Being a better advocate and ally to people with disabilities
by Kelley Morin | May 5, 2021
The experiences of people with disabilities are unique to each individual and each person may feel differently about certain topics regarding allyship. The goal of this blog is to provide a general guide to enhance your allyship and advocacy for people with disabilities.
Be aware of your words
Each of us has a responsibility to treat one another with respect to our actions and words. As an advocate, it is important to be aware of impact versus intent. Sometimes we have good intentions with our words but the impact can be negative. A good advocate is one who is aware of both the intent and impact of their words. An important part of being an ally to the community of people with disabilities is using appropriate language when discussing people with disabilities.
Many consider people-first language to be the most respectful approach to communication with and about people in this community. People-first language prioritizes who a person is over their disability. So rather than referring to someone as a disabled person, they are a person with a disability. Another example could be saying someone who uses a wheelchair rather than a wheelchair-bound person. However, different groups and individuals may feel differently about which form of language is the most respectful. For example, a growing number of people prefer “autistic person” to “person with autism”. These guidelines from the ADA help give some structure to language surrounding people with disabilities.
In addition, there are many harmful slang words that directly impact this community. Avoiding this language and intervening when someone else uses can help create change too. The negative connotations associated with slang like the R-word are harmful to the community.
An ally avoids assuming the journey of someone with a disability. Some carry their stories very personally, while others feel comfortable sharing. As an ally and advocate, it is important to not assume that someone with a disability is burdened or victimized. Rather than apologizing for something that is a part of their personhood, focus on all the great parts of who they are as a person.
A large part of being a good ally is taking the time to educate yourself and listen to the stories and words of people with disabilities. People with disabilities are often left out of the conversation when considering inclusion and advocacy. The responsibility of an ally is to seek out resources and tools to improve one’s advocacy. There are a plethora of resources available with the history of disability activism. Reading about the history of the movement can help inform your activism today!
An ally does the work themselves rather than asking those in the community to educate them. It is the responsibility of a good advocate to be ready to do research and learn. However, if a person with a disability offers their insight and story, listen to them and follow their lead to better understand the systems that work against them.
Ableism is “discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior”. Ableism exists in many forms. For example, it could be a lack of compliance with ADA laws, refusing reasonable accommodation, or using disabilities as a punch line. Ableism can exist in almost every realm of activity. As allies and advocates, it is important to confront where ableism might exist in your life without you even realizing it.
Too often, we might not realize the systemic issues around us surrounding accessibility and inclusion. However, as an ally, it is important to take the extra steps to consider how issues of accessibility and inclusion affect people with disabilities. Encourage yourself and others to think about times you’ve benefited from an ableist system. It could be as simple as taking the stairs to class, and realizing that there is no elevator to get to the same spot.
As an ally and advocate, be careful to not claim immunity to criticism. Sometimes the intentions of words and actions can be pure but the impact is not as such. If someone with a disability calls out your actions as harmful, listen to them and work to understand how you can be better. On the flip side of that, be critical of yourself and your activism. It can be beneficial to look for ways to improve our activism and build your advocacy. Take a moment every few weeks to reevaluate your activism and develop micro-goals that specifically improve your activism. For example, a micro-goal could be calling your state representative and writing letters for change in your community. The next week could include researching and sharing information about the disabilities activist rights movement with friends and family. With each of these micro-goals, it is important to check in with your activism and ensure that you are creating more good than harm. Finally, lean into the discomfort. It is important to feel comfortable being uncomfortable. Progress and change can’t be made if we all stay in our comfort zones.
Autism Acceptance Month
April is typically known as Autism Awareness Month; however, over the course of the last few years, there has been a shift. Many communities are opting to celebrate Autism Acceptance Month. This change in nomenclature is more than just semantics. The use of acceptance is meant to foster change and inclusion. The main overarching goal is to embrace our differences and give support to the community.
The National Autism Society has launched a coinciding campaign, #CelebrateDifferences, to encourage individuals to share their stories and have a conversation about how this community is being affected by a lack of inclusion. It’s about accepting and embracing one another. Here are some ways that you can celebrate acceptance:
- Learn more about autism online and read informational books.
- Visit and purchase from disability-friendly businesses. Here’s a list of some businesses owned by people with disabilities.
- Seek out books and readings that include autistic characters and storylines. Some great places to start are here and here.
- Read books written by autistic authors. Here is a great database to start with.
- Educate yourself with blogs and articles written by autistic writers.
- Confront the myths about autism activism
- For example, the typical puzzle piece symbol that has been used to represent autism awareness in the past is not one that represents the mission and goals of the autistic community. The puzzle piece has connotations that autistic people need to be cured and implies that there is something missing in their function as human beings. These harmful associations work against the goals of autism acceptance and activism. (Learn more about its ableist history here)
- Have conversations with your kids, loved ones, and friends about what you can each do to be better advocates.