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How to Be an Ally to People With Disabilities

September 21, 2021
8 min read

Disclaimer: The quotes and opinions reflected in this article are those of the interviewee, and do not represent the companies that he works for.

This is the fourth article in my How to Be an Ally series in which I interview people that identify with different minority groups to understand how they define an ally, why it’s important to have allies in the workplace, and what people can do to become allies.

For a variety of reasons, the diversity conversation is usually focused is on racial and gender minorities or on the LGBTQ+ community, but people with disabilities are often left out. We must make sure that we are advocating for our community members that have different accessibility needs if we truly want to create equity for all. I learned a lot from talking to my interviewee, and I hope you do as well.

Below is the bio for the Logan Gin:

Logan Gin — Logan is a Ph. D student in biology education at Arizona State University. His research broadly focuses on equity and access issues in undergraduate science education with a specific focus on student identity, such as students with disabilities and mental health issues.

1. What disability do you have?

“I have diastrophic dysplasia; it’s a form of dwarfism. I’m shorter in stature, and I have some bone and muscle abnormalities that make it difficult to walk. I use crutches and a scooter to get around campus. It doesn’t impact anything cognitively. It’s a recessive genetic condition, so neither of my parents have it, but they’re both carriers of the condition.

I do 99% of what someone else would do, just in a slightly different way. I drive a car, but it has pedal extensions on it for me to reach the pedals.”

2. How do you feel about the word “disability?”

Disability is a result of society. Society isn’t built for people with disabilities, so the attention should be put on society and not the person that is said to have a disability.

I’m also trying to be really mindful about the language that I use. I’ll try to say ‘this is a researcher who has dwarfism’ or ‘this is a person with a disability.’ That’s a big movement in disability advocacy rights now. I get to teach courses as part of my Ph. D here, and we teach a unit on genetic conditions. I’m very intentional when I teach about calling them genetic conditions instead of diseases or disorders. I don’t view my diastrophic dysplasia as a disease; I just view it as a condition that makes me different than someone without dwarfism.

I’m not opposed to [the use of the word ‘disability’], and I know it’s better than some of the historically-used phrases. I just think it’s most important to think about the person first. Often people ask me ‘what would you like to be called?’ and I just respond with ‘I’d like to be called Logan.’ I’m a teacher and a grad student. Get to know me as a person first.”

“a lot of people want to be allies, but they want to act before they think.”

3. What does it mean to be an ally? What are the qualities of a good ally?

“I’m the only one in my family that has the condition, so in a lot of ways, they’ve been my biggest allies. They’ve treated me in a lot of ways like just another family member, which I think was helpful when I was growing up.

Good allies are good listeners and good observers. They truly want to know individuals and how individuals are affected by certain situations. A lot of people want to be allies, but they want to act before they think and before they get to know the entire situation. That’s why my family has been great. They’ve taken the time to do the research on my condition and they know about the challenges that I might have, but they also know about the things that I can absolutely do. Some people are too quick to volunteer to help, and it’s important to be supportive, but be patient with providing that support. You should assume that I can do it until it’s shown that I can’t.”

4. How can people earn your trust in the workplace?

“People need to make an effort to get to know me for me and not for my disability. When I work with my advisor, disability isn’t on the forefront of what we’re doing. She sees me for the positive qualities that I have. She sees me as a scholar, as an instructor, and as a researcher.

Some people want to talk about it too early and too often. They think that I’m defined by my disability, and they want to talk about how disability impacts me. There’s a time and place for those conversations, but they should get to know me before they get into questions on my condition.

Treat me the same way that you’d treat any other co-worker. Make a conscious effort to be informed without making assumptions, but at the same time, you should have an eye out for some of the injustices that society places on people with disabilities. There are instances where I do want someone to see my disability. My Ph. D advisor, who’s a faculty member at ASU, saw that I was struggling to get into this building [LEG1] and reached out to say ‘hey I want to be supportive to you and your program as possible, so send me a list of things I can maybe do to make your experience better.’ She also checked in with me later, and after about a month, she spoke to a director to have these changes made.”

“The assumption should be that I can do it until it’s shown can’t.”

5. What types of behaviors should people avoid? Is there anything that people do commonly that they might not realize is offensive?

“It’s a pet peeve for me when people try to help with things that I can do without their help. They have a self-serving mentality to speak on behalf of a group of people that they don’t identify with. People volunteer without being asked. It sometimes happens multiple times a day, especially when I’m in public like at a grocery store or walking around campus.

The other day, I was carrying something up to my office. I was using my crutches, so my hands were pre-occupied. What I usually do when I have to carry something is use my mouth if it’s something small like a bag. I got all the way from my car to the door of the building, and someone came chasing after me to ask if I needed help getting into my building. I responded saying that I was fine and that I’d gotten 95% of the way there on my own, but the person was adamant about saying that he must help. That was one of those situations where it might have looked like I was struggling, but unless I directly ask for help, you should assume that I don’t need help.

Another example is when I’m picking people up, they sometimes open my car door for me so I can get into the driver’s seat. I always think to myself ‘I obviously drove here to pick you up on my own, so why would you think that I needed your help to get into my car?’ The assumption should be that I can do it until it’s shown that I can’t.”

6. How can people recover from missed opportunities to be allies?

“Take them as learning experiences. I don’t want people to feel like they’re bad people or that they’re wrong for doing things like that. For example, the person that tried to help me with my bags, I’d assume that the next time he sees me, he would just wave and he wouldn’t offer to help me with my bags. I would actually give myself the same advice for interacting with people that have other minority identities and know that I should learn from previous interactions.”

7. Do you ever feel like you’re overlooked when people talk about inclusion and diversity?

“It’s hard to say that because in a lot of ways, I identify with the majority. I’m a white male.

I wouldn’t necessarily say that I get overlooked because my disability is immediately visible, so it’s easier to get people to have those conversations because it’s a physical disability. There’s been a retrofitting of things like accommodations and building spaces to update buildings that were built 50 or 100 years ago, when things were done without accessibility in mind. Things might be different for people with invisible disabilities, where their disability isn’t immediately noticeable.”

Key takeaways

1. Again, words matter

In the How to be an Ally: Sexual Identification article, Alex Cross touched on the importance of word choice:

“People with diverse genders or diverse sexual orientations deserve to be people first, and anytime we strip away the personhood form an oppressed group, we give permission to dislike or to hate.”

The same idea applies to people with disabilities. Be conscious of saying someone is disabled because you’re directly tying that trait to their person. Your language must be structured to put the person first, not the person’s identity.

2. See people AND their differences, but not FOR their differences

It’s important to see people’s disabilities and acknowledge that they exist so you can be aware of how their experiences might be different from your own. For example, in the story that Logan mentioned about have trouble getting into one of the campus buildings, his advisor acted as an ally by recognizing his disability, and using her influence to make the change.

However, while it’s important to acknowledge people’s differences and avoid phrases like ‘I don’t see color,’ you should not let that difference define that person in your perspective.

3. Your help isn’t always needed

For minorities, there are some things that we historically have not been able to do or that we have not been expected to do, so we like to take advantage of those opportunities when we have them. Having someone from the majority stepping in to almost take opportunity away from us, regardless of whether their behavior is well-intentioned or not, can be the opposite of allyship. For Logan, it’s helping him up the stairs when he doesn’t need it. Other examples might be a man offering unnecessary advice to a woman on how to use gym equipment, or a younger employee gesturing to an older employee on how to use a certain technology. As an ally, it’s important to ask people if they need help before jumping to aid, and to be ready to sit back if the person says they don’t need help.

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