What it Means to be an Ally

Feminism. It is the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes. What if feminism could be more than that, though? Feminists have always approached challenges with a strong commitment to inclusivity, but what if there are thousands of people fighting to be included, to have their voices heard, and to finally be seen? People with disabilities have been waging a war against those who do not seek inclusivity in aspects of our society.
02 August 2023

Feminist thinkers can evolve their way of thinking to move beyond the scope of gender inequalities to create a dialog that is rarely discussed in a public forum. Including disability studies from a social and political context in feminism would be extending the hand of allyship from the Feminist Community to the Disability Community. Allyship between these communities will promote the advancement of society, but we need you to be an ally.

Understanding the Connection

Being an ally, at first, seems like an exigent feat to accomplish. However, the leaders shaping disability studies have become very familiar in feminist philosophies. Philosophies, such as ethics and justice theories, that feminists developed over time are woven into the fabric of disability studies and the disability rights movement. The connection between disability studies and feminism may not seem palpable at first, but once people with disabilities are a part of the picture, it’s intuitively obvious as to why they should be.

Feminist scholarship and disability studies scholarship are natural partners. Disability studies can benefit from feminist theories just the same as feminism can benefit from disability studies’ teachings. Both feminism and disability studies are comparative initiatives because of their deep ties to the activist culture, how both analyze power and privileges, and how a central component of both movements is this notion of the social construction of our identity. Disability studies fits seamlessly within that perception of social construction that feminism has created, but the disability rights movement takes that notion a step further. Disability is an identity category; however, it is a mixture of what we physically and mentally do and how we are able to understand, profile, and grasp the notion of our physical and mental state. Feminism and disability studies are movements that work to eradicate forms of oppression that keep people from reaching their full potential, so accepting a feminist disability theory would build on the strengths of both movements. 

When you look at feminism at its core, the main values are establishing equality in different facets of society, instituting a strong sense of sisterhood, and providing courage to others to strive to achieve their goals. These values are truths that we hold near and dear to our hearts, but those values are all things that people within the disability community have been trying to obtain since the movement started in the 1960s.

Pioneering activists like Simi Linton and Ed Roberts lured the movement itself away from the generally accepted medical-model approach that people think of when they think of the word “disability”. Through their life experiences as people with disabilities, they came to realize that the general culture of many countries usually connects disability with inadequacy, deficiency, or imperfection. In other words, these cultures associate disability as something that people who have them must transcend or overcome. Instead, Simi Linton, Ed Roberts, and countless other activists across the globe have called upon entire societies to rethink their definition of disability and to view disability through social and political lenses. Disability is not something that has to be overcome; however, the mindset must change and equal opportunity must be present for everyone to move forward.

Imagine: thoughtful dialog between the two communities would become possible if disability studies were in the equation. Feminist disability studies being widely accepted would allow the two communities to examine how our world is physically and socially constructed in unbelievably tangible ways. Viewing the social construction of society through a different lense leaves an impression of the abstract and theoretical, particularly to people who have never explored the theories tied to the disability rights movement. Learning about social construction from an investigative perspective, feminist and allies alike have seen the injustices that many people who are unfamiliar with the movement do not recognize.

For example, on a college campus, able-bodied allies can walk around said campus and immediately recognize how the sidewalks, stairs, building entrances, pavement, etc. can make the whole campus inaccessible for a person in a wheelchair. This moment in time is when it becomes very clear to an ally that disability is socially constructed. They begin to think to themselves, “Why haven’t we fixed this?” 

The Problem at its Core

This goal of reshaping the mindsets of others and creating inclusivity is no different than what is being done from a feminist perspective. Asking why women have been excluded from a variety of aspects in society, feminist thinkers have clearly envisioned a solution to society’s indifference to the way the world is experienced by women, especially women with disabilities. The commonality that feminist thinkers and disability studies pioneers find pertaining to their struggles is the perceived bodily superiority that is in favor of able-bodied men. Women and people with disabilities are at heightened risk of marginalisation because they are deemed deficient with regards to their physical or mental ability. 

This indifference towards these minority groups more often than not leads to laws and social constructs being made that put these minority groups at an even greater disadvantage. Healthcare acts passed by governmental bodies that impact women and the disabled community rarely have input from those two impacted parties. To put it simply, it is like having a table where the majority discusses all of the big issues in society and makes decisions on how to handle the current predicaments. 

The minority isn’t invited to the table. That instance where there is a lack of an invitation to the table in itself is exclusion. Women and people with disabilities often do not get asked what they need to be prosperous or even if their basic needs are being met. The majority tends to keep the minority group out of the equation entirely and does not see problems that do not apply to them. When problems within these minority communities become unbearable, the minority has to protest for their basic human rights in order for law makers to see that there are issues other than the majority’s that need to be addressed. When the minority group is given a platform like a movement and still isn’t being invited to the table to make decisions, the minority is being segregated. 

In this stage, there is still separation between the struggles of the minority and struggles of the majority. The majority begins to recognize that there are socially-constructed challenges that the minority is having to navigate, but the majority does not act in the interest of the minority. The segregated group will continue to push for inclusion until it is achieved. 

