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Many years ago, I began the hard work of confronting my own racism and sexism. That means fighting my natural responses of defensiveness, inaction, and shame -- what I call the D-I-S Spiral - that come with a fixed mindset.
I’d almost forgotten how difficult it is to begin the work of shifting to a growth mindset. Then, this summer, I re-discovered that fixed mindset. Why?

I discovered I’m an ableist. The seed for my learning process began with generous fan mail from accessibility and inclusion expert, Courtney Craven, in response to my book. Courtney wears many hats in the disability and accessibility world, including being the founder of the award-winning Can I Play That: a website staffed entirely by disabled writers who review video games based on accessibility. 

This lovely exchange led me to follow Courtney’s Twitter feed, where they often tweet about accessibility, disability, and ableism. BOOM — it was like I walked into a room I didn’t even know existed. In this month’s newsletter, I will share more of what I’ve learned (so far), lots of online and social media resources, and a massive thank you to Courtney for their help. That said, if you see missteps, please hit reply to let me know (but don’t blame Courtney).  

Zendaya is not that old and neither are the laws

This newsletter is a follow up to last month’s issue about more inclusive virtual meetings (which got picked up in this Wall Street Journal piece by Elizabeth Bernstein), where I shared a few initial learnings. It comes during the 30th anniversary of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act and soon after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the majority opinion in the 1999 landmark Supreme Court ruling affirming a key disability right. 

Think about that: these disability rights milestones were only 20-30 years ago. 1990 is when (the soon-to-be-rebooted) Fresh Prince of Bel Air came on the air. These milestones are about the same age as Justin Bieber and Zendaya (who just became the youngest ever winner of the Best Actress in a Drama Emmy award in this joyous acceptance). That is how not-that-old these milestones are (and they are only the start of what activists are still fighting for). 

In other words, I grew up at a time when it was completely legal to discriminate against someone because of a disability (a fight still being fought). And I never noticed. 

Laws change slowly and so does ableism.

Being Good-ish is Still Our Go-To

Courtney is helping drive that change. However, when Courtney points out that something is inaccessible to disabled people, they often get some version of the D-I-S Spiral of defensiveness, inaction, and shame. “People seem to be making progress on not reacting with defensiveness when told they've done or said something racist or sexist, but ableism often feels like the last stronghold of defensiveness,” Courtney says. 

Courtney's point lands with me, in a “that would be me” kind of way. I can have a “good-ish person” growth mindset in some areas, while still falling into the “good person” fixed mindset in other areas.  

What to do, when this realization hits? Be open to learning from disabled people and be upfront about your shortcomings. Courtney says, “If a disabled person says that the way you've done something is not accessible or you've used ableist language, train yourself to respond to it the same way you would if a person said you've just said something unintentionally racist.”  I am reminding myself how to say “Thank you for telling me this,” “I am sorry,” and “I will learn to do better” when I feel myself being sucked into the D-I-S Spiral.

I was today-years-old when I realized I’m disabled

In my quest to learn, I read a brilliant twitter thread from Amanda LeDuc about glasses. Virtually every member of my family wears glasses or contacts or has had LASIK. Aren’t we all disabled?

According to LeDuc, we don’t think of our vision as a disability, because accommodations have been made for us, without us having to ask for accessibility, advocate for it, or apologize for needing it. 

Think about what would happen if glasses and contact lenses weren’t commonplace. Would you be able to drive, work, or study as you currently do? 75% of the U.S. population wouldn’t. We would all be considered disabled. “Accessibility in all its forms should be as commonplace as eyeglasses,” argues LeDuc. 

This insight is key to seeing our own ableism and recognizing our responsibility for making the world accessible. 

I learned more about how ableism is perpetuated in society in Patty Berne and Stacey Milbern’s video about how “ableism is the bane of my &*%$ existence,” and this Bustle article to help identify seven ways people may be unintentionally ableist.

So, let’s get to work. Here are six things I’m doing to become less ableist:

1. Avoid using disability-related language in non-literal ways.
Insane, Crazy, Panic Attack, Paralyzed, Moron, Stupid, Lame — these are just a few of the words about disability or mental illness I’ve used to make something sound more dramatic, or to describe something I found dull. Maybe you also use some of these words or others on this list, or in this helpful video explaining casual ableist language by Annie Elainey on her youtube channel. Most people do.

When someone asks you not to use these words, perhaps your first reaction is similar to my D-I-S Spiral. “C’mon … it’s a metaphor” or “Don’t take everything so seriously” or “I know disabled people who use that word” or “My disabled friend says he’s not offended by that.” 

