In my treks over the internet, I have seen various people (mostly social justice people) worrying that they are somehow harming Real disabled people if they use a wheelchair if they can still walk a little or use stim toys or these nifty color communication badges if they aren’t autistic. Similarly, I have seen various people (mostly anti-social-justice people) who believe that Fake Disabled People are running around pretending to be disabled and using color communication badges and wheelchairs and so on, and this hurts disabled people somehow (they have never quite specified how).
This is completely fucking wrong.
In universal design, there’s something called the curb cut effect. Basically, things intended to benefit people with disabilities wind up benefiting everyone. Curb cuts, which are intended for wheelchair users to be able to get on sidewalks, help bicyclists, parents with strollers, delivery people, and a dozen other nondisabled groups. Similarly, closed captioning, which was originally meant to benefit Deaf people, helps people who have trouble with auditory information processing (hi!), people who like talking during films, and people trying to watch TV in noisy bars.
The curb cut effect is accessibility activists’ secret weapon. You see, people don’t generally want to accommodate disabled people any more than they have to. Accommodating disabled people is a pain in the neck, and disabled people are generally a small and relatively powerless group with limited ability to complain. However, if any TV network tries to remove closed captioning, they won’t just have to put up with complaints from Deaf people. They will have to put up with complaints from everyone who has ever tried to watch TV in a noisy bar. The latter is far more likely to strike fear in the TV executive’s heart.
Furthermore, pretty much anything that’s limited to disabled people only has to have some sort of process for figuring out who’s disabled. This presents numerous issues. Many disabled people don’t know they’re disabled. (Raise your hand if you’ve had a conversation with someone who thinks that ADD or depression isn’t real because everyone acts like that, right?) Many disabled people struggle with feeling like “fakers” and won’t ask for accommodations that they need. Many disabled people who do know they’re disabled can’t prove it: healthcare access is often limited for poor people, people of color, trans people, and so on; navigating bureaucracy requires skills like being able to talk to people, show up places at a scheduled time, and do things that you intended to do, that many mental illnesses and developmental disabilities make difficult. Every time you say “this is for disabled people only”– whether by limiting it to disabled people institutionally or by criticizing people who do it and whom you don’t think are disabled enough– a lot of disabled people don’t get access to it.
Sometimes this is a cost worth paying. For instance, we can’t let everyone bring their dogs into every public space, because service dogs have to be specially trained to not be disruptive in stressful situations. This training is expensive but service dogs are usually free, meaning that the number of service dogs available is limited, so we can’t have service dogs available to everyone who wants one. In this case, the alternatives are much worse and the cost is worth paying. But the cost is still a cost.
And notice that the people who decide who gets service dogs are the client’s medical professionals, not random strangers. It is never okay for random strangers to decide if someone is disabled enough for an accommodation. For instance, some store owners will only let service dogs in if they think the person is “really” disabled. This is wrong (and also illegal by the Americans with Disabilities Act). Other people will make fun of wheelchair users who can stand up. It is a major violation of privacy to expect random strangers to disclose their private medical history to you. You are far more likely to be harassing an actually disabled person to be criticizing a nondisabled person. And even if the person is nondisabled… who cares? Nondisabled people using wheelchairs does nothing but create a larger pro-wheelchair demographic, which benefits disabled wheelchair users. There is no call to be the Disability Police.
For a specific example, consider one of my friends, who started flapping his hands when he was happy because he thought it was adorable and later found out that flapping your hands when happy is a common symptom of autism. He freaked out, worrying that he was appropriating autism somehow. However (as I told him at the time) actually nonautistics flapping their hands works out great for autistic people. A culture in which the default reaction to happy hand-flapping is “ohmigod, adorable” rather than “you freak” is a culture in which autistic people do not have to waste energy suppressing their natural ways of moving. And because he’s nonautistic, it’s much easier for him to explain to people who dislike hand-flapping why it is wrong to do so, which helps to create a more welcoming environment for autistic people.
Similarly, I’m nonautistic, but I do flap my hands when I’m experiencing intense emotion. Unlike many autistic people, it is possible for me to stop. Think about it like not smiling when you’re happy: it’s possible for most people to do so (especially if they get mocked for being weird every time they smile) but instead of being fully present in the moment you’d have to be continually conscious of your facial expression lest your lip twitch when you’re not thinking about it. If we say “you must be This Autistic to flap”, then I still have to police what my hands are doing, which goes against the whole point. But if we say “everyone gets to express happiness in the way most natural to them, unless you express happiness by punching people in the face or something”, then everyone gets to express happiness in the way most natural to them (yay!) and we have lots of people invested in creating a culture where that stays true (yay!).
In conclusion: if an accommodation helps you and you can get it without proving you’re disabled (i.e. as you must to get a service dog), you should use it. If using a wheelchair helps you move faster and farther than you would otherwise, use a wheelchair. If stimming makes you happy, stim. If those nifty communication cards help you express your communication preferences (and they are available at whatever event you’re at, which seriously why is that not every event, they are so cool), use them. And it is wrong to disability police people. If someone does not seem disabled enough to use an accommodation to you, then you should be quiet and mind your own business instead of harassing them about it. In the vast majority of cases, nondisabled and less disabled people using something is helpful to more severely disabled people, and when it is not, it is the job of medical professionals to decide, not you.