Standing in Solidarity with the Disability Community: How to Be An Ally for People Living with Disabilities
Written By Guest Author, Emily Chan, MSW, RSW
During National Accessibility Week and Red Shirt Day this year, thousands of Canadians wore red, helped spread awareness and engaged in discourse about the issues faced by those living with disabilities. It was great to see so many people interested in making Canada more accessible and inclusive for everyone and to see people standing in solidarity for people living with disabilities.
What does it mean to stand in solidarity with the Disability Community? As a person who has a visible, physical disability, I strongly believe one way to stand in solidarity with the disabled community is being an ally. Global Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Leader, Sheree Atchison describes an ally as, “any person that actively promotes and aspires to advance the culture of inclusion through intentional, positive and conscious efforts.” Essentially, an ally is a partner and friend for people with disabilities. If you’re reading this article, it’s likely that you already share a desire to promote inclusivity and accessibility for people with disabilities, so I have five tips for you about how to be an ally. I hope these tips will be helpful and that you can incorporate some of these suggestions into your daily life.
1. Actively listen to people with disabilities
People with disabilities are the experts in our own lived experience, meaning that we know what works best for us. Too often, our voices are overpowered by those who think they can speak on our behalf. I see this pattern a lot in government decision-making, where people who do not have lived disability experience make decisions on our behalf that will directly impact us. This point is related to my last tip below about creating spaces for people with disabilities at decision making tables. It is crucial to listen to us and respect our wishes, desires, and perspectives, whether or not you are interacting with a disabled person in your community or at policy-making tables.
2. Never assume how we choose to identify. Just ask us!
You may have noticed that the terms “people with disabilities” and “disabled person” are sometimes used interchangeably. To provide a bit of context, the term “people with disabilities” is an example of person-first language, terminology that acknowledges the person before their disability. The term “disabled person” is an example of identity-first language, terminology that acknowledges and embraces disability as an integral part of a person’s intersectional identity. Neither term is more right than the other; it really comes down to personal preference. Different members of the disability community may prefer one term more than the other. Again, it is important to ask us how we choose to identify, especially if you are talking about us when we are not present. Ideally, referring to us by our names is the ideal way to go. In some cases, our disability does not even need to be mentioned just because you are talking about us. If you must use the terms “people with disabilities” or “disabled person,” always ask the person you are talking about how they choose to identify. The power of choice is very important.
3. Speak to the person directly
When encountering members of the disability community, we may be accompanied by another individual, group of individuals, or a service animal. Whether we are taking a walk with our family members, friends, or we are accompanied by a personal support worker for our trip to the grocery store, always talk TO us and never to our companions about us. I have been in this situation too many times to count, and every time a stranger asks my friends a question about me instead of addressing me directly, It makes me feel uncomfortable, irritated, and powerless. Assuming that people with disabilities do not have the capacity or capability to speak for ourselves just because we are disabled is downright wrong. More times than not, we are perfectly capable of addressing the person ourselves, yet we are often not given the chance to do so. To combat this discrimination and stigma, I have spoken with everyone in my social circles and have kindly asked them to say, “You can ask Emily, I will not answer for her.” With steps like these, we can begin to reclaim our voices and can advocate and speak for ourselves.
4. Never assume a person needs help.
It is important to listen to what we know will work best in a certain situation. I was recently walking around my neighbourhood and I was about to enter into a store without an accessible door opener. A kind stranger asked me if I wanted help opening the door. This was impressive to me because they did not assume that I needed help, they took the time to communicate with me, ask for my input, and gave me a choice. I ended up accepting their offer. Next time you see someone with a disability, never assume they need help just because they may “look” like they need help. Approach them and ask.
5. Give us a seat at decision-making tables
There is a popular saying in the disability community: “nothing about us without us.” This phrase refers to the fact that because we are experts in our own lived experience, we deserve opportunities to be involved in decisions, opportunities, and policies that will directly impact us. As an ally, this can be really easy to do! Recommending people you know in your community to sit on roundtables and local planning committees can be a great way to provide us with opportunities for community engagement and to have our voices heard and integrated into projects. If you are a community leader, advocating for the inclusion of disabled voices on different project committees and initiatives is another great strategy to get us involved. When it comes down to it, we are eager to share our experiences and be a part of making our environments more accessible and inclusive.
- Banner image: The Disabled and Here collection, 2021.
- Sheree Atcheson, “Allyship: The Key to Unlocking The Power of Diversity.” Forbes, 2018.
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