Americans Are Finally Waking Up About Ableism

Starbucks announced on July 9 that it would ban the use of plastic straws in its stores before 2020. Members of the disabled
Starbucks announced on July 9 that it would ban the use of plastic straws in its stores before 2020. Members of the disabled population pushed back because they often use straws out of necessity.

When The Washington Post published a piece detailing how a Starbucks employee mocked a customer for stuttering while ordering a drink at Starbucks, I wasn’t surprised. In fact, as a person who also stutters, I was resigned.

I can’t even count the number of times an interaction with a stranger has left me feeling disrespected and defeated — the banker, the customer, the men I’ve dated, just to name a few.

But the incident at Starbucks did surprise me in one way: After the barista openly mocked the customer, Sam, for his stutter — first in conversation and again by printing his drink label in a pejorative fashion (“SSSam”) — people took action.

Largely thanks to a social media post, news of Sam’s encounter gained national attention. In the end, Starbucks let the barista go, and the corporation ― already knee-deep in necessary anti-bias and sensitivity training — has confirmed there will be more training on ”additional topics in the months to follow.”

This may not seem like much to celebrate, but for those of us committed to raising awareness for the disabled population, it feels worth commemorating. Nearly 1 in 5 people in the U.S. have a disability, and yet, the activism for our movement has been an uphill battle. Recently, however, there has been more acknowledgment of the different kinds of prejudice disabled people experience and more visibility for differently abled bodies. Embracing this discussion has been a crucial development for disability advocacy.  

Despite setbacks, we can now objectively say that disability awareness is growing.

In fact, from the outside, it would seem as though the disability movement might finally be receiving the attention it deserves. Perhaps prompted by the gross disrespect and erasure by our nation’s new political leadership, it seems we are currently in “a new wave of activism by disabled Americans who want to change the way disability is viewed in the U.S.,” according to Time.

Thanks to the efforts of activists, there is now more representation of disabled characters in television and film. More disabled perspectives and opinions are being shared on the prospective ban on plastic straws ― but only because the needs of the disabled population (who often use straws out of necessity) were not taken into account. There have also been some genuine triumphs for the disability community, of course, such as the clothing brand Aerie and its recently released and incredibly inclusive ad campaign. Despite setbacks, we can now objectively say that disability awareness is growing.

While all the media coverage and inclusion is appreciated (even the inaccurate or misinformed opinions, because, at the very least, it starts a dialogue) the disability movement still has more work to do. To anyone with a discerning eye, many portrayals of disabled characters in television and film are problematic. And the fact is, the only reason our perspectives seem more prevalent right now is because we have long been completely left out of the conversation

From social justice issues to character portrayals and environmental activism, the able-bodied population is still considered superior in our society. Those of us in the margins are not only considered last, but often, we’re not considered at all.

We now need able-bodied people to carry this momentum and instigate real change throughout our society.

The first thing able-bodied people can do to become an ally of this movement is to examine how they interact with the disabled population. To be sure, many workplaces are now offering disability awareness training, which is a great start. But you don’t need full etiquette training to treat the disabled population with respect. While some advice may seem obvious, as a person with a speech disability, I know this is not always the case.

Thankfully, there are simple guides at our fingertips that can offer a solid foundation of advice — like avoiding patronizing speech, not altering the volume of your voice and simply treating people like people.

If you’re not sure how to interact in a certain situation or don’t know what a particular disability entails, do the research. There are dozens of free online resources that will help you tackle any questions you may have — such as, is there a difference between having a disability, impairment or handicap? How do we define an invisible disability? How can I show respect to people with disabilities?

A scene from "The Shape of Water," which received both praise and criticism for its treatment of disability.
A scene from "The Shape of Water," which received both praise and criticism for its treatment of disability.

After becoming properly informed, the next step is to become a disability advocate, help spread awareness, and take action. Familiarize yourself with the disability movement and its history. Support organizations that are dedicated to the human and civil rights of people with disabilities, such as ADAPT, the American Association of People with Disabilities, the National Organization on Disability and many others.

Maybe this will be the year that the disabled community will look back and think: Wow, what an important, transformative time we lived in. Blatant ableism is no longer tolerated in the workforce or anywhere else. This year, people with disabilities have finally gained the authority and deference to speak on social and environmental issues that directly affect their health, and the able-bodied community listened. Realistic portrayals of disabled characters are not only plentiful but completely commonplace. 2018, a tumultuous year politically, but somehow, the disability movement achieved a huge victory.

This is an optimistic vision, but not an impossible one. Right now, the disabled community is center stage. What’s important now is continuing the work even after the curtain closes.

Rachel Hoge is a writer, editor and person who stutters. Her essays on disability have been published by The Washington Post, The Guardian, Salon, Yahoo and many others.