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In the Disability Community Disabled people often feel unheard or not acknowledged. This often happens due to non-disabled people dismissing or ignoring what is being said and happens frequently in medical settings, with friends, family, and society as a whole. This can be seen and heard by the countless Disability activists and advocates who post to social media to educate the general population on their experiences and topics, to only gain a plethora of gaslighting and ableist comments. Disabled people have been screaming from the top of their lungs to be listened to about what they are experiencing, need, want, or desire. Alas, Disabled people are infantilized, patronized, or regarded as incompetent, and this continues to be a major issue because of the blatant ableism and the fact Disabled people are not being actively listened to.
Non-disabled people will often listen to Disabled people to respond with their own anecdotes, beliefs, or advice to show support and care. However, in most cases Disabled people and well really anyone will respond better when they are not given unsolicited advice, toxic positivity, or the focus shifted away from them. This is where active listening comes into play, and it is such an important skill to have regardless of being Disabled or not.
Active listening is not passively listening to someone, as it requires attention, reflection, and empathy. This sounds easier than it is, because your brain wants to find the quickest solution, trail off into your own thoughts, or share a relatable story to connect. While you may think that you are active listening and being a compassionate person towards a Disabled person, it really demonstrates the opposite, and the Disabled person may feel invalidated. Active listening involves body language, posture, spoken and unspoken words, and keep in mind that verbal words are not necessary to listen. Some Disabled people use augmentative and alternative communication devices or use written words to communicate, and these are all valid ways to express thoughts, ideas, and emotions.
There are 5 basic steps of active listening, and they are as follows:
Pay attention/Be present
- Simplify your surroundings
- Set a comfortable tone
- Allow time and opportunity for the other person to think and express themselves
- Pay attention to your frame of mind as well as your body language
- Be focused on the moment and operate from a place of respect
- Suppress the urge to think about what you’re going to say next or to multitask
- Approach each dialogue with the goal to learn something
- Use brief, positive prompts to keep the conversation going and show you are listening (Mhmm, or nods)
- Acknowledge the person’s concerns, issues, and feelings
- Be open to new ideas, new perspectives, and new possibilities
- Suspend judgment
- Hold any criticism and avoid arguing
- There is no need to agree or disagree with what is being said or evaluate the statements being made
- Allow for silence, avoid trying to fill moments of silence
- Mirror the other person’s information and emotions by paraphrasing key points
- Avoid assuming that you understand correctly
- Reflecting is a way to indicate that you and the person are on the same page
- Ask questions about any issue that are ambiguous or unclear
- Ask open-ended, clarifying, and probing questions (no closed answers such as yes or no)
- Be mindful of facial expressions, tone of voice, and other behaviors
- Encourage them to expand their ideas, while inviting reflection and thoughtful response
- Restating key themes confirms and solidifies your grasp of the other person’s point of view
- Helps both parties to be clear on mutual responsibilities and follow-up
- Briefly summarize what you have understood as you listened, and ask the other person to do the same
- Share pertinent information, observations, insights, and experiences. Then listen carefully to confirm
In some cases, there maybe an opportunity where some advice or suggestion can take place. However, ensure you get consent from the person by asking if they would mind being given any advice or suggestions, but if they say no then respect their choice.
All Disabled people want is to be acknowledged and heard, especially when it comes to their experiences and information being shared. While active listening will not single-handedly deconstruct the ableism, patronization, or infantilization that occurs in Disabled people’s lives, but it is the first step to validate and empathize with the disabled experience.