Why Are Disability Rights Not Talked About Among Youth?

Even though I was born into the disability community, I knew nothing about the words “disability rights” until I turned 13. Wanting to learn more about my autistic identity, I stumbled across the vast disability community online. This shocked me in many ways. Firstly, I hardly conceived there would be so many disabled people in the world who not only used the internet (gasp!) but were proud of who they are and actively identified as disabled, wheelchair emojis and all. They also advocated many ideas that I secretly shared: Disability wasn’t something shameful. Disabilities aren't just represented by wheelchairs. Disabilities are part of being human.

I count myself blessed for being able to engage with others in the community in online spaces such as Twitter and Instagram. Even though we live in an ableist society, the community is filled with positivity, camaraderie and love. These disabled users are not afraid to celebrate their bodies, reveal their struggles or call out ableist actions by nondisabled users. For many other disabled people, finding out about this concept-- that disabled people are entitled to basic rights-- often comes much later in life.

If you have never heard of disability rights, you may be baffled by what I have written. To most people, disabled or nondisabled, disability rights is a foreign concept. I am especially concerned about the lack of awareness among Gen-Zers, a generation that is proclaimed the “wokest” generation avid about activism and creating change. This form of ableism or plain ignorance is shown in many ways: forgetting to include disability rights and ableism when talking about civil rights issues, using ableist slurs such as “psycho” or “retard”, perpetuating tired stereotypes of disabled people, and more. There are many youth-led nonprofits sprouting up online, but only a handful I know of even touch on disability in any form, and they are often run by nondisabled youth. This leads to potential clashes regarding what nondisabled people think disabled people need compared to what disabled people really need. Where are disabled youth? Where are disability rights activism and allyship?

Is it that there are no disabled teenagers? Though disability is more prevalent among the older generation, there certainly is a significant proportion of young people who are disabled, chronically ill, neurodivergent and/or mentally ill. In the United States, one in six children aged 3 to 17 is disabled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This does not include many more children who may be undiagnosed or misdiagnosed, especially those falling in other marginalised groups such as women, BIPOC, immigrants and LGBTQ+ youth.

The majority of these youth interact with the media or the internet on a regular basis. (Yes, many disabled people can use technology.) These disabled youth may not be able to find safe spaces to educate themselves about disability rights and interact with other members of the disability community. They may not want to associate with the disability community or identify as disabled. They may simply be unaware that they are disabled at all.

All these can be traced back to one overarching problem: ableism. Society’s perceptions of disability as something that is wholly negative and needs to be fixed is influencing us to think the same. Granted, we have moved past belittling disabled people and labelling them with derogatory terms, but using infantalising euphenisms and treating disability as a taboo topic only to be discussed among nondisabled people means we have not advanced much in terms of disability rights.

Take this article published on the website “Disability Scoop”, supposedly written for the disability community a few years ago: “Study: Drivers With Autism Just As Good As Other Motorists”. Nothing particularly wrong about the title, right?

However, it is a fine example of unconscious ableism based on assumptions. The article uses People-First language (“drivers with autism”) instead of Identity-First langauge (“autistic drivers”) that the autistic community overwhelmingly prefers. It treats autism as something that can be detached from a person’s identity, almost as if autism is the “co-pilot” riding shotgun. Instead of aiming the study at the audience it is serving, it talks over participants.

What is even more unsettling is the purpose of the study itself. There is almost a tone of surprise and condescension at the “startling” insight that autistic people can drive without crashing their cars! Disabled people are not thought as independent individuals who can drive, and even if they drive, they're assumed to be bad at it. Are our expectations of disabled people so low that even driving safely should be applauded?

It is also upsetting that “other” drivers (presumably nondisabled and neurotypical ones, because apparently “disabled people can’t drive”) are considered a benchmark or standard for disabled people to live up to. In fact, one whole article needs to be written about how autistic people, “even in challenging situations”, can hold their own on the roads. And, though the study concluded there were no differences between how licensed autistic drivers perform compared to nondisabled counterparts, the authors of the study claim that their research is supposed to help autistic youth without intellectual disabilities (a deliberate exclusion) to “become safe drivers”.

