7 Ways to Be An Ally to the Disability Community

This post offers ideas for those of you that want to be an ally to the disability community, but are not sure how to do it.

October is an Awareness Month for quite a few disabilities. I’m not a big fan of “awareness” months or whatever, because they tend to feel like a token effort.

Being an ally to the disability community isn’t a token effort, it’s not a light little thing that you buy or forward or pass on. It’s a deeper effort of seeing, establishing, sustaining and strengthening connections with people who might seem really different from yourself. It’s about reaching out and standing up for things that may not be comfortable to stand up for. It’s about integrity. Caring and friendship.

In saying that, here are some ideas about expressing your solidarity with the disability community, ways in which you can show that you are an ally:

 

1. Remember Access and Disability

Or,  care about inclusion and access. My child, me or children who have needs different than what is typical.

This is big: it kind of makes me feel like crying when you’ve thought about access or inclusion: you jumped ahead and thought about the fact that my hearing aids amplify everything and are crazy-making in loud spaces, so when you are suggesting a place to eat together, you say, “hey, how about that place outside by the grass? It’s quiet there.”

Or something  like that.

When it’s clear to me that you’ve thought about my needs without my having to bring it up, it means the world to me.

Inclusion and access

2. Stand Up

You know those memes that go around that sometimes seem funny? Or the jokes/tumblr’s that are about something or other but have a mocking smell to them? Besides not “liking” them on social media, it means so much when you call them on it.

Comment:

  • “hey, this is a little uncool” (*or: repugnant, gross, execrable, mean or my personal new favorite, “pestiferous”)
  • “we’re ahead of this;  mean isn’t funny anymore (was it ever?)”
  • “offensive isn’t laughable”
  • your own utterly witty call-out

I get tired of being the only one commenting, I feel alone and lonely when I see things like “retardsy” or “f*cktard”, when I’m slammed as being “too sensitive”, “too PC” for asking people to cut it out.

Your joining me means a lot to me. It really shows me that you care, that you are cool with my child’s disability, with me. That you will stand up for her, for me (and the two thirds of the planet that are said to either have a disability or a connection with disability).

3. The Stories About the Homecoming Kings and Queens? …etc

The posts about the homecoming Kings and Queens with Down syndrome, the video of the child with Down syndrome and the dog? The kid included on the basketball court and all those other “inspirational” stories… um. Yeah. They don’t float my boat. More often than not, those are screaming examples of Inspiration Porn for me and I can do without a daily dose of it.

It might be helpful to think about it in racial terms to see where I am coming from. Would you be passing around a meme of an Asian guy on a basketball court, saying something like, “The Only Disability in Life is a Bad Attitude”, or what about a photo of an African American girl, crowned Homecoming Queen with taglines of “Try Before You Fail!”

Right?! Okay. So before you forward that stuff, just do the easy beginner’s litmus test – the quick mental swap – disability with race – to see whether or not something is going to be rubbing people wrong.

4. Hire Us

This totally seems like a huge jump, doesn’t it?! I mean, I’m going from forwarding a meme to HIRING someone! But it’s really, honestly not a big leap.

Don’t think that because you are a stay at home mom or don’t have much money or whatever that you can’t: YOU CAN!! Experience counts as pay in many intern/experience-oriented positions. Think about hiring interns/people seeking experience for all kinds of stuff:

  • blog building
  • bicycle repairs
  • website development
  • mother’s helpers
  • child care
  • art making
  • food preparation
  • catering
  • administrative assistance

Those are just some examples, and  you know what? There are a LOT of programs out there to help connect you with people with disabilities who want to work and need some experience and maybe some training. A lot of these programs even PAY YOU to “hire disabled”. If you want to try this and need help connecting, email me. No, really, email me: this used to be my job; I know my way around this subject.

Nothing says you are cool with disability and value people with disabilities as choosing  to take someone with a disability under your wing as an intern/apprentice/employee.

5. Friend Us

Do you have friends with disabilities? Real and true friends?

If not, consider going the extra mile to make friends with people with disabilities. People with disabilities are the same as any other cultural tribe – there are going to be people that you’ll love and get along with really well and there will be assholes. So you just need to reach out, be friendly, be yourself and go from there.

