Top 5 tips for being a good disability ally

By Steph Ryde

As allies, non-disabled individuals can use their privilege to amplify disabled people’s voices and activism. Becoming an ally can seem daunting and many people shy away from it as they are afraid of making a mistake. In truth, we all make mistakes as allies – holding yourself and others accountable when mistakes are pointed out to you is a crucial component of being an ally. To help you navigate the waters of ally-ship we have provided some tips to get you started.  

1. Be aware of your privilege.

Because society is designed to meet the needs of non-disabled people, there are many things that require more effort or thought for people with some kinds of disabilities for a wide range of reasons. Getting dressed, making lunch, using public transport, and communicating to others are all activities that for many people are dependent on energy and pain levels, degrees of mobility, or support from other people.  By being aware of your privilege and what you don’t have to do or think about on a daily basis you can start to consider what it would be like for someone without this privilege.

Try this. The next time you’re at an event be aware of how the activities that you engage in could be alienating to people with a range of disabilities and perhaps keeping them from being a part of the community.  Consider the spaces that you meet in and the activities that you do. Is there a way that these can be more inclusive? What about this space is disabling to people with a range of needs?

2. Don’t define people by their disabilities.

When speaking, mention the person first and only refer to the disability if necessary.  For example, instead of saying ‘my friend in a wheelchair, Chris, is coming to the party’ say ‘my friend Chris is coming to the party and she uses a wheelchair’ if that fact is relevant to preparations for the party, e.g. finding out if the venue is accessible.  Small changes in wording and phrasing can make a big difference when it comes to inclusivity.

3. Don’t label people with a disability as ‘inspiring’ just for living with their disability.  

Focus on the person and what they achieve as opposed to labelling them as inspiring for having a disability.  For example, my family friend Brian built a physiotherapy business from the ground up while raising two children and is one of the most kind and generous people I know.  He is inspiring because of who he not because is someone with quadriplegia.

4.  Don’t police people based on the facilities they do or don’t use or whether they use them consistently. 

Not all disabilities are visible.  Not all people who use a wheelchair need a wheelchair all the time. Some people who might not look disabled do need to use accessible bathrooms. Do not judge people for what they do or don’t use.

5. Practice accountability.  

What your impact is matters more than what your intention was.  Be aware of this and don’t be afraid to admit a mistake.  If you are working at being an ally you are likely to make mistakes from time to time.  When you receive feedback on errors take it onboard and use it to avoid making similar mistakes in the future.  

Being an ally doesn’t involve getting praise.  Being an ally is about using your privilege, your connections and your position to give others a platform.  It is not about you as the ally – it is about the people you are supporting. So do the rubbish jobs – hand out name badges, blow up balloons, be the driver so that you can set the people you are an ally for up for success. Being an ally may not always be easy.  When it gets tough avoid retreating back into privilege and lean into the discomfort. Being an ally can open up a new way of seeing the world.  It can open you up to new experiences and new friendships so don’t be afraid to get started.

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