How to Be a Disability Ally


One in four people has a disability in the U.S. Despite this high number, not everyone has met someone with a disability. At least, not that they know about. Even allies of disabled people don't always know how what to do. That's because everyone has different lived experiences and preferences. Here are ten ways to be a disability ally.

Even though one in four people has a disability in the U.S., not everyone has met someone with a disability. At least, not one they know about. When we have not engaged with a disabled person, it’s harder to know how to be a disability ally. Naturally, people have assumptions based on what they’ve seen and heard about people with disabilities.

I was born profoundly deaf. Over the years, I’ve met many deaf and hard of hearing folks. Hence, it shocked me to learn from a Communication Service for the Deaf (CSD) survey that 72% of hearing Americans have had little or no experience with a deaf person.

Then, I realized something. Because I’m deaf, there’s a greater chance I will meet other deaf people. Someone may want me to meet a friend of theirs who is deaf. Someone who has seen my articles or presentations will reach out.

Humans tend to fear or don’t know how to respond when they have little knowledge or experience. Many disabled people and I share our stories every day. You’ll find us on LinkedIn, Instagram, Tik Tok, Facebook, everywhere. As a disability ally, you will help create a better society that accepts and welcomes people for who they are and their differences.

These tips focus on the spectrum of disabilities. I could not begin to cover all the possibilities. Here are the top 10 ways to be an ally of everyone with disabilities.

1. Know that not all disabilities are apparent.

I’ve heard stories from disabled folks who say that people don’t believe them when they share their disabilities. Yes, there are people out there who claim they have a disability to get a so-called perk or special treatment. It’s not our fault they did that. We shouldn’t have to bear the burden of their doing this and have to prove our disability. Please be respectful, listen, and believe.

A common story I hear about is when people park in accessible parking. They come out of their car walking without any assistive device. Someone would shout out at them. Once while riding with a relative, we parked in accessible parking. I got nervous about exiting the car. The relative didn’t have a limp, cane, crutches, or wheelchair. Thankfully, nothing happened. Nonetheless, this relative qualifies for accessible parking.

Don’t assume that someone coming out of the accessible bathroom stall without a wheelchair doesn’t have a right to use it. Yes, I’ve heard stories about people putting up with verbal abuse even though they have a reason to use the stall. And for the love of all things, don’t use the stall to have a meeting. True story.

2. Know that there are many disabilities.

Often, when I ask people to list disabilities, they name the obvious ones. These include deaf, blind, mobility disability, intellectual developmental disability, and autism. There are many more disabilities. People with disabilities are the largest minority group in the world. And it’s one that anyone can join at any time.

For example, 145 million people around the world have become disabled in the last couple of years alone according to a World Health Organization report. This is because they have long COVID. This is a disability as it changes how people interact with the world. It affects their day-to-day activities.

3. Understand that disabilities are a spectrum.

When you meet one deaf person, then you’ve met one deaf person not all of them. The same applies to all disabilities. Not all blind people have a service animal, a walking cane, or both. It’s very important for companies to understand one person can’t represent their entire disability category.

A product targeting the deaf and hard of hearing uses vibration patterns (haptics) to alert the wearer. A deaf person said they spoke for all deaf people in saying they don’t like haptics. This was not true as several of us — me included — said that we like haptics. Imagine if the company had interviewed this one person and no one else.

4. Ask before helping.

Many folks want to be helpful to everyone, not just disabled people. I know people mean well when they jump in and try to help someone.

Imagine a stranger coming up to you, putting their hands on your jacket, and invading your space. This is uncomfortable. And that’s what it feels like when someone suddenly tries to push a person’s wheelchair without asking.

We must respect people’s space including people with disabilities. So, ask and get a yes answer before helping. Sometimes, people ask and help anyway. Give the person a chance to respond and respect their response.

Disability:IN’s etiquette guide has a good suggestion for letting someone know you’re willing to help without pressure. Simply say: “Let me know if you need anything.”

5. Provide access and accommodations.

Are you hosting an event? List the accommodations you will provide. This way if you already offer it, no one has to ask about them. There are many access requirement possibilities. It’s a challenge to ensure you have them all covered. Here’s how you can make sure your attendees have what they require.

On the event information page, post a note for people to share any access and accommodation requirements. It’s also recommended to include contact information with this in case people need to follow up. Provide at least two modern contact options. Once I was looking for a way to contact a company. My choices were a phone number, snail mail, and a fax number.

Only one of those counts as modern and that’s the phone number. Many of us — including people who are hearing — prefer another option. Hence, offer modern contact options, such as email, chat box (not chatbot as no one has told me about a good experience), texting, and calling.

Sometimes people sign up at the last minute because they were waiting to verify they don’t have a conflict. However, the reality is that it’s not easy to get some accommodations quickly. This is especially the case with sign language interpreters and human captioners. (Better yet, provide them at every event.)

It’s wise to put a deadline for accessibility requests. There are people out there working with a lawyer to sign up for events at the last minute and request accommodations. When they don’t get them, the lawyer sues them.

6. Avoid assumptions.

Disability allies think they’re making it easier on the person by taking care of their accommodations without being asked. The problem is that assumptions can be wrong. When someone provides the wrong accommodation, it deprives the person of the correct one. It can also rob someone else of having the correct one.

