I really love birthdays. I tend to be a pretty celebratory person and, to me, birthdays are a great way to pause and tell someone, “Hey, the world is a better place because you are in it!” In a similar spirit, the United Nations organizes commemorative days to celebrate and increase awareness of certain populations. Thanks to the United Nations, December 3rd is International Day of Persons with Disabilities (note: please see our December 2021 blog for more information around the importance of identity first language). In other words, the United Nations is at the forefront of broadcasting a truth our communities need to hear again and again: “Hey, the world is a better place because disabled people are in it!”
More than one good way to do it
As a freshman in World History, I learned a word that changed everything: ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism occurs when we view our own culture as the barometer of “normal” and “right” and evaluate other cultures based on how they compare to our own. Our culture–whatever it is–isn’t “normal;” it’s ours. It’s what we’re used to. It’s, hopefully, a way of life that makes sense for us and our values. The thing about ethnocentrism is this: it’s not bad to take pride in our culture, but it IS problematic to forget that there’s more than one good way to approach life.
It is not uncommon for families to start their journey with us because their child is having a really hard time. They’re getting notes from the school that say, for example, their child can’t show them a still body and is regularly having mountain sized reactions to molehill sized problems: melting down on the floor; not respecting classmate’s personal space bubbles; and calling out. As we do a little more digging and getting to know the child and the family, we come to see that all behavior is the child’s best (often messy and unsuccessful) attempt to meet a need. The kiddo isn’t bad or willfully disobedient. Instead, they may be over-stimulated by the noise or visual input of an environment, or understimulated by the pace of work or the solitary nature of assignments, or the kiddo may be incredibly perceptive–far more than their peers–and thus may have a significantly higher need for more frequent regulatory experiences because it’s overwhelming to notice so much!
The kiddo has been gifted with a beautiful, neuorodivergent brain and the neurotypical environments can inadvertently fail to recognize that their norms are geared towards one neurotype (think, “people who do best when they have: a still body, rooms with bright fluorescent lights, teachers with microphones, the ability to learn through lecture, and the ability to sit in their seat and effortlessly to read in order to solve math problems”, etc.). Much like learning about ethnocentrism taught me that my culture is ONE approach to life, I hope this hypothetical classroom–or home, or extracurricular activity, or religious space–has illustrated how a neurotypical environment’s design inherently disadvantages other neurotypes. That phenomenon is called neurotypical privilege. For a clear video representation of this, watch this lego-themed video about neurodiversity, neurotypical privilege, and why accommodations level the playing field.
Here’s a powerful reframe: it’s not that neurodivergent folks necessarily have more needs than their neurotypical peers, rather it’s that many environments–like a dedicated butler–inherently meet neurotypical needs without their having to have been voiced. The needs are automatically anticipated and met. Auditory learners do great in lecture based classes because they are automatically presented with information in the modality that makes the most sense for their brain. High school students have adult sized–not PreK sized–chairs; their bodies are comfortable so they can focus on learning, not spending 45 minutes finding a workable position. People whose brains thrive on routines and order excel at regular schedules and agenda books because that’s what makes sense to their brains already. They’re not superior beings–they’re just presented with information in a way that inherently makes sense to their brains.
Universal design is the concept of having an environment that, in meeting the particular needs of a group, makes the environment more accessible for everyone who encounters it. A classic example is curb cuts: they were originally designed to make roads and sidewalks more accessible for wheelchair users. In time, caregivers with strollers, bikers, and people who have difficulty with steps, benefitted from them. Anyone who doesn’t fall into those categories is no worse off for having them.
So, as we celebrate International Day of Persons with Disabilities, I encourage you to take stock of your own environments and question how it might be set up to meet neurotypical needs and how you can shift it to become a universal design. Here are some starting points:
Sight: Overhead and fluorescent lights can be intense–and for some people, might trigger migraines or meltdowns. Try using lamps, dimmer switches, or light covers. Strive for a balance between bare minimalism and overwhelming brightness. While we want environments to be welcoming (often achieved through soft pillows or colorful artwork or signs), sometimes there’s so much to take in that it becomes a distraction.
Seating: Recognize that different bodies need different things. Some bodies need to sit up tall with feet on the floor. Others need a wiggle seat. Others a yoga ball. Others a kick-band around their chair legs. For others, standing desks are the name of the game.
Sound: For some people, background noise (white noise, music, etc.) is really soothing. For others, it’s distracting! Take a pulse and see who you’re working with. To increase sound, use whisper phones and airpods. To decrease sound, check out noise reducing earplugs or noise canceling headphones.
Smells: Like sound, smell is one that can be highly divisive. For some people, scented lotions and diffusers are incredibly soothing. For others, particular smells are extremely aversive. Know who’s coming into your environment and adjust accordingly.
Fidgets: Although there are a host of great commercial fidgets (especially popular in our playroom are the “pinpressions” toy and the infinity cube), anything can become a fidget: a clicky pen, a strip of velcro inside of or on the underside of a desk, a paperclip, a piece of string. Movement–in this case, fine motor movement–is regulating. Fidgets can be really helpful in improving focus and decreasing anxiety.
Movement: Normalize frequent breaks! Though the frequency varies (i.e. little kids = every 15-20; everyone else = every 60-90 minutes) we all need to get up and move our bodies for 1-5 minutes regularly. This could be a dance party, chair yoga, a lap around the office, a series of burpees, or any other type of movement that feels good to the group and fits the limits of the environment.
Multi-modal approaches to learning: Understand that all brains learn differently. Some thrive on audio-visual input, others through kinesthetic learning, while others still learn through reading (and on and on). Know that the way that makes sense to you may not be the way that makes sense for others and play around with it. At home, this could mean adding subtitles to a family TV show, creating a visual schedule instead of orally providing directions, or teaching someone a new skill (from braiding hair to changing tires) by doing it together.
Access to food and drink: Normalize access to water/tea and snacks. Some bodies thrive on three square meals a day while others need intermittent nourishment that several small meals provide. Although being “hangry” has gained some awareness as a phenomenon, it’s more than a catchy phrase. When we reach a certain level of hunger or thirst (or fatigue or pain), our nervous systems go into fight or flight mode. This translates to us being on high alert and with diminished executive functioning capacities. While bearing in mind that some foods are more prone to create a disaster in a shared environment (mental image: greasy french fries cooked in peanut oil–finger prints on shared materials, crumbs on the floor, ketchup everywhere, someone experiencing an allergic reaction–or fear of one), generally water and hand held fruits (grapes, apple slices, berries) are a safe bet.
This is not an exhaustive list–just a place to start your questioning. Remember that knowing who you’re sharing a space with is the key to creating a universally designed one. Take what you know to begin, and then engage in conversation, learning and adapting as you go along. And celebrate all the people in your life, remembering that the world is a better place because of all our differences, and because no ability level or way of being is inherently superior to another.
Janelle McCarthy, LGPC
Licensed Graduate Professional Counselor