How to be an Ally to Disabled People

Disability and equality

Reading Time: 6 minutes

During the last couple of years, the way we talk about gender, race and diversity has changed profoundly. It truly feels like something has shifted, and voices that have been absent from public discussions can now be heard loudly and clearly. Although I sometimes worry that disability and disabled voices are still somewhat absent from these discussions around diversity, equality and feminism, in my personal life this has brought on many discussions with nondisabled friends who are keen to create a more inclusive, equal society and ask me what they can do to support disabled people in everyday life and be better allies to us. It is with those discussions in mind that I created this list.

I tried to involve other disabled friends when creating these points, so that they reflect an experience of disability that goes beyond my own, but of course I cannot speak for all disabled people. I hope, however, that this list can spark thoughts and discussions – I’d love to from other disabled people and their loved ones what other points they would include or whether there is something they disagree with!

It’s great if you want to help, but do it respectfully

When I bring my son to nursery, there is a short, steep stretch that I find quite exhausting to manage with a toddler on my lap, and whenever a kind stranger offers a little push there I accept gladly. If you see a (disabled or nondisabled) person struggle in some way or another, chances are an offer to help will be welcome, especially if they stop, look around searchingly or try to establish eye contact.

However, there are two caveats to this point: Never try to ‘help’ without asking first. Imagine if someone suddenly picked you up and carried you across the street – that’s what it feels like when someone starts pushing me without asking first. Not helpful!! My wheelchair is an extension of my body and part of my personal space, and if someone touches it without my permission it makes me feel unsafe and not respected as an adult woman.

Helping someone disabled without asking first can also create additional problems: Once a stranger tried to push me on a bus I didn’t want to get onto, and if I am on my crutches and people just grab my arm without discussing it first with me, I might lose my balance and stumble because of them.

Furthermore, if you ask a disabled person whether they need help and they answer with a decisive ‘no, thank you!’, take their word for it. Even if it looks to you like they are struggling, they are getting on just fine and do things in the way they are used to doing them.

Listen to us

In situations when you try to be helpful, listen to the disabled person and help them in the way they deem most useful. A simple example for this: When I try to board a bus whilst holding a takeaway coffee, it is much more useful to me if a stranger holds my coffee cup for me so that I have both hands free and don’t spill the drink on myself, than if they push me up the ramp. If you ask whether you can help, do not be insulted because you are asked to help in a different way than you imagined. Disabled people are all individuals – talk to us, listen to us and respect our voices.

Do some of the access work for us

Most social activities create additional physical and emotional labour for disabled people: Before we head somewhere new we have to find out whether the building, including toilets, is accessible, we need to find out whether new show we’d like to watch on Netflix offers audio description, whether a play we’d like to see is interpreted in sign language. These might feel like small things (a phone call here, an email there), but they add up, clog up our days and weigh us down.

I appreciate it immensely if someone suggests a place or invites me somewhere, and already has thought about whether the place is accessible.

Even just the offer to share some of this labour (and the recognition that this labour exists) is more than welcome: If someone says ‘I don’t know whether that cafe we want to go to is accessible, but I can find out!’, I shows me that this person truly cares about me.

If you organise an event, whether in a professional or private capacity, it is always extremely helpful if the description or invitation already states what kind of access is provided – don’t just assume we already know, or, if it’s an event open to all, that disabled people won’t turn up anyway. We like doing stuff.

No pity, just empathy

Sometimes people tell me how ‘hard it must be’ to be me. What goes unsaid is the assumption that because I’m disabled, my life is not happy, joyful or loved, which couldn’t be further from the truth. It is full of ups and downs, just like anybody else’s.

Of course, disabled people go through some tedious stuff, sure, but a lot of our negative experiences come from a lack of access or negative attitudes towards disability in society, and pity doesn’t acknowledge that.

If we tell you about the struggles we face, we do not want your pity, nor do we want to be simply held up as an inspiration. Empathy and a true desire to understand the issues we face is much more helpful.

Even if we go through difficulties that are directly related to our bodies, pity is not the answer and can actually make us feel worse about ourselves. An emphatic ‘this sucks, mate, I can’t imagine’, works better.

