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Raising Awareness on Disability

Moving beyond inclusion to belonging 

4 min read

White & Case hosted Dr. Angélica Guevara, Hastie Fellow at the University of Wisconsin Law School, at a virtual event to raise awareness on disability and move the discussion beyond inclusion to belonging.

According to the World Health Organization, about 15 percent of the world's population lives with a disability. Dr. Guevara believes the figure is much higher. She said "many people are still in the closet, because they want to avoid the stigma attached to disability."

"I didn't read my first book until the 11th grade of high school. I was in over-crowded classrooms and no one noticed what was going on except for one teacher, and when the topic of disability was raised I said 'I am not disabled!'"

"I was hesitant to get tested because I was raised with the idea that if you are disabled you are not a whole person, and god is punishing you."

When Dr. Guevara was diagnosed, she cried, feeling "I am not unintelligent."

"How can we combat or overcome this stigma?" asked White & Case law clerk, Constantin Nuernberger, who moderated the session.

"It is asking yourself, 'how can we maximize human potential' whether a person has a disability or not," Dr. Guevara stated.

Raising Awareness on Disability

Social model of disability

There are a number of models of disability. The medical model, whereby doctors determine whether an individual has "an impairment or loss of function" predominates in society.

"The medical model promotes this idea that disability is a personal tragedy or some terrible life-changing event that occurs at random," said Dr. Guevara. "All of the messaging around that is 'you are impaired'."

But this fails to recognize illness differs from disability.

"The biggest issue with the medical model is it fixates that the problem is within the individual, and the individual is seen as damaged, not whole, or in need of fixing," she said.

The social model, however, empowers people with disabilities by positing that society disables individuals by requiring them to adapt to tools, systems and opportunities only suited to those who are able-bodied. Dr. Guevara shared an analogy of shoveling snow off stairs, while a wheelchair user waits for the ramp to be cleared.

"If the ramp is cleared first, everyone can use it; that's not the case the other way around," she said.

True disability justice comes from fixing the system to offer equal access to both tools and opportunities, rather than requiring people to adapt to the system.


Words have power

Apparent and non-apparent disability is an area with a lot of nuance around language and definitions.

"One of the challenges of engaging in candid conversations around bias and difference is our fear of using the wrong terminology or unintentionally offending others," said White & Case partner, Arlene Hahn, who opened the session. "It is therefore important that we each try to educate ourselves and lean into our discomfort. We all make mistakes, but if mistakes are made in the process of educating ourselves, then we should also all have the grace to forgive others and ourselves."

"Words have power and they can make a huge difference in the way people talk about themselves," said Dr Guevara.

Those who live with apparent or non-apparent disabilities make up an extremely diverse group, so it is critical that our approach to ensuring inclusion and belonging is similarly broad and inclusive.

"People don't realize that when they are using words in passing, that impacts people who are living with a disability," she said. "For example, using the word 'paralyzed' to describe feeling overwhelmed or stuck [at work] creates this idea that someone who is paralyzed is stuck or overwhelmed."

To really do away with stigma, "we need to accept that there is nothing wrong with a disabled person, because there are diverse ways of existing within the world," she said. "Don't view people with a disability with pity - you are just like me."

"Dr. Guevara's presentation showed us that if we all contribute to building a more inclusive society, one that embraces and values disability in all of its forms, there are no limits to what we can achieve collectively," said Constantin.

This was one in White & Case's ongoing series of educational events to promote allyship. The Firm wants to create a culture in which each of us understands what it means to be an effective ally so that we can be an inclusive Firm for all. Raising awareness of apparent and non-apparent disabilities is one step toward that goal.