What do you know about canaries? I’m about to do a deep dive.

Surprisingly enough this directly relates to disability advocacy.

According to Wikipedia, canaries were used to detect carbon monoxide in coal mining from around 1913, when they realized that toxic gases such as carbon monoxide or asphyxiant gases such as methane in the mine would affect the bird before affecting the miners.

Canaries are songbirds, and so when the birds stopped singing, their silence alerted miners to the fact that conditions were unsafe.


The birds were generally kept in carriers which had small oxygen bottles attached to revive the birds, so that they could be used multiple times within the mine.


The phrase “canary in a coal mine” comes from this practice, and is frequently used to refer to a person or thing which serves as an early warning of a coming crisis.


I am convinced that folks with disabilities are some of canaries in the coal mine of our society. We are much more frequently affected – to a greater degree, and much sooner – by societal changes or toxins that are actually of harm to humanity in general.


This is true when it comes to obvious correlations like health care and the social safety net. It’s also true when it comes to the way in which we construct our houses, the capacity for social connection/cohesion, and the chemicals we are putting in our food supply.


Listening to and valuing the input of the disabled folks around you is good for them, but it may also be good for you.


So if you are living with someone with a disability I would encourage you to listen to them – to value their insight. Just because something doesn’t consciously hurt you, doesn’t mean it isn’t hurting you. You may be surprised how much better life could be!

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