International Day of Persons with Disabilities: Moving Beyond Words, Toward Action

by Roqayah Ajaj

It is International Day of Persons with Disabilities!

Many leaders and organizations are publicly celebrating this day. Their posts are talking about different types of disabilities, raising awareness, shedding light on successful people with disabilities, and admiring people with disabilities and presenting them as “inspirational.” Others talk about disability rights. Many times, I’ve noticed that corporations claim publicly to support people with disabilities while not making any real changes to their policies or creating actionable plans to include people with disabilities and empower them. The media ends up being focused on these corporations and “raising awareness” without actually educating people on how to respectfully interact with and empower people with disabilities.

As an individual, instead of giving attention and money to these large organizations that make superficial claims, you can contribute to real change by focusing on your relationships with those in your community who have disabilities. My goal is to help you understand your power to make change – you as an individual member of society, not the government, not an organization, not a corporation, etc. – just you.

How have you as an individual helped people with disabilities in your community—whether relatives, friends, neighbors, peers, or coworkers? You have the power as an individual to provide support and empowerment and to encourage a sense belonging in society. Most people know by now that people with disabilities deserve to be treated with respect. What many people do not realize is that they also need to be treated with competence. Educating yourself on how to interact with people with disabilities is the first step toward that. These actions start on an individual level. Start by thinking about the spheres in your life in which you have the most influence: you can use your position to advocate for the needs of people with disabilities. Are you a manager at your organization? Provide opportunities for trainings on how to interact with clients with disabilities. Are you a student? Advocate for accommodations and accessibility for people with different needs.

Image of person sitting at a desk, reading something intently on their computer.

If it feels like you are not in a position to create change in this way, your basic responsibility is to educate yourself on common etiquette when interacting with people with disabilities. Each individual has different needs, so asking that person about their needs in particular is appreciated, but the basic skills can be learned through self-education. I, for example, highly appreciate those people who interact with me who have a basis of knowledge about blindness, and then follow up to ask me about my specific needs. They never make me feel like I am awkward or that I have to teach them, for example, how to provide directions to me. They’ve already done this research and are practicing what they’ve learned with me. This makes me feel seen as me, and not just as my disability.

There are tons of resources available in multiple languages. Also, if you see any good resources where you have learned at least one useful tip from them, share them with others around you.

Image of four squares with a graphic in each. The top left shows a figure in a wheelchair. The top right shows a head with a brain inside. The bottom left shows hands signing. The bottom right shows a figure using a white cane. Source:

This all works well when you can see a disability, but this is not always possible in the case of invisible disabilities. This is why we need to create spaces in which it is acceptable and expected for people to advocate for their needs without being questioned, especially if their disabilities are not visible to others. In an educational setting, for example, one student might write a paper through dictation, while someone else may use a computer, and someone else may use pen and paper. In the end, everyone is writing. Similarly, one student may read a hard copy of a text, while someone else may read that text on their tablet screen, and someone else may read the text by listening to it. In the end, everyone is reading and comprehending the same information. Normalize the differences in how we complete tasks and go about our daily lives. Someone who asks you for directions may need you to write them down instead of verbalizing them because of an invisible disability. By accommodating that need, even without having background knowledge on that specific disability, you are contributing to the creation of a more inclusive society.

On this International Day of Persons with Disabilities, I encourage you to look around, identify one type of disability, and learn about it. From that basis of knowledge, take a concrete step toward empowering people with disabilities in your community. I’m looking forward to your comments, feedback, and experiences – please share them below.

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