Saturday, November 8, 2014

Waiting For Allies Against Ableism

     "PHOTO ABOVE-LEFT: Olympic Project for Human Rights button, worn 
by activist athletes in the 1968 Olympic games, originally called for a boycott
of the 1968 Olympic Games. PHOTO ABOVE-RIGHT: This iconic photo
 appears in many U.S. history textbooks, stripped of the story of the planned
 boycott and demands, creating the appearance of a solitary act of defiance".-
From "If We Knew Our History" By the Zinn Education Project 

On October 17, 1968,  when I was 7 years old, the world watched the gold, silver, and bronze medalists in the 200 meters receive their medals and saw gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos raise gloved fists in a silent act of protest against the continuing racial discrimination in the United States. Silver medalist Peter Norman joined them in wearing the Olympic Project For Human Rights (OPHR) badge and stood in solidarity with them as they protested, despite being white.  This protest, done to replace an unsuccessful attempt at a complete boycott of the 1968 Olympics by Black athletes, cost all three athletes their medals and their careers. It changed the course of their lives.

Peter Norman went home to Australia to jeers and was never allowed to represent his nation in his  sport again. He spent the rest of his life urging other athletes to protest human rights violations in countries hosting the games. Peter Norman was what an ally to a civil rights cause is supposed to be.

Probably the saddest thing for someone of my age, race, and background is to grow up in the times I did, see people like Peter Norman stand with Tommie Smith and John Carlos, then live to compare the way people appropriate, then misrepresent what an ally is today.

I have witnessed the incredible courage of people who didn't have to stand by oppressed and marginalized groups and did so at tremendous cost. What I see now is a far cry from that.

In the autism community, the word ally is sometimes seen as a feather in one's cap. The word is appropriated by people wanting to have a higher status and influence. They want the label, the photo ops, the awards and accolades of being an ally. They don't want to put forth effort or great risk in the name of a cause they believe in. They wear the label, like any other adornment, and show it off to others. They may be kind to those involved in the struggle but the kindness is an affectation of patronage rather than heartfelt kindness born of a friendship between equals. Having grasped at the label, they don't care at all that their function is to support disabled activists in achieving human rights for themselves and future generations. The label is an item off their checklist to fame.

 Calling a person an ally is a gift of trust bestowed by activists in any cause to those who truly understand their struggle and stand with them. In disability rights activism, that means amplifying the voices of disabled people and presuming they are competent to lead autonomous lives in mainstream communities. The presumption of competence is not just lip service. It must be apparent in an ally's actions and the way they live their lives with and around disabled people. Being an ally is not a label we get to hang on ourselves. It isn't something we earn after a certain time hanging out with disabled people. It isn't something we get for being good parents to our disabled children. We can't buy it by bestowing money on prominent disabled people. That make us donors,  philanthropists. It does not make us allies.

It takes belief in the cause of another, and unselfish, consistent demonstrations of support based on the belief in the idea that nothing about disabled people should happen without them. For the rest of our lives. We must be willing to step up and pay the cost necessary to stand with our disabled colleagues and our disabled loved ones. This is the only effort that will result in the recognition of our children as equals in society.

That is what I want. I want my son to be accepted, accommodated, supported in our community and every community. This is not a hobby or the honing of a personal brand. It isn't achieved by Instagram-selfies with well known activists or having tea with your federal lawmakers. Those who never toot their own horns, ask "what more can I do", and follow the lead of their disabled colleagues are allies.  Those who don't have the time for the constant updates of their accomplishments on social media because they are backing disabled activists impress me. Can you be invited to speak at any event and arrive, introduce yourself, and give the podium to a disabled activist to speak instead? That is an ally. If people don't know what your name is but your deeds stand out in the successes of your disabled colleagues, you are an ally. Anyone else can be called many things. They can be called benefactors, grantors, donors, friends, online activist parents, bloggers. They can't be called allies.

Maybe at some point, an autistic activist might label you an ally. That is an honor. But it doesn't make you less privileged than neurodivergent people.  Some people who hear that ally label think it means they can then treat disabled people any way they wish. Presumption of competence never means disregard for disability and the accommodations and supports needed to provide equality for a disabled activist to succeed in speaking out. The term "know your privilege" is thrown around too much on the internet. But the position of being a true ally makes that phrase very important. You don't get to silence disabled voices because you are an ally. You don't get to speak for neurodivergent people because you've been labeled an ally by anyone. That isn't the way it works. Getting that label means that even if you don't agree with what a neurodivergent person is saying or how they are  delivering that message you must fight for their right to be heard. You must also insure that you are not yourself discriminating against them  or your own loved ones. This meaning you must extend supports and accommodation and use your privilege to let those voices be heard. That was the culture of activism I grew up in.

Where has it gone? I don't see it very much now. I feel as if I'm waiting for Godot.

I have watched this inappropriate behavior. I am truly sad. What I see particularly in the autism community is people conflating being an ally with having power and privilege based on high status within the community. I see them immediately using that privilege to abuse the very disabled people they are supposed to be standing by. The damage that has been done by those who saw being an ally as medal to be won or a way of gaining insider information to deconstruct disability rights efforts is significant. In a time when people see themselves as brands and carefully Instagram every moment of their own lives, this tendency towards ally label appropriation and misuse is growing. I do not know of any way to counter this avarice for influence and attention. Such a thing may not be possible. But I feel obligated to speak up about it in the hope that once a thing is seen, it can be countered.

The most critical thing a person must know about being an ally is that allies are meant to be the supporting cast. Allies don't dictate, command, take the lead, drive the bus. Allies support. They do what Peter Norman did at the 1968 Olympics and for the rest of his life. Peter Norman did not follow with press conferences and selfies and discuss how those two men were able to protest because he was there or somehow crucial to them doing so. He wanted to support them. He did. He never considered making it about him. This is too rare in allies within the disability rights community. We conflate our status as parents with being allies and tend to want to boss and talk down to disabled activists.  This is wrong. It is ableist. It defeats efforts. It tires me to see this happening.

I wrote and spoke about the topic of allies against ableism as part of a panel organized by Lydia Brown you can read here. My initial solution to assisting people who want to understand what allies are and be better allies against ableism was to recommend Dr. John Raible's Checklist for Allies Against Racism . This checklist can be used to see if you are truly an ally against ableism by downloading it, modifying it and testing yourselves.  Replace the word racism with ableism, races with abilities and the phrase "people of color" with "neurodivergent people". Work on yourselves rather than presuming anything about being an ally. Then truly live as an ally. Do no harm. We are meant to be in the background of our disabled activist colleagues and loved ones and have their backs in this war for their human rights. We must use our privilege to help them reach the goal of justice beyond equality.

If you read all of the above and feel you have done harm, repair it as best you can and don't do it again. Begin again the right way.

Lastly remember that this is a fragile movement, and egos are a true threat to success. I don't wish to be this disappointed in people anymore. A half century is a long time to watch people go from Peter Norman to Greek mythology's Narcissus.



  1. ((Kerima)) Thank you!

    "We are meant to be in the background of our disabled activist colleagues and loved ones and have their backs in this war for their human rights. We must use our privilege to help them reach the goal of justice beyond equality."

    Yes ♥