by Jess Cochran (they/them)
Kindness and empathy go a lot further than we realise. It’s a lot less scary to go into a difficult situation with someone by your side, especially if that person is there to support you without needing praise or recognition. These people are allies.
Disability allies come from all walks of life. Some are family, friends or work colleagues of people with a disability (PwD). Others may work in the disability or allied health sector. Some may not have a direct connection but can see a system letting down a large group of people. What unites allies is knowing that standing by someone with a disability helps them share their struggles and challenges in a safe environment. It shows solidarity and amplifies the collective voice that “disability issues” are a priority for everyone.
Allyship begins by acknowledging PwD as people. Many things make me who I am. I don’t want to be defined only by my disability. I’m a disabled, queer, gender diverse, neurodivergent and chronically ill person, amongst many other things. In other words, I belong to more than one marginalised community. This is known as “intersectionality”. Like many others, being my ally means embracing all of me as a whole person. Each part of my life and experiences affects another, and many run into one another. So, to be a disability ally, you may also need to be an ally to other marginalised communities.
When I’ve spoken at events, an incredible feeling comes over me when I look down upon a sea of disabled people and our allies. Carers, family, friends, teachers, allied health professionals, celebrities, and more, all standing together, shows that this is bigger than any of us. It shows that we aren’t a group that will back down or turn the other cheek and that our work reaches beyond the disability community.
Allyship is not something to be underestimated: it can be incredibly uplifting, affirming and reassuring for allies and disabled people. It shows the disability community that despite times when we have felt our struggles, needs and stories go unacknowledged, at least we’re not alone.
My top 10 tips on how to be a good disability ally
- Hold space. This means ” creating a safe, supportive, and non-judgmental space where another can be fully emotionally, physically, and mentally vulnerable” (Estrada, 2021).
- Grow your knowledge but respect its limits. In this space, you are not the expert (those living it are), so point others to the socials and resources of advocates with lived experience. If you’re unsure about anything, don’t be afraid to ask: we’d rather people ask for clarification instead of simply assuming.
- When voting for change – from local school councils to local, state or federal elections – look beyond the challenges you personally face and keep marginalised groups in mind. Remember: you’re voting for changes for you and the broader community that can impact the future significantly.
- Allyship can take various forms. Educate yourself on ableism and disability rights issues, be aware of your language, follow and share posts from people with lived experience, sign a petition or turn up to protests.
- Have conversations about disability with your family, work colleagues and friends. Create a space for kids to learn about disability and human rights and encourage their schools to add it to their syllabus.
- Invest in lived experience by supporting individual disabled creatives, advocates and disability-led enterprises. Many PwD use their skills and passions to supplement their income flexibly.
- Respect that you aren’t the expert in the room. Avoid speaking for us or over us; instead, encourage others to consult with us or point them toward advocates with lived experience.
- Intersectionality is a feature of many people’s lives, so look beyond being an ally to disabled folk. Many minorities and marginalised groups out there intersect and could do with more allies.
- Speak up if you hear ableist slurs and politely explain why that terminology is offensive. Preferred language can also relate to how we identify ourselves as disabled people. For example, some people like to use “person-first language” (i.e. people with disability), and others use “identity-first language” (i.e. disabled person). Listen to each person as an individual and reflect on the language they use and how they refer to themselves.
- Disability rights may not seem relevant to you or those in your life, but they may play a more significant role than you realise. Disabled people aren’t the only ones who benefit from a society built with accessibility and inclusion factored in from the beginning: Universal Design benefits everyone.
ABC News (2014) “17 Things Stella Young Wanted You to Know”
Diviney, H. (2022) “Being an Ally to People with Disabilities”
Dupere, K. (2015) “6 Ways to Be a Better Ally to People Living with Disabilities”
Estrada, J. (2021) “What ‘Holding Space’ for Someone Means and How to Do It”
Fraser-Barbour, E. (2020) “What I Wish You Knew about Ableism”
Lewis, V. (2018) “How to Be an Ally for Disabled Friends”
Social Diversity for Children Foundation (2020) “10 Ways YOU Can Be a Disability Ally”
Young, S. (2014) “I Am Not Your Inspiration, Thank You Very Much”