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How to Engage in ADA Conversations

Grace Fairchild May 28, 2021

Like many people, I thought I knew enough about inclusivity when I began as a student employee for the Northeast ADA Center in September 2019. But in my time working with the Americans with Disabilities Act and related laws, I have learned that engaging in ADA conversations requires an intentional shift away from common misperceptions about disability.

Though now I am a producer for the Northeast ADA Center’s Ask About the ADA Podcast, I started as an administrative assistant, and completed an online orientation to educate myself on the ADA and its amendment. This program, the ADA Basics Building Blocks Course, taught me about the law’s intent, structure, and issues. I quickly discovered that the ADA intended to prioritize full participation across all aspects of societal life for people with disabilities— this wasn’t just about accessible parking spaces.

Becoming familiar with the letter of the law gave me foundational knowledge, but I also adapted to several key pieces of etiquette on the job. I learned while I transitioned training presentations into accessible formats, surveyed stakeholders about our technical assistance, and helped prepare and edit fact sheets.

Accessibility and inclusivity are the name of the game, but you might not know where to begin. If you don’t know how to engage in ADA conversations, here are my tips to get started:

  • Do not ‘other’ people with disabilities: Particularly if you are a person without a disability, try to actively monitor the way you speak to behave toward people with disabilities. Focus on inclusion rather than making stark distinctions between people based on disability.
  • Use disability-related language that respects the individual's preference, if known: When you are addressing an unknown audience, ask/research if identity-first language (a diabetic adult) or person-first language (adult with diabetes) is best. Avoid outdated terms like "handicap.” This effort acknowledges each individual's shared humanity.
  • Remember that the Americans with Disabilities Act promotes equal access: The purpose of the ADA is to create equal access and opportunity and does not create any kind of special treatment for people with disabilities. Even with this goal, inequalities persist across public accommodations, transportation, employment, healthcare, education, technology, and more.
  • Focus more on access, less on whether someone’s disability is legitimate: The 2008 ADA Amendments Act and subsequent 2010 ADA revised regulations expanded ADA-coverage to place less focus on the definition of “disability,” and more focus on access and discrimination issues.
  • Do not interrogate people about their disability: Many people have “invisible” disabilities that might not be immediately apparent, but their disability experiences are no less important or valid than those with visible disabilities. Additionally, someone’s disability can be a very personal matter and others are not entitled to know every detail.
  • Prioritize creative accommodation solutions for equal access: Sometimes, work, school, home, and public settings might present challenges for people with disabilities who are trying to participate in various activities, but accessibility should not prevent participation. Hone in on accommodations that make participation easier for people with disabilities.
  • Consider accessibility from the beginning: When building a new setting— physical, virtual, educational, occupational, or other— consider accessibility from the start. Start evaluating accessibility during the planning stage, and do not look for quick fixes at the end of a project.

Hopefully these tools will help you begin to engage with ADA and disability topics in a more thoughtful manner. But remember, it is okay to make mistakes when you begin these conversations; don’t let minor mistakes prevent you from further engagement in considerate ADA discourse! One of my favorite phrases is, “I’m here to get it right, not to be right.” Inclusion is not a destination, but a process that requires constant attention and care.