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The Disability Community Needs More Mental Health Support From Allies

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As a disabled person and disability advocate, I’d like to highlight a popular topic within the disability community. We have a vital opportunity to discuss how best to support not only our medical needs, but also our mental and emotional health surrounding having a disability in an ableist society. In having these conversations, we must center the voices and experiences of disabled people.

Interestingly, this topic is not often well understood. Perhaps it is forgotten because a physical disability is more obvious, or because it complicates the concept of supporting a marginalized community. Regardless of the reason, people in the disabled community need better support for their mental health.

Mental health and wellness are a concern for many people in the disability community. As research demonstrates and as the CDC states, “Adults with disabilities report experiencing frequent mental distress almost 5 times as often as adults without disabilities.”

What are the contributing factors to poor mental health among disabled people? In part, interactions with ableist individuals can have a negative impact on people with disabilities. The Center for Disability Rights defines ableism as “a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities and often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be ‘fixed’ in one form or the other.”

Here are a few of the challenges disabled people face that impact our mental health, as well as the type of support we need from our non-disabled allies:

1. Disabled people deserve respectful, kind, and familiar interactions.

As described by the American Psychological Association, social and cultural conditioning purports that people who are familiar and similar are good. This conditioning teaches that people who are disabled are unfamiliar and dissimilar, so our culture treats disabled people differently. As a result, those of us with disabilities often receive awkward, uncomfortable, or even hostile interactions from people around us. This could look like a conversation between a wheelchair user and a non-disabled person which is shortened because their necks are straining after talking. It could also include asking someone not to overstep in the form of “helping”: or fighting for reasonable accommodations at school or work. Over time, this lack of acceptance and different treatment teaches disabled people that we are not valuable and are more likely to be ignored, which can cause low self-esteem, stress, and exhaustion.

Unfortunately, some interactions go beyond awkwardness into bullying. Being bullied as a child has a lifelong impact on mental health and wellbeing. Similarly, being bullied as a disabled child for being different can be permanently detrimental to mental health. The Special Needs Alliance reports that “children with [disabilities] are more likely to be bullied or harassed and also more likely to be seriously harmed by it.” This negative treatment relating to a disability can take multiple forms. While it can mean making fun of the disability, it can also include ignoring the disability, pretending it doesn’t exist, diminishing its impact on the disabled person’s life, and favoring non-disabled children. Any time a disabled child has their needs ignored or is devalued by authority figures such as teachers or influential peers, we learn our place in the world is to be ignored and devalued. That is not a healthy mindset for anyone.

2. Disabled people shouldn’t have to be disability advocates for fair treatment.

In addition to coping with a disability, many disabled people are expected to advocate for fair treatment. Many non-disabled people believe the misconception that disabled people aren’t capable of most typical interactions or job functions. Disabled people may experience someone pushing their wheelchair without permission or their walker being used, against their consent, for amusement purposes. Disabled people might experience people having a conversation with their aid or companion rather than addressing them directly. Challenges for a disabled person also might be more complicated, such as getting disability rights passed through the legislature to prioritize disabled people over food delivery robots and keep public spaces accessible and safe for the disabled community.

While some non-disabled people may have good intentions, it is important and good etiquette to ensure that disabled people’s boundaries and needs are being respected, without the disabled person having to request it every time. While a disabled person may need assistance at times, we also enjoy autonomy at other times. As a disabled person, having to constantly advocate for yourself to be included, or given fair access when the standard for everyone else to be involved automatically, is stressful and exhausting.

3. Disabled people need better access to mental health support and resources.

While the disabled community needs a better standard of cultural treatment, we also need access to mental health support specific for our experiences. The CDC reports that three out of 10 disabled adults are experiencing frequent mental distress. At the same time, the American Counseling Association reports that 47% of the US population lives in a mental health workforce shortage area. Already there are not enough mental health professionals for people requesting services. As an added challenge for disabled people, the standard training for mental health professionals does not include disability topics. So even when a disabled person gets access to mental health services, we may need to educate counselors and therapists on our condition before being able to benefit from the services.

Allies can make a difference for disabled people’s mental health.

What are a few ways that you can support the disability community? Move past your discomfort. See us as people. Listen to us actively and empathetically. Respect us and trust us to be aware of our capabilities and autonomy whenever possible.

Support us when we ask for assistance. Promote and advocate for accessibility, inclusivity, and improved resources. And understand that when our community’s mental health is improved, we become an even greater asset to society. Above all, center our voices and let us lead. We know our individual needs better than anyone else.

Getty image by Nataliia Nesterenko

Originally published: July 26, 2023
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