Respect our bodies as our own

Often, strangers approach disabled people and ask intimate questions about our bodies – Why are we disabled? What is our medical diagnosis? What parts of our bodies can we feel or move? How much can we see or hear? How do we eat, go to the toilet or have sex? Our bodies are our own, even though we might have had them prodded and measured by medical professionals countless times. Don’t be that prodding person. These questions emphasise a difference between what you perceive as ‘normal’ and us, and can make us feel objectified. Don’t ask us anything about our bodies that you would not ask a nondisabled person.

The exception here are small children, who are allowed to ask me pretty much anything and who sometimes come out with the most hilarious stuff (‘Is your wheelchair like a car? Mummy, can I get one for Christmas?’). They ask questions without any prejudice and tend to be far less focused on things I can’t do than adults are. Sometimes I think that the adults who now bombard me with these intimate questions were never allowed as small children to discuss disability openly, as a  regular part of life.

I also don’t mind discussing my disability and its intimate details with friends who are genuinely interested in me as a person and thus want to know more about these aspects of my reality.

It’s great that you find access useful too (but these are hard-earned rights)

On a recent train journey, a couple with a baby entered the carriage and occupied the disabled seating compartment next to ours. The couple was overjoyed that they had found this ‘neat little secret area with lots of space’, and vowed in the future to travel exclusively in this compartment. I am a parent too, I get it, extra space and level access make life with a baby so much easier. But I remember a time just over a decade ago when most trains did not have these ‘neat little areas’ and I had to travel with the luggage or with the bicycles. On my own. Without access to a loo. And prior to that, we could not travel on public transport at all.

Disabled activists fought hard for every little thing that brings us closer to equality, and we still have a long way to go.

It is great that things like voice recognition or step-free public transport are useful for nondisabled people too, but make sure to remember that for disabled people, these things are vital. I would have felt much more warmly towards the young family if they had said something like ‘isn’t it great that this train is accessible? It is so useful for us too with the baby!’. A little awareness can go a long way.

I’m not here for your ableism (even if you’re all for wheelchair access)

When I was in school, my friend and I held a presentation on disability equality, and in particular on the way services and infrastructure needed to become more accessible. One kid held up their hand and said ‘I understand why level trains are needed, but surely cash machines with audio technology go a step too far?’. Since then, people voiced similar things to me countless times – how I, a white female wheelchair user of course deserve access, but people with certain other disabilities don’t. It should not be up to nondisabled people to decide what kind of equality is reasonable, and what goes ‘too far’.  Either you are an ally for all disabled people, or you are not an ally.

We are not just our disabilities

Disability is just one aspect in our lives, and we do not only want to talk about ‘disability issues’ or have a place at the table in ‘disability themed’ discussions. Furthermore, don’t forget that intersectionality is a thing: Disabled people of colour and disabled LBGTQIA+ people are statistically more vulnerable to assault, harassment and hate crime, and might find it harder to access services and support.

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  • Another great article Nina. I’ll definitely think more about accessible venues in future and how I can help when it is needed! Thank you for sharing your insights hopefully they can make all of us adjust so it becomes an easier and fairer society for everyone x

    • Thank you Alison, your comment means a lot. You hit the nail on the head: If everyone starts considering access, it will make life fairer and easier for all!!

  • Thank you for this post Nina, you write so eloquently. I will definitely be sharing this! One of our family friends who attended our wedding last year uses a wheelchair, and it was very eye opening when we started to consider access and facilities for him. I’m sorry that all of society doesn’t offer accessible facilities as standard, this is something that needs to change.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Ashley. Your experience is exactly one I wrote about: thinking about access is work, and it’s fantastic when nondisabled people take part in that work, like you and your partner did at your wedding. That is what we need for an equal society, thank you!!

  • This is so enlightening Nina. My mum slipped a disc in her back last summer and has been struggling with mobility ever since. Whilst it’s not (we hope) a permanent condition, it has really opened my eyes to places / challenges that had never crossed my mind as an issue before.

    Thanks so much for your POV. I can only learn more x

    • Thanks Harriet!I have so much respect for people like your mum, who from one day to other suddenly have to deal with rubbish access, that must be such a shock to the system and take so much strength and patience.
      Considering that impairments fluctuate and that most of us will be affected by an impairment at some point in our lives, it’s often surprising to me how little many people consider access for all to be important.

