Social Connectedness and Disability: the Importance of Creating Respectful Conversations between People

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Michelle Woolfrey takes the mic to start conversations about disability.

According to the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, there are more than three million Canadians with disabilities and more than 2.3 million families in Canada who provide day-to-day support for a family member with a disability. The Council also says that “exclusion and a lack of access to disability supports perpetuate the poverty of people with disabilities and their families. The result is isolation, increased vulnerability, and limited opportunity… to participate and be valued as full citizens.” With this knowledge, it is more important than ever to work with and learn from people with disabilities in order to understand more about how communities can increase social connectedness.

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Michelle Woolfrey is a student at Ryerson University studying Law & Human Rights, and currently works at the university’s Student Learning Support Department. She is also an accomplished public speaker who has travelled all over Canada to address a number of topics, namely those surrounding disability. At around 16 years old, Woolfrey lost all vision in both eyes over the course of two years. Through her struggle and personal journey, she has become an advocate and community leader for disability rights and acceptance. “Disability is still sort of a taboo topic, it’s something that doesn’t get talked about very openly,” says Woolfrey. “It’s something that – at least in my experience as someone with a visible disability – is a roadblock to social connectedness .”

When asked what able-bodied people should understand better when talking to people with physical disabilities in their community, Woolfrey says that the biggest thing that people ask her is, “What’s your disability?” She suggests that people should, “start a conversation, don’t make the conversation surrounding the disability – we all have passions and hobbies. Disability is just one part of my identity.”

By advocating about disability through public speaking, Woolfrey believes that in order for communities to become safe spaces, they first need to feel comfortable talking to people with disabilities. “Able-bodied people find it hard to connect with people with disabilities because it’s something society says we shouldn’t talk about,” says Woolfrey. “And so as a person with a disability it leads to a lot of isolation…” Woolfrey also says that she has found many able-bodied people to be curious about disability, but too afraid to ask questions. “Sometimes people try to find the most politically correct way to say things and stress so much about it that they end up not asking the question at all. Just ask with respect and be honest,” she says.

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On  the topic of respect, Woolfrey adds, “I think it’s important to name your privilege – I love it when people come to me and say, ‘I am curious about your disability but I don’t know enough about this, please tell me if this is offensive at all.’ This gives me the power to teach someone, it empowers me.” In acknowledging able-bodied privilege, Woolfrey says that communities can empower those with disabilities and “shift that power dynamic that is so often found in society, that says I shouldn’t be able to teach you about disability because I am considered ‘less than’.”

In her experience, Woolfrey says that it crucial to, “respect boundaries – this has been a lesson I have learned in my job. Not everyone is willing to share as openly as myself about disability and that is okay. I also have to respect that boundary in my workplace and be intuitive.” At her workplace, Woolfrey has taken every opportunity to be an educator about her disability in the hopes that able-bodied people will learn to shed their discomfort. “What’s nice about my position is that I am able to teach my co-workers about disability, as they are confronted with disability in a way that you can’t avoid, so we have to just get it out of the way.”

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Woolfrey also feels that the bonds she has made with her co-workers “creates a space where students who come to us can see this. I am naturally a person who is very open about my disability, and one of the things we strive to do in the [Student Learning Support] Department is to make students feel comfortable,” she says. “By my co-workers being comfortable around disability, it shows students that they are welcome to be there and be who they want to be no matter what.”

In striving to create social connectedness between able-bodied people and people with physical disabilities, Woolfrey feels that safe spaces can be created through respectful communication and empowerment. “I think that this lack of communication needs to change,” Woolfrey says. “If people with disabilities are going to have an equitable place in the world, we need to talk about it.”

For more information, please visit: michellewoolfrey.com