Growing up as a deaf individual with bilateral cochlear implants, I was painfully aware from a young age that I differed from others. I viewed myself as an outsider, and faced tremendous barriers communicating with my peers. This led to isolation, loneliness, frustration, despair and unmet mental health needs. It was not until a few years ago that I learned that the prevalence of adults with serious mental illnesses and children with serious emotional disturbances is 3 to 5 times greater in the deaf population than in the hearing population. Upon reading this, it became alarmingly clear that my overlooked childhood displays of anxiety and depression stemmed from my disability, along with the lack of proper mental health awareness.
Similarly, adults with mobility, visual, hearing and/or cognitive disabilities report experiencing frequent mental distress roughly 5 times more than those without disabilities. In 2018 alone, 17.4 million adults with disabilities reported frequent mental distress (as defined as having at least 14 poor mental health days in the past 30 days).
Despite the Disability Rights movement and the American with Disabilities Act, individuals with disabilities continue to catastrophically face discrimination in housing, employment, medical care and more. Further compounding these issues are social challenges those with disabilities face, such as caregiver abuse, trauma, poverty, dehumanizing stigmas and misconceptions. With ableism in particular, problematic societal attitudes devalue those in the disability community as “lesser” and in a great need to be “fixed.”
COVID-19 has further complicated the lives of people with disabilities, in which mental health challenges are devastatingly becoming more prevalent. With disconnection, isolation, diminished services and disrupted routines, those with disabilities are experiencing greater difficulties navigating mental health.
There is a great need to alleviate mental health challenges and hurdles in the disability community. Some ways to support and advocate for those with disabilities are:
Be mindful of personal biases, attitudes and preconceptions
Reflect and examine how you approach and view the disability population. Challenge any stereotypes and biases you may have, and take the time to address them through education. Consider how you can minimize negative attitudes and behaviors you may have towards individuals with disabilities. Do not be afraid to recognize any ableist thoughts you may have, and approach them as a learning opportunity to better understand the disability community.
Do not make assumptions
Remember disabilities reveal little about people. Although those with disabilities may share some common backgrounds, they also have unique life stories. While it is important to note how disabilities can impact lived experiences, emphasize looking beyond labels and into people themselves. Focus on their attributes and capabilities rather than their limitations. Find the middle ground, rather than over-emphasizing or under-emphasizing disability-related concerns and experiences.
Be aware of language
Use disability-sensitive language, and avoid excessively positive or negative language that equates individuals with their disabilities (e.g. “suffering from”). Abstain from derogatory phrases that imply inadequacy or deficiency (e.g. “hearing impairment” alludes that deaf people are broken). While person-first language (e.g. person with blindness) is considered politically correct, some individuals with disabilities prefer disability-first language (e.g. blind person). Because preferences vary, make sure to ask them how they would like to be addressed.
Utilize learning opportunities
Take advantage of learning opportunities. Having little understanding of disabilities can lead to confusion, anxiety, fear, repulsion and more, which in turn creates misleading assumptions and harmful interactions. Look for informative resources, such as educational classes, workshops, trainings, the internet and social media platforms. Whenever possible, try to learn from the disability community itself.
Validate the disability population’s struggles
Be wary of the backgrounds those with disabilities come from, especially those who have faced disability-specific abuse and violence. When individuals with disabilities share their stories and challenges, practice trauma-sensitive language and aim to provide support and validation, rather than minimize their experiences.
Recognize that disability is a spectrum
Be mindful that each person has a unique disability identity. Some individuals do not necessarily view themselves as having a disability, nor see themselves as integrated or involved with the disability community. Each individual’s needs are different, and require varying levels of support. What may work for one person may not work for another person.
Be inclusive and accommodating
Strive to create a barrier-free environment that allows those with disabilities to feel included. Prioritize locations that are disability friendly, such as quiet, well-lit environments for deaf individuals. Do not be afraid to have open communication on how to be accommodating.
Foster and embrace curiosity
Know that it is okay to have questions. When appropriately and respectfully asked, questions can be welcomed. Regardless of how you approach your curiosity, avoid inappropriate and invasive questions and topics. Respect people’s decision to talk or not talk about their own disabilities, and the extent to which they talk about their own experiences. But know that it is not the disability population’s responsibility to educate others. While individuals may identify with the disability community, that does not necessarily mean they are or want to be a spokesperson, activist or educator on the behalf of others with similar disabilities. Gauge if asking questions will be well-received. If you are uncertain, utilize educational resources instead.
By celebrating diversity, promoting equity and fostering inclusion, we can be allies for the disability community. Through advocacy, education and support, we can help decrease the mental health challenges those with disabilities face and recognize how discrimination, stereotypes, biases, invalidations and exclusion can be harmful. In response, be mindful of how disabilities are multidimensional and intersectional with mental health, and be proactive in acknowledging that the disability population has mental health needs.
Additional Helpful Resources:
Disability Etiquette: https://equity.uni.edu/disability-etiquette
Health Inclusion Strategies: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/disabilityandhealth/disability-strategies.html
Guest Blogger: Jennifer Wendell, MHA Intern
Jennifer Wendell is a Senior, double majoring in Human Services- Clinical Concentration and Sociology at the University of Delaware. She is currently interning with MHA, and hopes to become a helping professional in the mental health field.