability professional who does this, it’s important to stop doing that and to learn more about boundaries.