“When stumbling blocks can become stepping stones, then these stones that the builders reject can equally become chief corner stones!” ― Israelmore Ayivor
Champion. Advocate. Ally. These are words commonly used to refer to those who work alongside people in a marginalized group such as people with disabilities, people of color, or LGBTQ communities in an effort to remove barriers. There is considerable value in having individuals outside a marginalized community who support the cause. But the words used to describe them can also invoke an imbalanced sense of power. Champions are defined as “those who act to defend or support others.” Advocates are “individuals who speak or write in support of a person or cause”. An ally is “a person, group, or nation associated with others for some common cause or purpose.” On the surface, each of these definitions present a very positive picture of the relationships they define. But, how often in today’s society are champions, advocates, and allies presented as the heroes come to rescue the less fortunate and break down all the walls?
Twelve years ago, I was asked to solve a problem for the company I worked at. A flagship customer of ours was threatening to leave us if we didn’t resolve the myriad of accessibility barriers that existed in our product. No-one on our team really had the depth of knowledge about the customer impacts that was required to solve the issues at scale. I liked big, meaty, complex customer problems and my boss knew it. So, she asked, and I took on the challenge of figuring out what it meant to build an accessible online product experience in a world where accessibility beyond static HTML webpages was still evolving. Being successful meant acquiring a deep understanding of customer needs and balancing them against business goals to ship innovative, engaging, software as quickly as possible. A few months later, I met a woman who was a Deaf lawyer for the Department of Labor. A few months after that, my then 4-year-old nephew was diagnosed with severe ADHD and a mood disorder. Then I met a guy at my climbing gym who was a single arm amputee. I started to really see all the wonderful things that these individuals were doing, and how the world — and especially technology and education, were not set up to help them. I started to notice the million things in my life that I’d taken for granted. I decided then and there to do my part to change it. Along the way I acquired the title of advocate or ally for people with disabilities. That wasn’t actually something I aspired to be, and for a long time I struggled to understand why people saw me that way.
Over the years, I’ve had many people tell me I’m one of those rare, truly empathetic people who is really easy to connect to. When I asked them what they meant, they would share things like, “when I talk to you, I don’t feel like the first thing you see about me is my disability” or “you’re not trying to fix ME, or even fix the world for me, you’re trying to start conversations that include me”. I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on these statements trying hard to figure out what’s different about the approach that I take compared to others I know who are equally invested in improving the way the world includes people with disabilities. Here is what I’ve been able to figure out about myself so far.
Since I was a child I saw every person I met as a whole, complete, wonderfully beautiful person.
If they were different from me I would ask them a million questions (much to my mother’s chagrin) and really try and understand who they were.
I would use those differences to create connections to my own experiences and expand the way I saw the next person I met — slowly altering the differences I saw in the world around me.
I would turn around and share every single story I collected about the fascinating new friend I’d made with everyone who would listen, and some who didn’t want to (also to my mother’s chagrin).
Differences have never been scary to me, they’ve been a door into a conversation that fed my insatiable curiosity about the world and the massively diverse humans who live within it.
I like deep and meaningful conversations, so when someone tries to tell me why someone who is “different” should be put into some box the world has defined for them I will keep asking why until it makes sense, or until the other person has realized it makes no sense.
I am very good at seeing, and understanding, every side of the conversation without assuming that my side is the only correct way of looking at things.
When you put all of these things together, I believe they’ve resulted in an innate ability for me to easily build trust with many different communities. I’ve always believed that everything and everyone should operate from a place of equality. Unfortunately, that’s not how the world works. As an able-bodied, educated, straight, white, woman living in North America, I’m in a privileged position, there is no denying that. That by itself tells me I have a responsibility to speak up and push for change on behalf of others. The unfortunate reality is that there are still some conversations that some people aren’t prepared to have with marginalized groups, like people with disabilities, for lots of reasons. I wish that wasn’t the case, but it is. I’ve never seen my role in disability and inclusion advocacy as being responsible to speak for anyone in particular. Rather, I see it as my responsibility to bridge the gap. My responsibility is to bring both sides closer together, to help BOTH sides understand the other and to facilitate productive conversations. Sometimes that means being a representative for a group I don’t belong to — like various disability communities — or representing a business or priority perspective I don’t personally share, but can understand and respect.
If you consider yourself to be a champion, advocate, or ally for any marginalized group, I’d like to encourage you to focus on the practicalities of building bridges between the community you’ve chosen to support and the rest of the world. Here are five things you can do right now to start building bridges that last:
1. Learn how to live, breathe, and fluently communicate in two very different worlds. You will need to have a depth of understanding for both sides of every conversation.
2. Respect that some businesses may still fear having a person from whatever group you’re representing in the room. Don’t condemn them for it, or force them to bring someone into the room. Your job is to help reduce the fear.
3. It’s ok to have a strong belief in the cause you support. But, remember that everyone has valid reasons for their position, even if they don’t make sense. Be objective and use your knowledge to close the gap — on both sides.
4. Don’t call yourself an ally, it highlights your privilege and sets a less authentic tone with the community you may be working to understand and work on behalf of. Let your actions speak for you and let the community give you that title.
5. When you’ve built the bridge, step away and go find a new one to build.
Christopher Alexander said “Speaking as a builder, if you start something, you must have a vision of the thing which arises from your instinct about preserving and enhancing what is there”. I see a future where the words champion, advocate, and ally are no longer needed to describe actions that are fundamentally about being an empathetic human being. If I can leverage my natural strengths and talents to play some small role in building a world where that’s true — where humans see themselves in every other human and can function in all things from a place of equality, then I’ve done meaningful and impactful work. And probably built some really cool bridges between several amazing humans along the way. Hopefully you have too.