How to be a disability ally
Recently a tweet about London public transport went viral but this time not for train delays or crowded stations.
Dr Amy Kavanagh was praising King’s Cross staff for the help she received as a visually impaired person when her packed train stopped unexpectedly at the station. Amy’s story captured Twitter’s attention with over 14,000 likes and 1,000 retweets, as others applauded the staff’s actions.
However, though Amy’s story was positive, the fact this tweet went viral shows how rare such examples can be. Society still struggles massively with disability acceptance and there’s fear and silence around discussing disability.
People are gradually learning how to be allies for other marginalised groups, but not for the 13.9 million people with disabilities in the UK.
I have cerebral palsy and was born with hemiplegia, meaning the left side of my brain is damaged and the right side of my body is smaller and weaker than my left.
In my life, the best examples of disability allies have been my close friends and family, who respect me and support me to be as independent as possible, without making assumptions for me or making me feel like a burden.
They provide assistance when I need it without fuss or attention, like giving me an arm to lean on when moving around places, or being the ones to carry awkward objects so I can keep my hands free.
In restaurants they know I prefer them to claim my meal as their own and cut it before passing to me – this works best for me, though every disabled person is different.
It never feels like a one-way relationship and we’ll essentially exchange skills. For example, they’ll do chores like changing beds for me, in exchange for food! Non-disabled people each have different skills and abilities and they’re not judged for that: it should be the same with disability.
So, what is the best way to be a disability ally?
The first step is to treat disabled people as you would non-disabled people. If you think someone needs help you should ask before acting – a disabled person will know their physicality far better than you.
If offering help, it’s useful to first consider two questions: one, if they want assistance, and if yes, what they need you to do. I’ve heard countless stories from friends about people taking it upon themselves to start pushing their wheelchair. Well-intentioned perhaps, but how would you like it if a stranger picked you up and carried you along the street without asking?
Disabled people are more often than not perfectly capable of going about their day unaided but if you think someone might need assistance, start by politely asking.
If they say no thanks, respect that too. Assuming disabled person need help reinforces harmful stereotypes and prejudice about disabled people’s capabilities.
Disabled people are often represented in the media as sources of pity and less productive and capable than non-disabled people. Yet this couldn’t be further from the case – our ability to be a part of society isn’t removed by our disability.
It’s also important to remember that not all people with the same condition will look and act the same. Many disabilities are invisible. If someone asks for a seat don’t challenge them to prove why they need it – it’s enough that they asked.
Choice of language is also a crucial part of being a disability ally as assumptions are reinforced in the everyday language we use.
Saying someone ‘suffers with disability’ or is ‘confined to a wheelchair’ implies that disability is a burden that prevents them from living a whole and fulfilling life. A disability is a part of someone’s identity but it’s not a bad thing and it doesn’t define them, and negative language can paint disabled people as victims.
Individual changes can make a colossal difference but society can’t be truly inclusive until we dismantle the many barriers facing disabled people.
Look around you and think of the things that need to change to ensure disabled people aren’t literally and figuratively shut out. Is your company or business doing all it can to be accessible and respectful of disabled people?
What practices are in place and how they can be pushed further? Do job adverts encourage disabled applicants to apply, is flexible working offered and how diverse is the management team? These are all practical, positive ways any organisation can push for disability equality.
The important thing is to never stop learning. There are also lots of resources that offer more information about being a disability ally. Take a look at actress and campaigner Samantha Renke’s columns on Metro.co.uk, as well as writer Frances Ryan and websites like BBC Ouch and disability equality charity Scope. All give great insights into the barriers disabled people face and how we can tackle them.
Ultimately, when it comes to inclusion in any area, we need to be changing society and the environment to be more inclusive, not putting the onus on individuals themselves to change.
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