Many nondisabled drivers are bad at driving, but we certainly don’t see any studies proclaiming that “Drivers Without Autism Just As Good As Other Motorists”. Conducting such a study in the first place is akin to conducting a study to show that “female drivers are just as good as other drivers”, “Asian American drivers are just as good as other drivers” and “left-handed drivers are just as good as other drivers”.

The fact that we even need to commission such a scientific study in the first place is appalling. Who were the scientists who conducted this experiment? Who were the decision-makers who approved spending time and money on it? Who felt that excluding people with intellectual disabilities, a significant proportion of the autistic community, was acceptable? Undoubtedly, nondisabled people control much of the discourse surrounding disabled people.

I certainly commend these scientists for their good intentions. While autistic people may struggle with areas of driving (just like any non-autistic person) and developing suitable learning plans for these drivers is needed, nondisabled scientists may not be the best people to develop these plans. And, teaching children how to drive seems insignificant compared to the many injustices the community faces. Currently, in America, it is legal for autistic people and people with intellectual disabilities, children or adults, to be electrocuted as a form of punishment. Not to mention that autistic people are more likely to face bullying, unemployment, harassment, sexual assault and many other worrying problems. Do we really need a study on driving?

The media plays a big role in the portrayal of disabled people in society, and as this article shows, there has not been much progress in inclusive and accessible reporting on issues that matter to the disability community. These harmful views are being absorbed by the youth of today.

Even though the rise of the internet and social media has encouraged online activism and greater awareness for civil rights issues, disability rights is not a cause that has caught on in cyberspace. In recent years, there has not been a particular lightning-rod event regarding disability, or significant public figure who is disabled, that is spurring youth to take action as activists. Disability is certainly not the most social-media-worthy concept. It has often been viewed as being associated with charity, or vague “awareness months” in which nondisabled people hear “inspiring” stories of disabled people and do irrelevant social media challenges to raise awareness about disabilities. For better or worse, it is not a cause that makes someone look “cool” supporting it. Nondisabled youth do not feel a strong connection to disability rights, unless they have family members or friends who are disabled.

I wish I could say that there is a clear solution to foster greater awareness and advocacy for disability rights, but there isn’t. But, that does not mean we should give in and accept that there is nothing we can do, because we can accomplish a lot by ourselves, through simple actions and words. I call on you, dear reader, to take a stand for disability rights in your own ways.

Instead of glossing over an article on disability in the newspapers, take a few moments to read and process it. When you hear someone use ableist words or phrases such as “idiot” or “fall on deaf ears”, gently say a few words about it: “That’s not really nice” or “You could use this word instead” goes a long way. Scrolling through social media? Search hashtags such as #DisabilityCommunity, #DisabilityRights and more. Follow disability rights activists and other disabled figures. Share articles and blog posts written by disabled people. (Example: the posts on this website.) If you own a social media account, create a post about disability which could be linked to your theme and audience. You could even collaborate with a disabled creator. Donate to disability-led nonprofits. All these actions would only take up a few minutes of your day.

If you’re already an activist, or someone passionate about another issue, then that’s great! Supporting disability rights doesn’t need to come at the cost of “abandoning” a cause you feel strongly about. All civil rights issues are intersectional. Disability rights means rights for women, rights for BIPOC, rights for the LGBTQ+ women, and more.

You can work on the intersections of disability rights and the cause you are fight for. Feminism? Disabled women are much more likely than disabled men to be misdiagnosed or be disbelieved by healthcare professionals, as well as earn less income and be seen as “less attractive” than straight disabled men. Fighting for Black Lives Matter and ending discrimination against BIPOC? Talk about how disabled people of colour are more likely to go undiagnosed, face seclusion and restraint in school, and enter the school-to-prison pipeline. Bring up how 50% of police shooting victims are disabled. LGBTQ+ community? Discuss how disabled people are more likely to be LGBTQ+ than the general population and how the community can be more accessible for people with both identities. Environmentalism? Explain how disabled people are among those most impacted by climate change, but how activists of the movement perpetuate eco-ableism that needs to be combated.

We cannot rid our society of ableism with a snap of our fingers, but we can certainly take steps to rid ourselves, and the people around us, of harmful mindsets.

And don’t be afraid to say these words:

Disability rights.

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