07 March, 2010

How To Be An Ally: A Guide For The Currently Not-Disabled

CND: Currently Not-Disabled
PWD: Person With Disability

If you are a Currently Not-Disabled person interested in Disability Rights and fighting ableism, this is for you. It is in no way a comprehensive list, and things might be added, removed, changed in the future, but it is a start. I appreciate any help people are willing and able to give :)

And so, without further ado,

How To Be An Ally: A Guide For The Currently Not-Disabled

Do Not Police Disability
This is the first point because it is the most important. I've seen it happen before: a well-meaning CND is somewhere like... a train. They see someone in the priority seat who, in their mind, does not fit the definition of disabled. Well-meaning CND decides to scold said person, for using up a seat which someone "more needy" could be sitting in.
DO NOT do this! I cannot tress this enough. Just because you can't tell, doesn't mean a person is not disabled. Check out the wiki article on Invisible Disabilities.
It is not up to you to determine whether a person fits the definition of disabled. Not all PWDs fit the traditional image of a cane or wheelchair. Not every PWD has a physical disability. Just because you haven't heard about it, doesn't mean it's not real. It is not your job to decide. To sum up: A PWD does not have to justify themselves to a CND. A PWD does not need the approval of a CND to be disabled.

Watch Your Language
This one is hard, I know. Language is tricky. You might not know a word is hurtful. You might not agree with a PWD when they say a word is marginalising. But let me tell you: it's true. It hurts when you are the reason people do bad things (are you INSANE?!?!). It hurts when you are used to refer to bad things (that's so LAME). It hurts when you are the catch-all for things people don't like (that's RETARDED). Here's a tip: If a PWD tells you that a word you've used hurts them, stop using it. You can be a good ally and expand your vocabulary at the same time! For more information on language and how it can hurt, check out the Ableist Word Profile at Feminists With Disabilities: For A Way FWD

Do Not Offer Treatment Advice
While you think your advice might be helpful, chances are they've heard it all before. Believe it or not, PWD know a lot about their own lives and their own bodies! So "helpful advice" just comes across as annoying at best, condescending at worst.
Some examples:
* Why don't you just [Insert Advice]
* You should think positive!
* Have you tried [insert miracle cure]
* My friend/aunt/mother/person I know somehow was depressed, and they [insert miracle cure here]. Now they're all better!
For more information, read Disability 101: Treatment Suggestions and Why They Are Not a Good Idea  

Consider Accessibility When Planning Events
This can be any sort of event, from a feminist gathering to a gathering of friends. If it's friends, this might be easier because you might already know what sort of accommodations are needed. When you're hosting an event or gathering, consider the following things:
* Are there any stairs? A single stair makes the event inaccessible.
* How wide are the doors? Do they open automatically, or are they manual?
* What is the atmosphere like? How bright are the lights? What is the ambient noise level?
* If there is literature, what sort of paper is it written on? What colour? How large is the font? What colour?
* Is there captioning or sign available?
This is just a small selection of things which need to be considered. For some more information, have a browse at various disability rights websites. To get you started: Question Time: Accessibility.
Website Accessibility Matters
It matters, just as much as event accessibility. Unfortunately, I'm not very knowledgeable about how to make websites accessible, so I'm going to leave you with some links: Question Time: Thinking About Website Accessibility Tools to Download to help make your website accessible (From Vision Australia) Web Accessibility Initiative

Stand When You Can
It might seem small, it might seem silly, but it might help. Stand on a crowded bus or train, if you can. There could be someone with an invisible disability who needs to sit, but doesn't want to go through the hassle of outing themselves to do so (especially since they might not be believed). So allowing that extra seat is good. But remember: do not police disability!  

Speak Up
This is the hardest thing to do, because it not only challenges your own privileges, but those of the people around you. Speak up against Ableism. Call people out on ableist language, challenge stereotypes. Speak up, because a PWD might not always have the spoons to do so. Speak up, because it needs to be done. Speak up, because underlying assumptions hurt us even when we aren't around to hear them voiced.

Further Reading
* Feminists With Disabilities: For A Way Forward (Please read the Comments Policy before leaving comments)
* Disability Etiquette: Wiki Page
* The Spoon Theory (PDF)
* Teen Mental Health Blog
* Disability at Dreamwidth
* Ouch
* The Deal With Disability
Thank you for reading. If you have any advice or links, please feel free to leave them in the comments.


Chally said...

Yay, good job PK!

Annie @ PhD in Parenting said...

This is a great post with an excellent set of reminders.

I do have one question though. I know several people with invisible disabilities and know how real it is. I understand very well not to police disability and I do stand when I can.

However, I wonder what a person with a disability can/does do, if they need a spot to sit down that is occupied by someone who could be someone with an invisible disability or could just be a stubborn clueless ass.

I don't have any permanent disability, but have had injuries before that left me temporarily disabled. I would never ask someone else to get up from their spot, because they might have an invisible disability. But I did have other people do it on my behalf without me asking (policing disability) because they figured I needed the spot more than some kid listening to his ipod and staring off into space. But that kid could have had an invisible disability too.

Any suggestion for navigating a situation where you do need the spot and it is taken by someone who may or may not need it?

Nicola said...

Very interesting post, and good links also. I especially liked the spoon theory.

@Annie: I have what I suppose could be called an "invisible disability". I have scoliosis (i.e. a spine that bends in ways it shouldn't), and I've had an operation which means I now have a metal rod in my back to support the spine. Essentially, it means that I have a stiff back. Most of the time it doesn't bother me but I can't do heavy lifting, somersaults are not my forte, and I can't stand for very long. I'm in my mid-30ies and "don't look sick", most of the time I don't feel sick either, but I do sometimes get excruciating back pains.

Anyway, I've been in the situation where I had finally got a seat on a very crowded train after standing for over two hours. I didn't want to ask anyone to give up their seat and have to explain myself, and I could just about "stand it" for that time, but I was very relieved when a seat finally cleared up. A couple of stations later an older woman got on and stood in front of me. I normally give up my seat for people who seem to need it more than me, but this woman was maybe in her 60ies and appeared quite fit, and at that stage I really did need the seat badly. Needless to say, she proceeded to glare at me and her body language was decidedly hostile. I was just very tired and didn't feel I should need to volunteer my medical history if she wouldn't even speak to me, so I continued to read. A few stations later she left the train, and as she was leaving said loudly to me and for the whole train to hear "Has your mum not taught you to give up your seat for the elderly?" and left in a huff.

This left me behind, without the possibility of a reply, humiliated and embarrassed in front of the whole train.

All this to say: I think a good strategy would be to be friendly and open. Ask, but don't assume that
a) the person sitting doesn't need the seat, and
b) they are deliberately ignoring your greater need.
If you keep this in mind, you won't come across as resentful.

The seated person will most probably give up their seat, or - if they do have a good reason for needing to sit - a friendly, non-judgemental attitude from you makes it much easier for them to explain.

Finally, if they really are just rude, you'll have everyone else on your side.

Anonymous said...

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