 

Meriah Nichols Civil Rights-2

6. Value Us

This goes in line with hiring and friending us. I mean, you can’t really do those things unless and until you see the value in us.

True story: I was once told I could not be hired by a company because I am deaf. The job was for English teaching in Japan. I told them that they did not want me despite the fact that I am deaf; I told them they wanted me because I am deaf. I explained at great length why my deafness should make them drool for me*. My point here is that I sold my deafness, but this is less a tribute to my salesmanship than it is to the fact that I bring things to the table real expertise that is based on my having a disability.

So you have simply got to quit thinking of “disability” meaning “without ability”. It’s just a word that is used to describe us that think, move, feel, react, hear, see, speak in ways that are less typical than most. Don’t focus on compensation – don’t think that I can do things despite being deaf; remember that I do things because I am deaf. That wheelchair user is good at some things because she is a wheelchair user, not despite. And that man with Down syndrome is good at some things because he has Down syndrome, not despite.

Our disabilities are not incidental, we don’t “happen to have” our disabilities, we are defined by them.

But in saying this, remember also that our skill-sets are only partially about disability – the rest of that is up to the education and opportunities that we have been afforded. The strengths that I have by dint of being deaf are only part of my resume – I also have a Master’s degree in International Management and a degree in Education, with over 20 years of work experience. So, yeah. That’s also relevant.

7. Ask Questions

I appreciate nothing more than honestly-asked questions. Now, this just me, one disabled person and I run strongly along the lines of Deaf-culture in this regard (- I am extremely frank, to the point of appearing tactless). But I’ve always appreciated people asking what they are curious about. How else is anyone going to learn, after all?

Ask your friends with disabilities questions. Ask people questions. Do you want to know why Autistics flap their hands? Ask an Autistic. Want to know what brain injury is about? Ask me. Want to know what it feels like to have fibromyalgia? Ask someone with fibromyalgia.

Ask questions. Extra points for good, hard, well-thought out ones, but all questions asked in the spirit of trying to better understand another are welcome.

With me anyway. But I’m just one person with a disability, remember. We’re not all the same. While I’m speaking my truth here, it might not be another’s.

***

October is about to end, and with it, certain “awareness months” will be folding up. They will be put into their respective cases until next year, when they will be once more unpacked and “awareness” will be spread.

Let’s change that, shall we?

Let’s move from Awareness to Acceptance to being an ally. Let’s implement some of the ideas set forth in this post, and let’s put to rest the tokenism that usually comes with an annual “Awareness”.

 

Meriah Nichols Civil Rights-8

_____________

Note: this post has been revised from one originally published on October 14, 2013

* My deafness in an English teaching situation is an asset – I pay attention to articulation and I know how to teach people to articulate as well. I know what it’s like to struggle to understand in ways that hearing people don’t. I set up inclusive rooms that are visually-based with is a real asset when you are trying to learn another language. Furthermore, students need to speak up when they are with me, which actually leads to enhanced self confidence and ease in speaking.

*************


My Facebook is linked here, Instagram is here and Twitter right over here.

Other sites that I coordinate and that you might be interested in are A Day in the Life with Down syndrome and Two Thirds of the Planet

Meriah
Meriah Nichols is teacher and artist who lives in a yurt off the grid. She is deaf, has 3 kids (one with Down syndrome) and a lot of chickens. She writes about travel, disability, and getting dishes done. She likes her tea Earl Grey and hot.
Meriah

@meriahnichols

#deaf mom, teacher & #disability activist, living in a yurt #offthegrid. 3 kids (1 with #downsyndrome), a camera and a lot of chickens. Never a dull moment
I swear, Apple didn't pay me to pull this together (wish they did though!) https://t.co/ZBEWBkk4FP - 2 hours ago
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18 Comments

  • Hi Meriah, this is a great conversation to start and I love that you included stuff that may seem simple (like eye contact) and other things that some folks wouldn’t think of as a form of support (like hiring disabled people, yeah for hiring disabled people!)

