Recently I watched 14-year-old visually-impaired dancer Benjamin Yonattan compete in the Judge’s Cuts on America’s Got Talent and simultaneously I want to cheer him on because I want there to be awesome dancers who have visual impairments on TV, and felt cynical because I know that nothing will matter to his judges and audience except the fact that he’s “inspiring.” (side note: new drinking game? do a shot for every time they say the word “inspiring” to Benjamin during his appearances on the show.) We talk about inspiration porn a fair bit at the GimpHacks Podcast, but beyond a very short-lived drinking game, how do we constructively deal with inspiration porn, the rubber charity bracelet of social media?
How about going beyond it to become a real ally – someone who seeks to better understand our* reality and support the causes and needs that affect our wellbeing. I respectfully submit this handy and somewhat irreverent list that will help you have something more to say when you meet people with disabilities beyond “you are SO inspiring!:”
6 tips on Being a Disability Ally
- Probably best to leave the reclaiming of labels to those who actually have to hear them and use them regularly for themselves. Language matters and labels matter, and so while we use the term “gimp” for shock value and sometimes irony around the GimpHacks Podcast, listen to people you want to learn from and ask them (gasp!) what terminology you should use. When asked, I tell people that I don’t get too worked up about correct language, though I cringe at ‘handicapped’ and ‘cripple’ is out mostly because you should just know better (and I don’t want to send well-meaning people into a conversation with another person with a disability “weaponized” with a word that has a tonne of hurtful history behind it).
- Don’t assume. Dear God – I don’t care if your Auntie used a cane or you broke your arm in third grade andso you know what it’s like. To be an ally, be receptive and open to new ideas and experiences, and put your assumptions aside. That includes setting aside the experiences you think are somehow equivalent: “Oh, I was in a wheelchair for two months once after I had a surgery, man, I totally know what it’s like.” A time-limited, short-term experience that is a small fraction of the actual realities of disability (see #6)… Yes, I’m sure there are some similarities that you experienced, but stop assuming – it only prevents you from taking anything in that you don’t already think you know.
- Relate from your own experience, don’t try to adopt “ours.” Drop the kitchy labels and acronyms that let you create an artificial sense of belonging. “Temporarily Able-Bodied” is one that makes me want to SCREAM every time I hear it: It’s not that I don’t love you or want to be friends with you, but just by virtue of the fact that you can CHOOSE to call yourself by a cutesy label or sit in a wheelchair for a day just shows how little you understand about disability. Probably one of the only commonalities across people with disabilities is that we can’t choose it, and we can’t decide when to make it go away. That can be an enormous reality at times, and your cutesy acronyms or “pretend to be disabled days” at best seem artificial, at worst they can seem like you are playacting the easiest parts of our sometimes (often?) difficult realities.
- That feeling of inspiration you feel welling up inside you? Park it for now. I’m not saying it’s bad – I’m saying it’s shallow, and a great way to completely miss the point that people with disabilities have fully-formed lives – inspiring, not inspiring, hard, easy, and everything in between. Allies are people who want to understand – and you won’t understand if you stop at “inspiring.” If you want a greeting card or an instagram meme, make it up yourself, and don’t fall into the trap of recognizing people with disabilities first and only because they have a “great story.”
- Don’t be the fun police. (Or rather: be a well-informed ally, not a spokesperson. Unless that’s your job.) By gaining knowledge and insight into living with disability doesn’t mean you now get to stand on your soapbox every time you see someone parking in a handicap space or taking up a seat on the bus for people with disabilities when they don’t need to. Nobody wants to feel like a cause, and no matter how much the injustice jumps out at you, most people with disabilities have to develop some sort of filter on these daily inconveniences and injustices or we’d go crazy. You being a newly-formed disability activist not only harshes that healthy mellow I’ve tried to create for myself to stay sane, it robs me of some of the fun perks if I choose to use them. Bottom line: Over my lifetime, I’ve had to find some middle ground between being an activist and being a normal person, and sometimes that middle ground involves using my disability to get to the head of the line or meet a famous person. I’m not ashamed – sometimes these things make the shittier things more tolerable. Being a great ally is about supporting those who are marginalized to make their voices heard, and sometimes it’s looking the other way when we go to the movies and I tell them you’re my attendant so you get in free.
- Be okay with messy realities – no fairweather allies need apply. I guarantee you that the real story behind living with disability is considerably messier than you can imagine. These realities will challenge your assumptions, they will challenge your social norms, and they may even challenge your ability to keep your lunch down. Sure, you want to know what it’s like to use a wheelchair all day (let’s face it, everyone secretly wants to try it out), but do you want to know that paralysis also affects how I go to the bathroom? Probably not. I probably don’t want to tell you, but some of the hardest inequalities of living with disability have to do with these unseen, messy and difficult realities that are harder to talk about. This also goes for the sometimes difficult concepts to accept, for example that ableism is really a thing, and it really does exist, even though it’s uncomfortable to talk about.
What do you think? Add your tips or jeers in the comments.
* I am of course using the term “our” sort of loosely here. I don’t yet speak for the Gimp Hivemind.