My excuses miss the point because:
  1. I don’t know whether a phrase is offensive to any particular individual (and people don’t always tell us).
  2. The use of a word within a community is not the same as the use outside of the community; these are complex, sometimes politicized issues to navigate.   
  3. These words minimize and stigmatize real issues, which shifts how seriously we take these disabilities and how we treat people with these disabilities. Stigma does real harm and our language matters. 
I’ve decided to adopt these three rules for now:
  1. Would I say this to a person with this identity or disability? If not, I’m trying not to say it to anyone.
  2. Does the word have cruel origins? For example, now that I know “lame” was once a slur for people who struggle with mobility, it’s clear to me that I should not be saying things like “don’t be so lame.”  
  3. Do I feel this identity or disability is free of stigma and well-understood? If not, I try not to use it as a metaphor.  
Old habits die hard, but all things considered, giving up a few words is not a big deal.  Language is powerful and this power is entirely within my control. No reason to be wracked with guilt on this one when I hold such power. Why not make the change?

2.  Speak more about disability, knowing that I have much to learn

Along with trying to edit my language, I’m trying to speak more about disability in order to create spaces where disability is welcome and not stigmatized. Honestly, I’m still fairly confused about what to say and what not to say. Courtney’s advice is to pay attention to how people describe themselves. “Do I prefer ‘person with hearing loss’ (person-first language) or ‘hard of hearing person’ (identity-first language)?” Courtney says. Simple: Call people what they want to be called.
Left side of graphic is labeled "PERSON-FIRST," and shows a female stick figure holding a blue circle, and text below the image reads "person with hearing loss". The right side of the graphic is labeled "IDENTITY-FIRST", and shows a female stick figure mostly surrounded by a large blue circle, and text below the image reads "hard of hearing person".
But what about when you’re talking about disability more broadly or are talking about a person you don’t know? Courtney defaults to identity-first language. “I feel that it gives the person I'm talking about agency and respects what may be their identity,” they say. There is no consensus on this point, so be open to the views of others.

Finally, the term “disabled” is itself tricky. Some people choose to claim this identity and others do not. When those preferences are not known or I’m speaking in more abstract terms (like in this newsletter), I’m avoiding euphemisms such as “differently-abled” based on what I’ve learned from multiple disability advocates, who point out the hidden ableism in euphemisms. Campaigns like the #SayTheWord campaign remind me of the costs of color blindness.  

Bottom line: If corrected, accept the correction and keep going. Thinking back over the past few years, I have been corrected by generous listeners a few times. Stumbling shouldn’t stop us from listening and speaking. In fact, it’s all the more reason to.

3.  Don’t wait to be asked for an accommodation 

Courtney has shared heartbreaking stories with me about folks dealing with lack of accessibility in silence because of the backlash and burdens they sometimes face when asking for accomodations. Research bears this out. In my new and limited experience making asks, even on behalf of others, it has been far more challenging than I expected. I am starting to understand why someone might not ask or disclose. 

As this TED Talk by Naty Rico explains, we need to be proactive. We can’t simply assume that if someone doesn’t ask, they don’t need the support. Now, I’m proactively asking people in meetings I run and in classes I teach if I can provide accommodations. Just as Courtney predicted, I’ve learned of undisclosed challenges, and most people express gratitude.

The implication of this insight is that I need to put accessibility practices in place, regardless of whether anyone has shared their disability with me. That brings us to my next area of learning.
4. Incorporate accessibility into my standard work practices

What are the ways in which people access your information, services, products, or community? Is it a building, a website, a virtual gathering? Whatever it is, you can make it more accessible. 

Courtney’s accessibility guides are gold — funny, clear, compassionate, and actionable. I strongly encourage you to check these out as a starting point (even if you’re not a writer, video game maker, or educator — there’s plenty here for everyone):  Accessibility Guide for Writers, Accessibility Guide for Games, Accessibility Guide for Educators, and Tips for Easy Caption Creation.

Pick one thing and begin working on it.  My current focus is making my slides more accessible (easy to do in PowerPoint and Google Slides) and integrating captioning into online meetings.  I’ll start there and keep learning. Where are you starting?
image of actor Chadwick Boseman as King T'challa in Black Panther; a black man in a black bodysuit adorned with metal teeth stands with open arms in front of a cloudy sky.
5. Stop clicking and sharing inspiration porn

I’m as likely as you might be to hit the heart button on a video of a one-armed child playing baseball or a blind musician rocking it out. So, it was a slap in the face to hear disability activist Stella Young describe those videos as “inspiration porn” in this viral TED Talk. After all, I like cheering for the underdog, I like comeback stories, I like inspiration (especially now).  