    I know a lot of my friends don’t welcome questions, because so often they come with a kind of gawking tone. But I know that others are fine with them, and you kept it clear that you’re talking for yourself and am appreciative to have your perspective. This is something I’ll share with parents, I think for many of them it will be a new opening to thinking about ways of being in the world.

    I know you asked for input so since you asked I thought I’d mention that for some folks the word lame is still pretty hurtful and painful to hear, since it’s now equated with bad and weak, but way back when it was used to describe their bodies. I’m not sure if you meant it that way in the post above, but when calling out ableist nonsense, using the word lame will for some people feel like doing more ableist nonsense.

    I have enjoyed your posts for several months since I first came across them, it’s my first time commenting, but thanks for your writing. Cory

  • Nailed it. Every point was spot on. Love that it pertains to all disabilities. I am a wheelchair using paralyzed mother of 2 (heading off on our own RV adventure in ONE WEEK!!!!!!!!!!!!), and all I really, truly, desire is not accommodation, or accessibility (as grateful as I am for ramps, etc) but true inclusion – not as a person with a disability, but as a fellow mother, friend, homeschooling parent, ‘soccer’ mom, or whatever role I am in.
    A few years ago, my daughters took figure skating lessons for years, the ‘accessible’ area of the stands was the only area I could sit in to watch my kids skate – the other parents were accustomed to sitting in a different area of the bleachers, and NOT ONCE over those years of lessons did they come and sit in the accessible section with me.
    That hurt me more than almost anything.
    Don’t be uncomfortable with me, I don’t bite – just talk to me.

  • This is awesome and amazing and I am tagging to use when I am trying to explain these sorts of issues to others. (ESPECIALLY love the idea you have on “inspirational porn” and Think of us in the Picture. WELL DONE!!!

  • I couldn’t agree more with all your points! I feel the same way, especially about the mere token of awareness and about inspiration porn. That’s not real acceptance. It’s just playing into stereotypes. Also, I’m with you on speaking out against offensive language. Calling someone on that isn’t too PC and it’s tiresome to be told that! Great post! I’ll be sharing it on the Words I Wheel By Facebook page!

  • I am the Facebook page administrator for the Cuyahoga County Board of Developmental Disabilities (in Northeast Ohio/Cleveland area). I am going to post this link on our page. I hope you get some “cool” responses…
    My method of showing I’m cool with ANYONE or ANYTHING is with a huge smile and a hug when appropriate:)
    Keep up the good work!

  • I just stumbled upon your blog and I’m so glad I did! This post is dead on and I appreciate you using a racial comparison to the whole “Isn’t it sweet that we included this person with a disability on our home coming court?” issue. I’m totally using that in the future. Seriously brilliant. I guest posted for a friend recently about this same issue. My son has spina bifida and uses a wheelchair so we get our fair share of hero memes! You can read the post here: http://beth2285.wordpress.com/2013/06/28/it-takes-a-special-person-guest-post-by-mary-evelyn-smith/

    You’ve got a very happy new follower! Thanks!

  • Love your list. I especially agree with the one about the prom king/queen. While I want my 17yo daughter with cerebral palsy to be included in things, I do not want her to be a “token” or a “poster child” for someone else to appreciate. There’s a fine line there and although I can’t define where it is…I know when I see it. (Visiting from “Love That Max”)

  • Hi Meriah, thanks for your blog! I love reading it, and I loved this entry as it really is well thought out and resonates with me.

    I also love the little doodle picture at the end of the blog, the little monster guy with love in the thought bubble. Is this your image? I’d like to make it my profile picture for Valentine’s Day if I could have your permission? I tried to find a place to message you privately on here but it doesn’t seem to exist.

    thanks! Kind regards from cold and blistery Toronto, Ontario, Canada!

  • Please don’t forget that being on the autism spectrum is also a legitimate reason for not making eye contact! Seriously, I started reading this list and my first thought was “Uh-oh …” 🙁

  • I dont really care too much about 2, 3, 5 ,6 or 7………….No.1 is rather important but 4 is most defiantly that single most important thing on the list (for me anyways). If you are a person who can give a job them give it to a disabled person yeah. If you know the person who gives out the jobs then go tell them to give it to a disabled person.

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