Widen Your Understanding During National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month

Each March brings with it an annual offer to reevaluate and recalibrate what it means to be ‘intelligent.’ Intelligence is a concept and a word that’s loaded with imagery: of a sharp, even-keeled, well-read, post-secondary-educated person, or a brainy, bespectacled, lab-coat-wearing tech prodigy. Intelligence is either attainable or unattainable based on how closely your brain’s function matches constructed ideals like these.

While there are class-based concerns with who is or isn’t considered ‘intelligent’—not everyone can afford a post-secondary education—perhaps the more pressing concern can be revealed through a lens of ableism. Ableism is the term that describes discrimination based on ability or disability. For example, folks who use wheelchairs experience ableism when they can’t attend an event because the venue isn’t wheelchair-accessible. This is a broad example of a deep-reaching issue that stems from the fact that modern society has been constructed entirely around the experiences of ‘intelligent’ and able-bodied individuals.

Disability-identified folks who do not align with this vision often face both latent and explicit institutional barriers to access. This includes people who live with developmental disabilities. Since 1987, the month of March has been designated as National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month in the United States, a campaign for disability rights and consciousness-raising across the country.

Most see the campaign as an imperative of sorts: to adjust our communities to meet the needs of disability-identified individuals. But it isn’t designed solely to affect the physical world—the campaign reminds us that these individuals have full, rich, nuanced, and diverse lived experiences. Ableist society is often structured such that these folks are viewed as inferior or in need of assistance, and while inclusive programming in our physical world is absolutely necessary, so too are inclusive understandings of what it means to live with disability.

A key part of understanding ableism is understanding that it is this very discriminatory mechanism that prevents disability-identified folks from accessing the aforementioned full, rich, nuanced, and diverse lived experiences. If ableism (and, as a result, a world developed around ableism) didn’t exist—if all spaces were perfectly inclusive and accommodating for all disabilities—these individuals would be able to navigate the world without concern, and their experiences wouldn’t be defined by deficit or inaccessibility.

While this paradigm-shift takes time, inclusive programming is an immediate and simple change to make that can benefit disability-identified folks in your community. This month, consider taking steps to ensure that spaces where events are held have accommodations for individuals who use wheelchairs and other mobility aids. For events with spoken components, look into hiring a sign language interpreter deaf folks, or for visual presentations, incorporate braille or tactile pieces that make the work accessible. These signal that all are welcome and considered.

National Developmental Disabilities Awareness Month isn’t just about awareness-raising; it’s about combating institutional discrimination against disability-identified individuals, and that’s a fight that we should continue all year long.

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