Developing Disability Cultural Competence

Here’s my advice for people with disabilities so they can come out and flourish in the professional environment. Our ultimate goal is to develop disability cultural proficiency. This begins with disability cultural competence, which is learning how to live effectively as a person with disabilities, not just living as a disabled person trying to become non-disabled. Competence moves toward proficiency as one carries out living with a disability over time and working toward achieving a high quality of life while living with a disability.

Developing disability cultural competence begins with identifying openly as a person with disabilities. Cultivate dignity and authority as a person with disabilities. Enter into organizations and communities that offer support, resources, groups, and gathering opportunities for people with disabilities. Find like-minded colleagues and friends who have disabilities.

As a person who identifies as disabled, know your rights, protections, opportunities, information, culture, history, and communities that can support your flourishing as a disabled person. Learn about requesting accommodations in your workplace, accessing resources and information, and getting physical access. Go to the disability resource center or office of disability services and register as a disabled person so you can request accommodations and know what services and technologies are available to you in the workplace. It should be that office, not your supervisor with whom you discuss your access and accommodation needs. You should not disclose to your supervisors your medical diagnosis, but rather focus on the accommodations you require to carry out workplace expectations. And especially, your supervisors should not be deciding whether or not to grant you accommodations for your disabilities.

Learn to use public resources and supportive structures for people with disabilities. Consider accessible reduced entrance fees for people with disabilities, transportation options, and research how to get proper documentation and procedures for other benefits for disabled people in public space venues.

Most important is to know and use the rights, benefits, and protections provided in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or your national and local codes and policies for assuring disability equity and nondiscrimination. Go to the ADA website. Read the United Nations Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD) if your country has adopted the treaty. Find out about its implementation in your employment and public environment.

In short: know your communities; know your rights; know your access needs; know your accessible technology.

About the Author

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Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson is Professor of English and bioethics at Emory University, where her fields of study are disability studies, American literature and culture, bioethics, and feminist theory. Her work develops the field of critical disability studies in the health humanities, broadly understood, to bring forward disability access, inclusion, and identity to communities inside and outside of the academy. She is the author of Staring: How We Look and several other books. Her current book project is Habitable Worlds: Toward a Disability Bioethics.

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