Well, notice that all my positive feelings about these videos center myself. I have objectified the people in these videos — people who are already objectified and even vilified — to serve my need for inspiration. It somewhat reminds me of how women are sexually objectified. Otherizing people with disabilities allows me to not take responsibility for my part in the barriers they face. As disability activist Sarah Kelly tweeted, “disabled people do not overcome their disabilities, they overcome the ableism that makes their daily life harder to navigate.”

In the past, I’ve thought about disabilities only when they inspired me. Not when I was making a presentation, teaching a class, writing an email, or posting on social media. Nor when I was selecting entertainment for my family, planning an event, reading for pleasure, or voting for political candidates.  When it comes to being responsible for representation or accessibility for the disabled, I was nowhere to be found. 
Title slide from TEDxSydney talk.  Young woman pictured using mobility aid and speaking into a small microphone; overlaid text reads "Stella Young TEDxSydney" "I'm not your inspiration, thank you very much".
The gutting loss of Chadwick Boseman presented another opportunity for me to realize the harm of inspiration porn, as explained in this critique from Katherine Smith and this commentary from Imani. 
I’m convinced. I’m breaking out of the defensiveness of the D-I-S Spiral.  No more clicking on and sharing inspiration porn.

6. Seek out first-person accounts

Given that 1 out of 4 Americans has a disability, I’m surprised at how ignorant I am (I know I shouldn’t be surprised, because that’s how ‘isms work). I was recently invited to join an excellent roundtable discussion about Inclusion and Accessibility in Publishing and Literature organized by Courtney Craven and Yi Shun Lai (the fabulous writer/editor of Pin Ups who introduced my book to Courtney). My big takeaway from the discussion was the dearth of and necessity for non-fiction first-person accounts and fictional accounts from disabled writers. 
Event announcement titled Inclusion + Accessibility in Publishing and Literature, a Roundtable Discussion, September 25, 2020.  Head shots of speakers are shown:  Kishonna Gray, Lillie Lainoff, Dolly Chugh, Yi Shun Lai, Courtney Craven.  Visually, appears to be a diverse group of speakers.
To that end, I’m seeking out first person experiences and I have found social media invaluable. Here are just a few of many great hashtags to check out (Tip: Notice how each word is capitalized in multi-word hashtags below so that an automated text reader such as those used by blind readers can detect when a new word begins).  
  • #Accessibility
  • #Disabilities
  • #AbleismExists
  • #TheBarriersWeFace
  • #a11y
  • #OwnVoices
I also look forward to reading these first person and fictional accounts by disabled authors:
Cover art for book "Disability Visibility: First-Person Stories from the 21st Century" edited by Alice Wong. Text is displayed over an abstract artwork of multicolored triangles.

I’m starting where I am

Sometimes, my ableist mind wants to suck me into a D-I-S Spiral of defensiveness, inaction, and shame. But I won’t let it. I’m officially invoking the 10% More Rule and starting where I am, using all the muscles I have been building in my work on racism and sexism. Will I look back at this newsletter some day, mortified at my ignorance and arrogance in writing this?  Will I realize that I was ableist in my newsletter about ableism? I fear I might, as I usually write about things I know a lot about, not things I know a little about. But, should that mortification happen, it will mean that I have kept my learning going, which will be a good thing. That is what crushes the D-I-S Spiral.

Please join me in keeping the learning going. Our laws are no older than Zendaya and our ableism is even older, so this will take intentional effort. Let’s be good-ish about our own ableism. Let’s let go of our desire to be “good people,” so we can be better people.  Let’s give ourselves room to grow. 

To that end, every month, I’ll send you the Dear Good People newsletter (past issues are all here if you missed one), with a five minute read about the psychology of good people and what it means to be a “good-ish” person. Just like my book, the newsletter will feature evidence-based and actionable advice which I am trying to use myself, all written in and for today's times. Feel free to forward or post the newsletter (links below), as I want it to reach as many hearts and minds as possible.  And let me know what you think by hitting reply to this email.  Thanks for growing with me,

Dolly ChughDolly Chugh


This month's artwork credits from top: Evelyn Parker (original graphic), (family image is cropped), Annie Elainey/YouTube (screen shot), Evelyn Parker (original graphic), Marvel Studios (Black Panther), (Stella Young), Courtney Craven (event announcement), Vintage Books (book cover).

I am indebted to Courtney Craven for expert mentoring, Kassie Brabaw for skilled editing, and Evelyn Parker for thoughtful graphic design and alt text descriptions..

Ongoing gratitude to Belinda Li and Katie Sutton for help with research, design, and promotion of this newsletter.

Dolly Chugh is the Jacob B. Melnick Term Professor at the New York University Stern School of Business in the Department of Management and Organizations. She studies the psychology of good people and teaches leadership/management courses. All views are her own.

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