I first met Chris Hilderbrant when we spoke at the Women’s March here in Rochester. As an advocate for people with disabilities, and a consultant, I thought it would be great to talk with him about how to be an ally to people with disabilities.
SG: Could you tell me a little about your background?
CH: My journey with disability started at the age of 14, when I broke my neck. I’ve had 27 years of personal experience with a disability. I graduated from Nazareth College with a degree in Sociology, and started working part time at Center for Disability Rights, working one on one with individuals with developmental disabilities or traumatic brain injuries. That broadened my horizon because I was working with people who had different disabilities than mine. After working in direct service for several years, I became the director of advocacy, for seven years, and then worked as Chief Operating Officer for three years. After leaving CDR, I was the COO at Common Ground Health and now I run my own consulting business (Chris Hilderbrant Consulting), I’m on the adjunct faculty at MCC, and I play wheelchair rugby. In terms of family life, my wife, Jill, and I have been married for 13 years. We have two children, Annika and Kyle.
SG: How has the current presidential administration challenged people with disabilities?
CH: People with disabilities have always been left out, even when other minority groups may have been a little more included. When Trump got elected, a lot of us felt disheartened. We all saw how openly and flagrantly he mocked the reporter with disability. And beyond just his behavior, the presidency has a lot of power over our lives. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act is essentially our civil rights legislation. This administration could just choose not to enforce it. This list of concerns goes on and on, including very visible attacks on Medicaid and health care.
SG: Do you feel that Rochester is welcoming to people with disabilities?
CH: I think disabilities are on the radar here in Rochester, which is the result of advocacy and the disability community being visible. Organizations and individuals have worked hard to make the community aware of the barriers society creates for people with disabilities and what needs to be done to remove those barriers. For example, Rochester has a very large deaf population and because of that, you’ll often see people in customer service roles communicating in sign language. Still, there is definitely work to be done to ensure that people with disabilities are able to be equally part of the greater Rochester community.
SG: Are there any statistics you can share about people with disabilities?
CH: The US Census consistently reports that almost 1 out of 5 people have some kind of disability, and around 12% have a more significant disability. Having a disability is an important part of someone’s life.
SG: How can those who don’t have a disability be a better ally?
CH: I think a key step is to understand better and to do that, you have to let go of stereotypes and assumptions. I’ve experienced a lot of people who are amazed that I can do the most mundane things, like shopping. People stop and tell me how much of an inspiration I am, but behind that, I kind of hear, “wow, it must suck living in a wheelchair.” I am privileged in many respects: I’m a white male, neither young nor old, but people are still surprised to hear that I’ve always worked full time and the jobs which I have held.
I also think that those without disabilities need to work on their inclusivity. For example, if you are planning an event, get those of us with disabilities involved, so we can provide perspective, and ensure we have access to the event. There’s no substitute for the real life experience of people with disabilities. Also, if a business does access wrong, it really is a negative and the disability community will know about it. When you’re damaged your reputation, it’s really hard to restore it.
Being a better ally means trusting us. Trust people with disabilities speak their truth, and speak about their experiences, even if it’s different than what you expected. Disability has a community, culture, and pride, like many other minority groups. There are many chances to get involved and to experience this and to lend your voice or your effort to advocacy for the rights of people with disabilities.
Being a better ally means being an ally all the time, even when it isn’t popular. You may have to confront friends or family members about their attitudes or use of derogatory terms about disability. This isn’t always well-received, but it is this type of hard work that can make society better.