Being an ally to people with disabilities – Ausnew Home Care

Being an ally to people with disabilities

ableism Anti discrimation cerebral palsy disability

"I believe ableism is often the forgotten prejudice," writes Hannah Diviney. But there are things you can do to help. Supplied: Hannah Diviney/ABC Everyday: Luke Tribe


Ableism. If I asked you to define that word, would you know where to start?

Do you even know what it is — beyond the obvious use of two or three well-known insults?

Across the board, I believe ableism is often the forgotten prejudice. The one so well absorbed into society's structures that many people don't even notice it's there.

Think about it: I bet you barely notice when you step over the gap between the train and the platform — a gap my wheels cannot cross on their own.

And when you step through a narrow doorway into a crowded shop, I'm likely to be left sitting outside because my wheelchair won't fit through the door. Or if it does, the shop will often be too small for me to fit comfortably.

For those who need clarity, ableism refers to discrimination and social prejudice against those of us who are disabled, born from the often unconscious and unrecognised belief that able-bodied bodies are superior to disabled ones.

Do you need to sit with that for a minute? Does it twist uncomfortably in your chest? It might feel confronting to think about — because coming to terms with any kind of privilege is hard and uncomfortable work at times.

But if you're willing, I have some ideas on what you can do to be a better ally to me and the millions of others around the world who make up the disabled community.

See, I have this physical disability called Cerebral Palsy, which affects my gross and fine motor skills. That basically means the messages don't travel from my brain along the clearest route to whatever part of my body I want to move or use. Instead, they get lost and scrambled, so it's easier for me to navigate the world in a wheelchair.


Understand that my experiences as a disabled woman are just that — mine

Hannah Diviney smiling selfie while sitting inside in a white room, wearing flower earrings
People in the disability community have individual needs, desires and preferences when it comes to language around disability.(

Supplied: Hannah Diviney)

Your first lesson in how to be a better ally? Know that my experiences are not indicative of, nor am I a mouthpiece for, everybody in the disabled community.

You cannot lump us all in together. We have complex individual needs, interests, desires and goals for our own lives, which brings me to my second piece of advice.

If you want to know things about us, talk to us 

Not over our heads or to people you assume are our carers. Sometimes they're just friends or even strangers we happen to be standing next to.

Also, the experience of those who are disability-adjacent (parent, carer, friend and so on) is not a substitute for the lived experience of a disabled person.

If your child asks questions when they see us, don't shush them

Kids are sponges; they pick up on stuff and they're curious. Give them the opportunity to learn from us and see that even though we're a little different, that does not equate to wrong or scary or something to look away from.

How you react to us in front of your kids plants the seed for how they're going to view disabled people and more broadly, anyone who is different from them for the rest of their lives — so please, make it a positive learning experience.

That means if your kid asks, 'Mum, why is that woman in a wheelchair?' try saying something direct and honest like: "All bodies are different, some people need a little extra help moving around but that's OK. They're still just like you and me."

My body and the equipment I use are not yours to touch

You would not believe the amount of times complete strangers have put their arms around me or on my back, across my shoulders or even prayed over my head without batting an eye or asking if I felt comfortable. (Spoiler alert: I didn't.)

And don't even get me started on how people just grab a wheelchair or other mobility aid under the guise of 'helping' a disabled person when they haven't asked for it.

Both of these things are incredibly jarring and uncomfortable experiences that you wouldn't feel comfortable doing to an able-bodied person, so why are we different? Why does our consent — or lack thereof — have less value?

Be aware of the language you are using

…And if it is ableist, cut it out of your vocabulary.

That includes words like 'retard', 'cripple' and 'spastic' — but also phrases like "Oh, I'm so OCD" when what you mean is "Oh, I like everything to be neat."

These are words that I hear fly out of people's mouths regularly even now in 2020. Although some of these terms were once archaic medical terms used to describe those with physical and/or intellectual disabilities, they've been adopted by culture to represent slurs aimed at a person's lack of intelligence or physical control. To me, those words are hurtful.

Not every disabled person will feel that way, though. We all have our own unique relationships with language. Some people have reclaimed words like 'cripple' as terms of self-empowerment.

Similarly, some prefer to use person-first language ('woman with a disability'), but others in the community have a strong preference for 'identity-first language' ('disabled woman'). It's important that non-disabled people be led by and affirm each individual person with disability's choice of language they use about themselves.

Are you creating an accessibility problem?

Finally, I want you to be conscious of whether you're inadvertently contributing to an inaccessible environment.

If you're a business owner, does your premises have steps, or narrow doorways? Not accessible.

If you're a town planner, how are the footpaths in your area? Do you have gutters onto the road or kerbs? Not accessible.

If you're organising an event, have you forgotten an Auslan interpreter? Not accessible.

Noticing inaccessibility — and ableism in general — is the first step to creating positive change. If you can, make other people aware of it too, and don't be afraid to demand action from those with the power to make lasting change. From here, it's all about continually listening and learning, and calling out ableism when you see it or hear it.

Ableism has been allowed to fester in lots of quiet but powerful ways. Luckily there are a lot of us working to undo what it's done, but we need your help. Will you join us?

Hannah Diviney is a writer and disability advocate based in Sydney. You can find her online @hannah_diviney (Twitter) or @hannahthewildflower (Instagram).


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