4 ways to be a better disability ally
The term ‘ally’ is used by many different minority groups to describe those who, whilst not part of the group themselves, put the energy in to educate themselves and others, support those from the community and advocate for them. Despite our best efforts we all make mistakes from time to time, so why not check out 4 ways you can be a better disability ally?
Always assume competence
Many people with disabilities find themselves having to continually prove that they are competent and capable to the outside world. Many assume that those with a physical disability also have an intellectual disability when this is often not the case. This is not only an incorrect assumption, but the general lack of understanding that accompanies disability often makes people assume that they are incapable of doing things for themselves. If someone uses a wheelchair every day you can safely assume that they are capable of getting through a door or using a lift by themselves. Many well meaning people jump ahead and start to assist people before they have asked for help. This can lead to instances of people unintentionally being rude or even threatening. If a blind person is waiting to board a bus or cross a road you should always presume that they are capable of doing it independently, especially if they are on their own. Many people report being grabbed by strangers without warning as they attempt to ‘help’ them across the road etc. Far from helpful this can prove to be a frightening experience, as they have no control over the situation.
Many also assume that having a disability automatically means that that person won’t reach the same heights as a non-disabled person. This is a disservice to their ability to lead a fulfilling life. Often those with a disability are infantalised, even if this is not done on purpose, and they are congratulated for doing things which they see as perfectly normal and ordinary as people assume that they are not capable of leading a normal independent life.
One of the most important things we can do to make sure that we are being a good ally is to listen to those from the disability community when they speak, rather than speaking over them or for them. When you are trying to raise awareness about disability, the people you should listen to most are those experiencing it themselves. Narratives are often given through the eyes of the caregiver or parents, not that of the person with the disability. It is important to listen to what they have to say about their condition as they are the one that knows it best. Sharing tweets, Facebook posts, blogs and videos takes moments but sharing them for others to see helps to spread awareness and education directly from the people who are most affected. We have to make the effort to educate ourselves as we can’t expect them to educate us all one by one.
Make sure to be respectful
It is important to remember to respect a person’s aids as if they are part of that person, as many people view them in this way, as an extension of themselves. Whether it’s a wheelchair, a service dog, or a white cane these devices are crucial for the person to lead an independent life. They should be treated as part of the persons personal space. Often people will lean on someone’s wheelchair or ask to ‘have a go’ with another person’s crutches; this is seen as being just as impolite as standing on someone’s toes. Just as you would not go up to someone who is working and has a ‘do not disturb’ sign on their office door, you should not go up to a service dog and pet them especially without asking, as it could endanger the handler.
It is equally important to make sure that the language you use remains respectful. Make sure that you refrain from using disability as a metaphor for something negative, as in doing so you are implying that disability is the worst case possible and that it makes life less fulfilling.
Having patience is invaluable when being a disability ally. This is especially important regarding those who may have an ‘invisible disability’, as though people often state that they ‘don’t look sick’ there are still things that they will have difficulty with, even if it’s less obvious. It’s important not to be frustrated when people have to cancel plans or leave early, as it may simply be that they have to spend their energy on things that they have to do first, and that doesn’t always leave energy for things that they want to do. Things may take longer due to fatigue or confusion, and it’s important not to let this frustrate you. They need you to be understanding with them and show that they and their disability are not a burden.