When I look back on my experiences as a person with a disability, I quickly become thankful for those who took the time to be my ally. Oftentimes my allies have been the ones who keep me going; they’re the ones who remind me to keep fighting the good fight when I am exhausted.
Before I begin with the list, I need to define an ally. The Anti-Oppression Network defines an allyship as “an active, consistent and arduous practice of unlearning and reevaluating, in which a person of privilege seeks to operate in solidarity with a marginalized group of people.”
In summary, an ally is someone who supports the cause of a marginalized group — women, people of color, people with disabilities, people in the LGBTQ community, people with low income, etc. — and uses their privilege to learn from that group and amplify their cause.
Here are four key ways you can be an ally of the disability community. This is by no means a comprehensive list.
- Watch your language. I know, people feel like their language is constantly being policed to “avoid offending someone.” As a communications major, I understand that certain words carry a lot of weight. While going through a language quiz concerning words and disability with youth participants at Paraquad, I provide them with this quote: “Our words affect our thoughts, our thoughts affect our beliefs, our beliefs affect our feelings, our feelings affect our behavior and our behavior affects the world.” It all starts with the words we choose to use on a daily basis. At first, it’s hard to change using the words that come so naturally to you. I still struggle to avoid using certain words, but I’m making an effort. Making an effort is all I would like you to do. After a while, it becomes more natural. If you’re unsure about which words are appropriate, consult Paraquad’s Words with Dignity sheet. When talking with people with disabilities, ask them which words they feel comfortable hearing. It’s as simple as that. Some words that make me cringe may be someone else’s preference.
- Avoid sensationalizing our day-to-day lives. Nothing infuriates me more than doing the most mundane tasks and hearing a patronizing, “Good job! You’re so amazing!” These tasks have ranged from grabbing a bag of grapes at the grocery store to eating lunch during a busy work day to paying for my shopping addiction. It’s patronizing because these things are daily occurrences for just about any other young adult. If, at age 26, I haven’t figured out how to manage lunch, then what am I doing with my life? I remember having a discussion with one of my close friends about this. We’ve been friends for several years, and I was raving about the idea of people calling me “inspirational.” We had a long talk, and it wasn’t until she attended a disability conference with me before she realized that I am about as average as they come with different challenges. It doesn’t make me exceptional. My personality does not permit me to sit at home and do nothing. My personality forces me out of the house, to a job and to be involved in relationships. It’s me being me, not my disability overcoming obstacles.
- Recognize that our disability is not who we are but it is part of our identity. I am not “wheelchair girl.” I also do not like it when you say, “I forget that you’re disabled!” Both of those are opposites on a spectrum. The first identifies me as my disability. I am not my wheelchair, and my wheelchair is not me; we are not one (include the obligatory “ohm”). It is never OK to refer to someone by their mobility device. The mobility device certainly helps us out, but it’s not who we are. On the other hand, pretending like I don’t have a disability is unhelpful. There was a time I appreciated it because so much of my life I was the “wheelchair girl,” and people being able to overlook my disability meant that they liked who I was. Now, I’ve found comfort in not being known by my disability but in also realizing that my disability is part of me. It’s still a driving factor of the person I am today. It’s something I am always aware of because of steps, parking spaces and requiring assistance. You’re forgetting an important part of my identity. While my disability is not who I am, it helped shape me into the person I am today.
- Be a part of the movement. The first step in being a part of the movement is becoming educated. Learn about the disability rights movement. Find out what laws protect us. Commit to memory our leaders’ names and what they accomplished. After you have become educated, you can start doing your part. If I’m being quiet about a certain injustice for various reasons, take matters into your own hands. I’ve been quiet in certain situations, and my friends are the ones who stand up for me and acknowledge when something is not right. Support me when I try to fix a situation. One time I parked in an accessible spot with plenty of room for my lift to let me in and out. I went inside and came out to find someone parked next to me. The manager of the store found the person and asked them to move their car for parking illegally. It was that little bit of effort that saved me from having to wait until that person was ready to leave. On a grander scale, show up to movements. If there is a disability rights protest, join in. If your district is trying to pass a bill, support it. Write or call your legislator to fix a problem.
After writing this list, I realized that these ideas aren’t strictly related to disability. They can relate to any marginalized group. Watch your language, avoid sensationalizing, recognize our identity is part of who we are and be a part of the movement. We can certainly fight this fight on our own, but it would be much easier with our allies behind us whispering encouraging words and reminding us that we deserve the same respect and treatment as anyone else.
Anna Corbitt is the Youth and Family Specialist at Paraquad. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.