How do I begin to include people with disabilities?

This is the most basic and legitimate question anyone who wants to be inclusive can ask. But it is also the most difficult question to answer.

The response lies in the encounter.

Photo of a girl sitting on a bench and a man sitting in a wheelchair talking with each other.

In fact, this has been the proposal of Dialogue in the Dark for 33 years, which we take from the phrase of the philosopher Martin Buber: "the only way to learn is through encounter".

Today there is scientific evidence that encounter promotes inclusion. In the case of the LGBTQ+ community, a minority towards which their perception has improved substantially at least in the US, this was because the LGBTQ+ community increased their contact and encounters with people who did not belong to their group.

The social psychology theory that supports this is called the contact hypothesis and was proposed in the 1940s by Harvard psychologist Gordon Allport.

This theory holds that when we encounter people, whose characteristics we perceive as unusual, our prejudices diminish, and we are able to develop a series of new, more constructive attitudes towards these people.

What happens when we allow ourselves to get to know someone? First of all, we take him or her out of the container group, i.e., if I refer to Haitian migrants to Mexico, I have them categorized in a group to which I assume characteristics such as: they are black skinned, they do not speak my language, they are poor and their features are rather African. This process generalizes and gives the same characteristics to all the people in the group, whom we do not even perceive as people, but rather as caricatured characters.

Secondly, when we meet someone and encounter their particularities, we humanize them and give them individuality by taking them out of the caricature we have made of their group.

In one study, it was shown that when white people were asked to look at photos of several black people and categorize them into age ranges, the white people showed significant activity in the amygdala, meaning that they perceived threat when looking at photos of this group. Then they were asked to take a picture of just one black person, and try to guess simple and particular details about that person: what would be his favorite fruit, what she enjoys most in life, something that bothers him a lot, her favorite color... In this case, by focusing on the person as an individual, the activity in the amygdala ceased.

According to the bridging differences initiative by the Greater Good Center, there are three basic steps to prepare ourselves and encourage these encounters, that humanize and give individuality to people we perceive as different from us:

  1. Give them a name to take them out of the group. The first step is to approach and know his or her name. It is never the same to have met Robert or Claudia as to have dealt with a person in a wheelchair.
  2. Imagine or ask some aspect of her/his daily life to create connection. Does s/he like to get up early or get up late? Watch TV or listen to music? What will make her/him angry and what will make him happy? It has been shown that this exercise, which can be merely imaginative or in person, has beneficial effects on finding common ground to begin interacting.
  3. Approach and ask. This is by far the best option. If you nurture your imaginations with true information there is no room for mistakes. Take care that your encounter is with an open mind, awaken your curiosity and ask respectful questions. Approach them just to get to know them better.

I clearly advocate meeting people with disabilities; however, these steps apply to anyone we perceive as unfamiliar to us.