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Allies and Activists in the Disability Rights Movement

One of us happens to be blind and the other does not have a disability, but we both want the same thing: a world where people with disabilities are valued, included, have opportunities and belong.
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August 20, 2021
MARCELO MADERS DE OLIVEIRA/Getty Images

Can non-disabled allies serve in leadership positions of organizations advocating for and serving individuals with disabilities? If so, can this be done without overshadowing or subverting the voices of people with disabilities as leaders of their own movement?

It depends.

If leadership comes from a top-down, “we know what’s best” approach, then the answer is no. The ableist sensibility of “we’re just trying to help you” operates from a blind spot rather than a place of true service.

If, however, it comes from a place of collaboration, inclusiveness and the intention to raise the voices of individuals with lived disability experience, then the answer is yes. In fact, perhaps this is exactly what society should look like: individuals with disabilities and non-disabled individuals working together for a common cause. One might argue that real inclusion is the ultimate goal for every community.

If the disabled community were to say only people with lived disability experience can advocate for individuals with disabilities, wouldn’t that be the opposite of inclusion?

When we say “nothing about us without us” it doesn’t mean only us. It means all of us, as long as we remember that the voices of people with lived disabilities must be heard and included at the tables of power and influence. They must be part of all conversations that impact the disabled community. And if a non-disabled activist is truly an ally, then “nothing about us without us” will always be at the forefront of all conversations, all activism and all policies and decisions. A true ally will always advocate for disabled representation, accessibility and inclusion wherever and whenever disability issues present—which, in truth, is always and everywhere.  

When we say “nothing about us without us” it doesn’t mean only us.

But the word “ally” has taken on a negative connotation. A non-disabled person can be empathetic enough to the cause and advocate alongside individuals with disabilities. So why do many feel that non-disabled advocates are not credible advocates? Without allies where would we be? To dismiss their expertise, empathy and knowledge does a disservice to the entire community. On the other hand, we must never dismiss the voices of people with disabilities who have the lived experience.

While suggesting that non-disabled advocates can have a seat at the leadership table may sound like heresy to some, we believe that there is strength in numbers. We believe that the more people who work toward greater rights for people with disabilities, the stronger we all will be.

We are two women in the disability field. One of us is a blind woman with 55 years of lived experience as a disabled person and as a disability advocate. The other is a woman with 28 years of experience in advocating for the inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of life and creating and ensuring opportunities for people with disabilities (the disparity of years reflects the disparity in our ages, not our commitment to disability rights).

Both of us see the world from a lens of inclusion, both of us see society’s prejudices and misconceptions, both of us see the lack of accessibility, and we both fight for inclusion, accessibility and the rights of people with disabilities.

We are in fact both advocates. One of us happens to be blind and the other does not have a disability, but we both want the same thing: a world where people with disabilities are valued, included, have opportunities and belong. From our own unique perspectives, we each understand what that means. From our different vantage points, we each have different opportunities to be advocates: one of us understand, from deep in her soul, the challenges people with disabilities face; the other understands, from her lived experience, what it means to face those challenges. This collaboration is quintessential strength in numbers and the true definition of symbiosis—two things that support each other.

One of us happens to be blind and the other does not have a disability, but we both want the same thing: a world where people with disabilities are valued, included, have opportunities and belong.

Finally, we question the distinction of a disabled person being labeled an advocate while a non-disabled person is labeled an ally. Is the distinction necessary? Is it not possible for us both to be advocates, one of us is blind while the other is not?

Neither of us feels superior or that we are a greater expert or more committed to the cause. No, we recognize each other’s strengths, we support each other and ultimately we want the same thing: a world in which disability is just a part of the human experience. An accessible world in which people with disabilities have the same rights and opportunities as non-disabled people. A world in which we welcome, value and include people with disabilities as a matter of course. We both want a world where people of all abilities learn play, work, live and grow together—a community of belonging.

We are both allies and we are both advocates and neither of us is giving up our membership in the disability rights movement.


Michelle Friedman has been a disability advocate for 40 years and is a speaker, children’s book author and is currently the Board Chair of Keshet.

Jennifer Phillips is an accomplished special education and inclusion  professional with more than 28 years of experience in classroom, camp, recreational and residential settings. She is currently the President and Chief Executive Officer of Keshet.

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