Allyship. It’s a word that generates a lot of buzz these days. But what exactly does allyship mean? And what does it mean to people with disabilities?
The Rick Hansen Foundation (RHF) hosted a live panel discussion as part of its ongoing The Power Of Inclusion series that examined those very questions in great detail. The Power of Inclusive Allyship was held on November 30, 2022, to commemorate International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which takes place annually on December 3. The conversation featured allies, advocates, and people with lived experience of disability who all offered thoughtful perspectives and suggestions people can take to be an ally.
The recording can be accessed below if you missed the event or want to share it with colleagues, family, or friends.
The discussion, moderated by Trish Kelly, Managing Director of Untapped Accessibility, included the following panelists:
- Dr. Karen Keddy, Associate Professor, Ball State University
- Laetitia Mfamobani, Digital Accessibility Specialist, Rick Hansen Foundation
- Dr. Rheanna Robinson, Assistant Professor, Department of First Nations Studies, University of Northern B.C.
- Spencer van Vloten, Writer, Editor of BC Disability.com and Community Advocate
To set the tone for the conversation, a definition from dictionary.com of the word allyship was provided:
The status or role of a person who advocates and actively works for the inclusion of a marginalized or politicized group in all areas of society, not as a member of that group but in solidarity with its struggle and point of view and under its leadership.
The relationship or status of persons, groups, or nations associating and co-operating with one another for a common cause or purpose.
Understanding, Learning, and Listening
The panelists agreed that true allyship is based on mutual respect and understanding. It’s about the process of learning, which is not linear and challenging one’s preconceived notions. It’s also about listening with an open mind and heart with the knowledge that people with disabilities are individuals and therefore have individual preferences and needs – even when people have a particular disability in common.
Explained Spencer: “We all have our own sense of talents, skills, and experiences, and good allies help draw these out from one another so they can be used to advance a particular cause… Allyship is not just about working toward the same end; it’s working toward that end together with respect and understanding.”
Rheanna built on Spencer’s words, adding that allyship must be done with genuine and honest intentions as it is about building authentic relationships, a foundational component to advancing a cause.
“It is also learning, unlearning, and relearning new perspectives and understanding when it comes to disability – allyship and advocacy in particular,”
she said, speaking from an intersection of being Indigenous and having multiple sclerosis.
It’s Up to Everyone to Be Inclusive
Karen, who has hearing loss, said she feels like she has one foot planted in the nondisabled world and the other in the disability space. When navigating the former, she’s noticed the onus is on her to ask for accommodations, such as a preference for virtual meetings instead of in person so she has access to closed captioning as part of a virtual platform’s accessibility features.
However, it’s a different experience for Karen in the disability space – whether as a presenter at a conference, attending a webinar, or participating in an accessibility advisory meeting. “I never have to ask for captioning. It’s a given that it’s going to be provided, and there’s always an effort made to be accommodating and mindful of helping a person... The onus is not strictly on the person living with the disability but on everyone to be inclusive.”
For Laetitia, being an ally doesn’t necessarily mean making grand gestures.
“When I look back on my life as a person who’s blind, the best allies weren’t necessarily people who went wild on social media advocating for something specific for me,” she said.
“A good ally starts with a small action. It can just be words, words of encouragement.”
Learn, Learn, and Keep Learning
The panelists offered ideas to those seeking to be allies to people with disabilities. Laetitia offered: “In the beginning, it’s really important to know the needs of the people you are advocating for. Learn and learn – it’s really important. And, be patient, as well, because becoming an ally is not an overnight thing. It’s a process. It’s going to take time, and you are going to make mistakes.”
Spencer added that he considers being an ally an interpersonal exchange; if there’s a particular issue that one cares about, then get involved with others and act. “Go forward confidently and take action. But always be open, be willing to learn, keep your perspectives flexible, and be open to change as you hear more from the people around you with lived experience.”
Karen recommended dropping assumptions about people. “Ask them what they need and let them lead because they’re the expert on what works best for them,” she said.
Answering Your Questions
Many attendees posed questions for the panelists during the Q&A portion of the webinar. One question stood out; someone asked about feeling unsafe disclosing a disability to an employer. Rheanna spoke about the power of being confident, especially as disability inclusiveness is a matter of human rights.
“I have extraordinary bold expectations of how people are going to treat me, how they’re going to include me, how my value is important, and how I have something to contribute,” she said.
Spencer echoed that employees are backed by rights, adding that it is incredibly stressful and unhealthy to hide a disability.
Panelists took time to answer the following question from the Q&A period by email after the panel: With the implementation of the Accessible Canada Act, many communities across the country are forming accessibility advisory boards. How can we ensure we are being representative of people with disabilities in our communities and that all perspectives are included?
Rheanna pointed out that the tenants of inclusivity must be fundamental to creating separate boards. “It’s imperative advisory boards have an understanding of the distinct need for Indigenous representation” and that board representation should be “respectful, equitable, and welcoming of all peoples.”
Laetitia and Spencer suggested targeted outreach with a wide range of organizations about the opportunity to be a part of an accessibility advisory board. “Then ask them to get the word out in their own networks, and as you start to receive more applications or inquiries, look at which groups you are not seeing and think about why that may be,” Spencer added.
Karen believes that at least 50% of an accessibility advisory committee must include people with disabilities and/or neurodivergent people with lived experiences or expertise related to the committee’s scope.
This recap is a condensed summary, and quotes have been shortened for space considerations. RHF invites you to watch the full recording of The Power of Inclusive Allyship.