For example, organizers at an accessibility conference said they’d provide me with a sign language interpreter. They didn’t ask first. What if I had shown up and the interpreter was waiting for me? Someone else could be using that interpreter. Thankfully, they mentioned it before the event and they avoided sending the interpreter to someone who didn’t need them.

People make many assumptions about folks with disability. The aforementioned accessible parking is another example.

7. Avoid giving advice unless asked for it.

When someone has a disability or a medical issue, they’re likely to stay on top of all the treatments, medicines, technologies, therapies, and tricks. I have a medical condition. My mom always sends me articles when she comes across something new. I’ll read anything I encounter on the topic.

The disabled person may already know about it or they may not want advice. Maybe it doesn’t work for them. For example, not all deaf people can get a cochlear implant. There are some conditions that won’t work with a cochlear implant. And even if a deaf person qualifies for a cochlear implant, they may not want it. Respect their choice.

If they ask for advice, then by all means go for it.

8. Be careful with “You’re so inspiring.”

One person cracked me up. She said I was inspiring, but not in the inspiration porn way. Don’t know what it is and why it’s a problem? Watch Stella Young’s TED Talk “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much.”

“Inspiration porn” means to objectify a person with a disability for the benefit of someone who isn’t disabled. A common one is a photo of someone who has a visible disability completing a marathon. “What’s your excuse?” appears in big letters.

Personally, I think the person is inspiring. But not in the way you think. I’ve done three half marathons. They were hard to do! So, I have zero desire to train for and complete a marathon. Anyone who has completed a marathon gets my full admiration.

A good test is to you remove the disability from the story. If it still amazes you, then it’s not inspiration porn. Before you tell someone they’re inspiring, make sure it’s for the right reasons.

9. Talk to disabled folks with respect.

This tip was originally “Talk to disabled folks as you would anyone else.” But there are exceptions.

When I wrote the original tip, my thinking is to talk to the disabled person and use the same speech pattern you use with any other adult. Sometimes, people will talk to the person accompanying the disabled person or talk to them like they’re a child.

When I meet someone for the first time, I may mention I’m deaf and read lips. I notice a subtle change in their face and they start talking to me like I’m a child. Talk to me like you talk to anyone else. Don’t talk louder. Don’t talk slower. A frequently cited example is a waiter asking the other diners for the disabled person’s order.

I once had a manager who liked to multitask while chatting with employees. She mentioned she made sure to be looking at me whenever talking to me. So, yes, I need someone talking to me to look at me and avoid covering their mouths.

In another example, I caught a video with an interviewer, customer, and interpreter. The interviewer turned to the interpreter, “Ask him … ” I cringed so hard. If someone has a guide, interpreter, caregiver, or friend, talk to the person, not their companion.

Be aware there are exceptions. I learned this lesson long ago. Whenever I meet a signer with an interpreter, I tell the signer up front that I’m interested in what they have to say and need to look at the interpreter to read their lips. That has made a huge difference!

One of my doctors is loud. I don’t know if he’s loud because of me or if that’s his everyday voice. I can’t tell him he’s too loud. If it turns out to be his everyday voice, then I will feel like I’ve insulted him. The reality is no one likes to be told they’re too loud. Yet, people are OK with being told to speak up. Humans are quirky!

There are scenarios in which you would talk to the disabled person differently. Some need you to use short, simple sentences. They may need cues or gestures. Avoid trying to finish their sentences.

10. Support accessibility and people with disabilities.

If you notice accessibility is lacking, help educate and make change. If you notice videos without captions, educate the creator. If you notice a problem with an accessible restroom, report it. If you notice hashtags without capitalization, educate the person about capitalizing the first letter of each word in the hashtag. If you notice someone with a disability is being excluded, take action.

Support and volunteer with disability and accessibility nonprofits. Support related lobbying efforts, legislation, and petitions. Support disability-owned small businesses by buying from them. Support disability talent by hiring them as an employee, freelancer, contractor, vendor, or speaker.

You can show support for disabled people by being thoughtful about language. Don’t respond defensively to someone if they correct you. And don’t berate someone if they said the wrong thing. Educate each other. Of course, there are exceptions like someone who is blatant about it.

Supporting people with disabilities means being understanding and flexible. Some people may have good days and bad days. This is the advantage of bringing our whole selves to everything. For example, if you know someone has depression and it looks like they’re struggling, then you can be more thoughtful of how you interact with them or suggest rescheduling for another time.

Companies that develop products and services can show support by involving people with disabilities throughout the development process. Take a shift-left approach to development by involving disabled people from the beginning. When accessibility is fixed later in the process, it takes more work and messy workarounds. It’s like trying to add salt to cupcakes after they’re baked. The salt won’t be uniform throughout the cupcake.

Even being a friend to someone with a disability helps.

And remember, just because something is ADA or [fill in name of other disability rights law] compliant doesn’t mean it’s a good user experience.

Imagine going to dinner with a group of people. Everyone goes to the front door except one person. They have to go around the back where the ramp is located. Technically, the restaurant is accessible. In reality, it’s an uncomfortable experience. This is why it’s important to know that checklists can only help so much.

There are many ways to be a disability ally. These are just the top 10 ways. What would you add?

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Accessibility and Disability Awareness Training

A great place to start or make progress in your accessibility journey is to provide company-wide training. I can do a series of presentations and training sessions. Or if you want to start small, I can train the marketing and communications team on how to create accessible content. Contact me or get to know me.

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