Being An Ally

Non-disabled individuals must become allies. They must become personally committed to supporting disable people, to helping us have a place at the table, to have our ideas respected, to make things accessible for everyone, and to call people on their shit. It is the role of the ally to educate oneself and others, to take leadership from disabled people and work in their own communities towards creating change. While allies should always be in support roles, that should never keep them from asking questions or deserting to know why things are being done in a particular way.

Image of wheelchair symbol with the person holding a placard that says "Allies not excuses." Red ink on white paper.

Image of wheelchair symbol with the person holding a placard that says “Allies not excuses.” Red ink on white paper.

However, I also have difficulty believing that it is possible. As a disabled person I have found myself often believing that allies do not exist. I have been let down, angered, heart broken, profited off of, undermined, sabotaged, aggravated and used by people who call themselves allies. I have come to understand that no matter how great and ally one seems, that their failure as an ally is inevitable. As a white person, however, I have to believe that allies can exist. I am committed to being an anti-racist ally and I cannot accept that I and others like me cannot fight alongside people of colour towards an anti-racist and just society. The compromise between these two positions is to accept that we will all fail as allies and that is, indeed an essential part of being one.

Indeed, my perpetual disappointment in so-called allies is a result of a number of disturbing to devastating experiences. I didn’t believe allies existed until I met people who specifically identified as non-disabled allies and who did work that revolved around disability issues. These people, I believed, were truly allies and they gave me hope that we could create a movement of t.a.b.s and gimps united.

While disabled people deserve allies, it is important for disabled people to recognize that most of us have some sort of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or other form of privilege. We also have to be allies to each other. Because the disabled community is so broad, there have been many instances where certain disabled people work to obtain privilege by defining themselves as something other than disabled. We have to work to be allies to each other as well, recognize where we are granted privilege when other disabled people are not and work to change that.

In many ways, it is much easier to identify what not to do as an ally than what you should do as an ally because there are so many negative experiences of allies. however it is important to make a concerted and continuous effort and constantly reflect on your own role as an ally.

What Not To Do As An Ally

There are a number of kinds of so-called allies that, while they may have good intentions and even may be doing some good work, are actually doing a lot of harm and not being good allies.

Note: these are written for people who are being allies to disabled people, but disabled people need to avoid doing these things when they are being allies to other people and communities.

Here are a few types of allies that you should avoid being:

The Profit Maker: and an ally you should never present yourself as an expert or profit from your role. There is a difference between being paid enough to survive and profiting; however, non-disabled people should not be paid organizers or writing books around disability issues, and they should not be taking positions where they are in the spotlight because there are always disabled people who would be better positioned to be in those roles. If an ally is approached with a project that they would be editing the disabled opinion or profiting from their role as an ally, they should always pass that responsibility on to a disabled individual.

There are so many people who profit off of disabled people: the medical industry, manufactures of personal support devices, the pharmaceutical industry, attendant services, etc. I don’t think there is much difference between someone who makes a profit off of disability who calls themself an ally but doesn’t put the money back into the community and someone who calls themselves a business person and does the same thing.

The Expert: It is never the job of an ally to speak for disabled people, only with us. It is the responsibility of an ally not to take the stage but ensure that the stage has a ramp and an interpreter. Kike Roach, in Politically Speaking,said:

It gets really tiring for us to be the only ones to speak out about it. But what you cannot do if you want to be an ally is to speak for other people. You can’t say how other people should conduct their struggles or what they should be doing. You shouldn’t try to dictate to them. But that’s very different from speaking out against the barriers these people face.

Frequently, non-marginalized people are asked to speak about other people’s oppression and struggle. In part, this is because of our education system which actively discriminates against marginalized people so there are fewer of us with the credentials to be considered experts. Of course this is an incredibly offensive viewpoint because who better is there to speak about a group’s oppression than people who have an in-depth and intimate understanding of that oppression.

More importantly, we are excluded because we are less palatable. We might be angry. We might call people out how they are being offensive. And we might be offended by their oppressive behavior. Thus, it is easier to bring a non-expert expert. However, if an ally has the privilege to be asked, they need to use that privilege to ensure others that opportunity.

The Poser: Allies need to be very clear with others as to who they are. They need to constantly ensure people know they are allies, not disabled people. It is essential that allies never let on that they are disabled. When they do, it is likely for one of two reasons: to claim an oppression to not have to address their privilege or, more likely, to be able to speak with greater authority on the issue. That not only gives those people the power to speak for us, but also to speak things that they have no personal experience with as if they do.

The Identity Politician: These are people who usually have privilege coming out of their eyeballs who make it an important part of their political identities to be allies to everyone. Some of these folks do really good work and are allies. Others, however, are publicly allies but never follow through. That is, they take the credit for ally work but they do not do any of the hard work, the real work of being an ally. The work of being an ally is never glamorous, it is almost always behind the scenes, it is quiet, it is thankless. If you find this isn’t the case for your ally work, you are probably a bad ally.

The Leader: A fundamental component of being an ally is having the understanding that you don’t actually know what it is like to be part of the affected community. Even if you think you know, you really don’t. That is one of the reasons it is important to take leadership from the communities you are working with. Sometimes you won’t agree with the approach and that is okay. Sometimes you will have questions and that is okay. What isn’t okay is for you to not to bother to find out what people want or to know what people want and to do something else. As David Gilbert said in No Surrender:

I was in transition from a liberal, who wanted to ‘uplift’ the oppressed (to make them more like me) to a revolutionary, who realized that oppressed people like themselves must become the arbiters of their own destiny.

If you aren’t taking leadership, it is because you have a paternal liberal belief that you know better. You don’t.

The Leadershopper (Leadership Shopper): Similarly to someone who does not take leadership, the shopper uses their knowledge of the divisions in a community to find people who will “lead” in the way they want to follow. In any marginalized community, oppression works to divide people. Some people are co-opted, some people are scared, some people have internalized oppression, etc. You can find anyone who will agree with you if you look hard enough and then you can say you are taking leadership. However, this isn’t honest and it isn’t real leadership.

Somewhere along the line the ‘how to be a good ally’ section got lost. I think this is kind of hilarious. Eventually I will rewrite it or something.


In-text links used in this post:

David Gilbert 

No Surrender