  • Thank you for writing this Nina – I like to think I’m pretty considerate and aware but it is always useful to challenge our own behaviour and attitudes, as we can ALL do better.

    I recently started a new commute by tram and it’s been eye-opening how unaware/ignorant people are towards those with disabilities. I wish I could find a way to send them this article telepathically! X

    • Ha! thanks Ellis, I encounter a fair few here and there who I’d like to send this telepathically too 😉

  • Fantastic post as always, Nina! I’m so glad we are able to have these discussions and you are so open to answering questions and helping non-disabled people understand what it is they can do to help the disabled community gain that equality that they all deserve. I’m going to take so many of these points into account in my life now, so thank you again for such a thought provoking piece. X

  • Nina this is absolutely perfect. I think toolkits like this are super useful, lots of people aren’t malicious just misdirected. However that misdirection doesn’t prevent peoples behaviour to become wearing and tiring and oftentimes offensive. Thank you so much for writing it, I can’t wait to read more from you in the future.

    • Thank you, Saira!! I wrote this specifically with people in mind who mean well – you are right, many are just misdirected. Xx

  • Fab piece!! So we’ll written and to the point.

    Its slightly different but my husband was saying how hard it can be having a consultation at work with someone with a serious stammer. He said he didn’t know what to do with his face (how to look engaged by not with sympathy) and that he usually knew what they wanted to say but didn’t want to finish their sentence so let them struggle. My suggestion, rather like one of your points above, was, ‘maybe next time you can just ask them if it might be helpful if mentioned some of the words you thought they were saying’. It kind of baffled me that there was only finish what they say without asking or let them struggle, without just asking the question in the first place. Anyway, bit similar, bit not I guess. Thank you again for this.

    • Thanks so much for your input, Clare!! I think dealing with speech impairments is definitely a part of disability awareness, even if it’s up to each individual whether they identify as disabled or not.

      I think what we sometimes perceive as struggle is for others just the way they do things, and for them it’s just a natural way of being in the world, so when I encounter people with speech impairments I try to keep my own impatience in check (because I consider my impatience my problem, not the problem of the person I’m dealing with). If I know them a little bit better, I sometimes ask them how I can support them best. Generally I find that if you carefully observe the person you are dealing with, they tend to give you good social cues how to react! x

  • Danke Nina, sehr hilfreicher Artikel!
    I found it particulary interesting what you said about children and their curiosity. It is sad that children get very little occasion to interact with disabled people in many societies, because the lack of access and the intentional separation of the disabled makes a lot of them invisible in public life.

    • Thank you, Tanja! <3
      At the moment, the majority of children I interact with are 4 and below (because my own kid is 3), and from that age group I receive zero prejudice, just honest open questions and lots of interest in my wheelchair (how it works, the way it looks, comparison to other wheeled vehicles etc.). I wonder a lot from what age this will change, and why, and what can be done so that children do not automatically have negative, tragedy-tinged connotations with disability, but continue to perceive disability and impairment as a regular part of life.
      As you say, an important way to achieve this is certainly full integration and greater visibility of disabled people in everyday life, so that they encounter actual disabled people before they are taught by media and society to fear disability (and the same is true for other parts of society who are perceived to be 'different').
      I also think arts and culture can be a great way to work towards these goals. In the UK in particular, there are also some fantastic inclusive theatre companies that produce work for children specifically and lets them experience different bodies and mobility aids in a creative, playful way.

  • This is so helpful. There’s a lot I know I take for granted. I found the point about organising events interesting as I imagine that most people have the attitude of not thinking about access at all! I mean I will think “oh that’s going to be a nightmare with the buggy” but not how challenging it would be with a wheelchair and a child!

    It was very informative thanks Nina. Next time I’ll offer to help with the coffee. ‍♀️

    • Thanks for your comment, Sarah! I found that lots of parents are more aware of access issues because they move around with a buggy.
      When it comes to organising accessible events, I found the UK in general a lot better than most other European countries, so that’s something! x

  • Brilliant article Nina – definitely some food for thought here. Really well written, thank you for taking the time to do so x

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