On the off chance that the minority group is summoned to the table to address the issues that are impacting them, that is when they are being included. Inclusion sounds great, but the “North Star”, or the ultimate goal, for the disabled community moves far past just being included. People with disabilities have been calling upon governments to make the table more accessible. Let these groups work together to build a table where both accessibility and inclusion are possible.

Disability rights activists are talking about accessibility in the sense that they’re basic human needs should be met by default. Activists are very adamant that people with disabilities’ needs are not special. “Special needs” to the disabled community is term that is generally frowned upon. Their needs are just like anyone else’s; however, there is a negative stigma around disability that people who have them are different and their needs should be treated as such. Activists have a firm stance that their fundamental human rights and needs are not different and should be given by automatically. This indifference towards and even misinterpretation of the community has led to more difficulties that are not being confronted. The unanswered cries for change are the same cries that can be heard from the women’s rights movement. Sometimes the cries for change go unheard. When trying to tackle the very core of the problem, allyship between the two communities is vital, but at what point do the injustices experienced by these groups stop?

It’s All About the Little Things

Injustice stops with you. It stops with the little things that a person does and the mindfulness of that person. You are already one step closer to being an ally because you’ve enlightened yourself on the connect between your beliefs and those of another community. Educating yourself and others is the most important part of being an ally. When you’re educated on the issues that the disability community deals with, you can understand their wants and needs. After being educated about disability in a social and political context, you can see why being an ally isn’t all about speaking for those who have a disability.

Unless they ask you to speak for them, people with disabilities can and prefer to speak for themselves; after all, they do know themselves and their wants better than anyone else. People with disabilities just ask that you lend a hand when they determine that they cannot physically do something for themselves, lend an ear when they need to vent, and show that you care.

Another vastly important part of being an ally is understanding the language behind the movement. Person-first language versus disability-first language is something that all allies should recognize. Just as someone has preferred pronouns, people with disabilities have a preferred way of being identified. Person-first language is when you identify the person before you recognize his or her disability. For example, you would say, “Jill is a woman with autism.” You are acknowledging Jill as a person before you note her disability. If someone prefers disability-first language when addressing him or her, then you could say, “Jill is an autistic woman.” It may seem like a slight difference that many people would disregard or not distinguish, but it makes a world of difference to someone with a disability. The focus should be about their identities and the way that they feel about their disability. There is a spectrum of feelings regarding how a person in the disability community identifies with their disability. As an ally, the best way to approach someone with a disability is using person-first language, and as you form a relationship with that person, start a dialog about his or her preferences.

Also, as mainstream as this may be STOP USING PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES AS A FORM OF INSPIRATION. This is called “inspiration porn”. These people whose names, photos and stories that are used in social media posts are just living their lives and doing things that able-bodied people wouldn’t bat an eye to if an able-bodied person was doing them. However, it has been deemed socially acceptable to marvel at how someone with a disability has “overcame their disability” or has “beat the odds”. This so-called admiration and astonishment that able-bodied people feel is objectifying one group for their own benefit. Inspiration porn gives people the “Oh, I’m so grateful that it’s not me” or the “My problems are that bad” feeling. 

Inspiration porn creates this misconception that people with disabilities are at a disadvantage because of their disability and that they can’t adapt to their bodies. The only reason that these people are at a disadvantage is because of the systematic inaccessibility that society has created in the forms of physical barriers, social perceptions, and political obliviousness. People with disabilities adapt to their bodies just as an able-bodied person does. Disability or not, when given the right tools, extraordinary people will shine.

Another way you can be an ally is by acknowledging that someone’s aids, such as a service animals, wheelchair, or interpreters to name a few, are an extension of that person. Consider these aids to be a part of that person. If you wouldn’t disrespect somebody by standing on his or her shoes, then why would you lean on that person’s wheelchair. Service animals also seem to be an aid that able-bodied people do not recognize as an aid to a person with disabilities. Most people are drawn to the animal because it looks so cute and cuddly, but that animal is on the job. You wouldn’t go to purposely distract a pilot when he or she is trying to fly the plane, would you? Your answer is, hopefully, no. These scenarios are, of course, a different story if you know this person and you both have a mutual understanding of whether or not you can be in that person’s personal bubble or pet their service animal, but these are just good rules of thumb to follow.

Lastly, make a conscious effort to stop associating having a disability with being miserable and needing to be fixed. People with disabilities live full, happy lives. Also, disability is a part of their identity. Many people with disabilities do not want to be “fixed”. If you assume that they want/need to be fixed, that is the medical model of disability that has been taught to you that’s speaking. People within the disability community are normal people just doing whatever makes them happy and living their lives. End of story.

Advocacy is showing support for a particular cause. Our cause is the advancement of society. Joining forces to fight oppression will help benefit groups of people that are not being heard. By being an ally, we can approach the challenges faced by unserved communities, such as the disabled community, with the same power and influence that we face our own challenges with. We can move beyond the scope of gender inequalities to create a dialog just by being an ally, lending an ear, comforting a friend, and making a change. As cliché as it may sound, through the allyship of these two communities, we can truly make the world a better place. It all starts with you.