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Disability Awareness: Eight ways to become an ally against ableism

The recent spike in activism and civil rights advocacy has opened the minds of many and encouraged many more to better educate themselves on the history, the lives and the experiences of others. While it’s encouraging to see people lending their voices to help advocate for civil rights, sometimes your voice can drown out the people who really need to speak.

This is especially true for people with disabilities who are often overshadowed by well-intentioned non-disabled people trying to help – but who are really contributing toward the ongoing struggle against ableism. Here are eight ways to be a good ally for people with disabilities and against ableism.

1. Don’t be afraid to ask questions

You’ve probably heard this one before, but how often have you plucked up the courage and asked the question? It’s understandable – you don’t want to say something wrong and cause offense. But by remaining ignorant, you’re running the risk of saying or doing something inappropriate in the future. Put aside your discomfort (it’s probably misplaced anyway) and ask your question. Just make sure you are being polite and respectful. Focus your question on that person’s individual experiences, rather than expecting them to serve as a spokesperson for all disabled people.

Respect that the person with disabilities probably knows a lot more about what they’re talking about than you do, so be open-minded and respectful even if you don’t necessarily agree with their answer.

2. Don’t assume a person with disabilities needs help

Ableism is often born out of the urge to help. While it can be comforting and reassuring to know that non-disabled people are ready to assist whenever the need arises, for people with disabilities, it can be humiliating when someone imposes help where it’s not needed – and without asking first!

For wheelchair users, this can often be when a non-disabled person takes control of their wheelchair without asking – to help them through a doorway or up a ramp. Often, this help is unnecessary and more importantly, can leave the wheelchair user feeling embarrassed, or even in danger if not handled correctly. Understanding that a wheelchair is more than a device, it is an extension to a person’s being and should be treated as such, is the first step to respecting a person’s boundaries and personal space.

3. Don’t assume a person with disabilities is miserable

People with disabilities aren’t inherently miserable! Just because someone has a disability does not mean they cannot enjoy the same things that you enjoy. Like anyone else, people with disabilities find ways to adapt so they can work, travel and enjoy life to the full.

Non-disabled people often sensationalise the way people with disabilities adapt, describe it as inspiring or something to be celebrated – saying that they’ve overcome their disability. But to people with disabilities, this is just everyday life and making a big deal out of it is often seen as patronising and can be really embarrassing.

4. Don’t engage with “inspiration porn”

The late Australian comedian, journalist and disability rights activist, Stella Young, coined the term “Inspiration Porn” to describe the internet phenomena of people using disabilities to evoke pity or share an uplifting moral message (aimed primarily at non-disabled viewers).

Stories that hold people with disabilities up as extraordinary for being able to do something quite ordinary in everyday life, and portraying disabled people just as inspirational props for heart-warming stories that aim to motivate non-disabled people to power through their own struggles, only serves to objectify people with disabilities and promote the false idea that their lives are far worse that that of a non-disabled person.

Instead of sharing “inspiration porn” online, consider sharing blogs and videos created by people with disabilities, to challenge other peoples’ biases and to help amplify the voices of people with disabilities.

5. Do make reasonable adjustments

Be as much an ally offline as you are online. Whether it’s at work, at home or with your friends, try to be inclusive of people with disabilities – hidden or visible!

This could mean considering disabled access when choosing a meeting room at work, so that a colleague who uses a wheelchair can more easily attend. Or it could be that you’re planning an evening out with your friends, and you plan to avoid loud, overwhelming spaces for your neurodivergent friends.

It might feel like a lot to consider now, but the more you do this, the easier it becomes. It will feel like a natural (almost subconscious) part of your planning process. We’ve spoken about how to combat ableism in the workplace in a separate blog – find out more.

6. Do remember that some disabilities are invisible

Not every disability is visible. Too many people assume they know what disability looks like and what people with disabilities look like (often picturing a wheelchair), but there’s a wide range of disabilities that can affect mobility, vision, hearing, communication, social relationships and more.

7. Do your own research

You’re doing it now! While it’s often good to ask questions that help you to understand the needs of a person with disabilities, don’t assume that you’re entitled to an answer. Consider how many times that person will have been asked the same thing, again and again. They didn’t sign up to educating non-disabled people in matters of disability.

Challenge your own biases and do your own research by reading blogs and articles or watching videos created by people with disabilities or by charities and organisations dedicated to disability awareness.

8. Do listen to people with disabilities

Last but most certainly not least, listen to the voices of people with disabilities. Learn from those who’ve had a lifetime of living with and adapting to their disability. Recognise that many people see their disability as part of their identity (what makes them, well, them). Being an ally is about amplifying those voices, not speaking over them.

Dismissing the voices of people who are often marginalised by society has a huge impact. For example, many studies have found evidence to back up the many anecdotal stories that there is racial bias in healthcare and treatment, with black people less likely to be believed and correctly diagnosed. When combined with gender bias, black women are even less likely to receive proper care and support. It’s important to believe what people are telling you about their own lived experiences.

Listen to the stories of people with disabilities and amplify their voices, donate to charities that support people with disabilities, sign petitions and spread the word. But most of all, accept that even you might make mistakes or hold biases. Take what you learn and apply it to what you do. That’s how to be an ally.

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