People with disabilities often don’t get a voice, be it silenced by stigma or expectation, but people with disabilities live in the same world as we do and their voices matter just as much as anyone else’s. We have a different point of view that most of society doesn’t get to see. Many people with disabilities are de-sexualized, silenced, ignored, and/or not taken seriously as an active member of society but some of the worlds greatest contributions were from people with disabilities; Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, Ludwig van Beethoven, Walt Disney, etc. If we silenced these voices we would be without massive contributions to fields of cosmology, general relativity, quantum gravity, black holes, relativity, music, and entertainment. #AbiliTea is created to give a voice to everyone who has something to say, no matter the ability.
So since I use the handicapped button I’m an ableist?
Ableism comes in many forms some of which are subtle and others that are obvious. Like many people, the thought of performing an ableist action automatically connects to being an ableist, but this is false. Performing an ableist action, such as using the handicapped button to enter a building, doesn’t make you an ableist but it does mean you are contributing to ableism.
I’ve gone around and asked dozens of people their opinion on using the handicapped button and if it is a form of ableism. In technical forms, yes using the handicapped button is a form of ableism but it doesn’t make you an ableist. Ableism is the practice of using an accommodation built for people with disabilities for your own personal benefit when you don’t need the accommodation to perform daily activities. However, many people do things like this unconsciously. Before actively thinking about ableism in my daily activities I never even thought that using a handicapped button could be seen as ableist, and that’s ok. Normally, if you ask people who do need these accommodations, they don’t care if you utilize it for your personal benefit, however, it becomes a problem when someone using a handicapped button affects someone who directly needs the accommodation.
For example, at McMaster University there is a separate handicapped entrance to a lecture hall but this entrance is constantly blocked by students since it enters a part of the hall that directly goes to the front of the room without chairs blocking the way. This is a problem because people with invisible disabilities may need the direct entrance due to their disability but are blocked. Someone with PTSD who can’t be touched would be jammed in the entrance with hundreds of other students, someone with autism may have a sensory overload due to the noise and contact, and kids with other disabilities, like myself, who have a reserved seat at the front of the class can have small (or big) anxiety attacks due to the fear someone will take the seat resulting in unnecessary confrontation (which actually did happen to me).
Can I ask to pet a service dog?
No. I want to answer this question bluntly at first because it tends to be one of the basic questions about disabilities that people misunderstand when it is really quite simple. Service dogs are used for a magnitude of reasons, be it for; visual or hearing assistance, mental illness, autism, brain injury, seizure alert, mobility, etc. You can never (and should never) guess what a service dog is assisting someone with, nor should you ask. Every time I have brought my little ball of sunshine, Peach, in public I have been asked “WHY” I have her. Now, I’m open about my disability so I usually reply with no issue but many people who have service dogs prefer not to disclose why they have a service dog and this should be respected.
Now, when someone asks to pet a service dog, this is always wrong. This is almost as wrong as petting the dog without asking. Many people who have service dogs have anxiety (not always as a primary diagnoses) and prefer to function in their day to day life as if they don’t have a disability. Every time someone asks to pet a service dog they are recognizing that person as someone with a disability which in turn can trigger negative thoughts, poor self-esteem, PTSD or anxiety symptoms (if suffering from PTSD/mental illness). Asking the handler can not only offend them but it can both distract the dog and trigger the handler.
When the service dogs vest is OFF it is (usually) OK to ask to pet.
If the vest is ON it is NEVER ok to ask to pet/pet.
The only time it is acceptable to ask to pet a service dog with its vest on is if the service dog has a patch that says “ask to pet,” this usually means the dog is actually a therapy dog which at times requires a vest. Click here to learn the difference.
Should I help someone struggling with a disability?
I told my girlfriend that I wish I had “if I need help I’ll ask for it” tattooed on my forehead because people tend to treat me differently when I have my service dog with me versus if I walk alone even though in both situations I’m no different from the other. The rule of thumb for helping people with disabilities is: do not help someone with a disability unless they ASK for it. By helping someone with a disability (who doesn’t ask) shows you are recognizing the person as a disability rather than a peer which is both offensive and upsetting. People often think they are doing the right thing by offering a helping hand to someone with a disability but even though it’s seen as nice the subtle effects of this happening on a regular basis can lower the disabled person’s self-esteem and contribute to a lack of self-efficiency. There aren’t many people with (visual to the naked eye) disabilities so when we are seen people tend to go out of their way for us, out of pity or guilt, but we live with the fact we are disabled and we don’t want to be consistently reminded of it every day. 99% of the time if we need help, we will ask. So, treat every person with a disability as if they have “if I need help I’ll ask for it” tattooed on their forehead.