You don’t have to be disabled to enjoy my content or engage with me on social media, and indeed I have had many wonderful interactions with people who call themselves an “ally” to the disabled community. Unfortunately, I have had just as many negative interactions with others who also call themselves allies, where my experiences of being disabled are ignored our outright contradicted in favour of their own perspectives. Many harmful misconceptions have originated from people who are genuinely trying to be a good ally, unintentionally, and often disabled people are wary of those who call themselves allies just in case their actions contradict the label.
So, if you’re an ally to disabled people, how do you make sure you’re one of the good ones?
First and foremost, it is important to listen to disabled people instead of speaking over or for us. Where disability is concerned the experts are disabled people, not those who care for us, work with us, or study disability in an academic setting. That’s not to devalue disability studies, which is an important subject, but any good school will still centre the experiences of disabled people as the source of evidence in their research. Furthermore, I have encountered far too many parents and carers who claim to know what it is like to be disabled because their child or client is disabled, or medics who conflate being an expert in the physiology of a particular condition to being an expert on what it means to live with that condition. If you want to know what it means to be disabled, you need to be speaking to disabled people.
Another way in which listening to disabled people will help you become a good ally is when it comes to physically aiding us with a task. If you see a disabled person who you think could use a hand, it’s important to ask if they need help first, and even more important to listen to the response. It’s important to avoid just grabbing a disabled person (or anyone really) unless there is an immediate danger; for someone who cannot see or hear your approach a sudden grab is startling and disorienting, and for others even a light touch can be physically painful.
Once you’ve asked us if we need assistance, the next step is to listen to our response. Too many times I have suffered strained muscles in my shoulders and wrist when doors have been wrenched from my hands even when I’ve declined help, and on one occasion I had boiling water spilt on my lap because someone refused to believe that I could carry my own coffee. Frustratingly, these injuries are often used as justification for providing “help” in the first place, even though the injury would not have occurred had they simply listened to us first. If a disabled person declines help, they don’t need help!
A good ally for disabled people will also recognise that not all disabilities are visible. Were it not for the use of mobility aids to get around, my own disabilities would be completely invisible on the surface. There are plenty of individuals with the same medical conditions as myself who cannot afford or do not need mobility aids, but they are still a part of the disabled community. There are also many disabled people who only need accessibility aids some of the time, so seeing someone with and without a certain aid does not mean they are faking their condition. Indeed, the myth that disability is something that can be easily faked for attention or even financial gain does significant harm to disabled people, meaning that we are subjected to exhausting invasions of our privacy in order to become eligible to receive aid. Someone who accuses people of faking their condition is no ally.
Finally, a good ally will advocate for accessibility, even when no disabled person appears to be present. Ask that alt text on images and subtitles are made available. Question the lack of a ramp or lift where there are stairs. Untangle alarm cords in accessible bathrooms when they are tucked out of reach. Twelve years after the introduction of the Equality Act, and almost thirty since legislation demanding equality for disabled people, there is little to no excuse for inaccessibility. There are plenty of grants and schemes to help people become more accessible, even where listed buildings are involved. Challenging inaccessibility is not unreasonable.
If you follow these four, basic rules, chances are you will be a wonderful ally to disabled people. True allies are always appreciated, especially as hostilities towards marginalised groups are on the rise. Even just reading this blog post is a good step towards becoming an ally, and for that, I thank you.
You can find out how to be a good ally to LGBTQAI+ people here.