by Vilissa Thompson, LMSW
This article is based on conversation and materials shared during the October 13, 2016, #MacroSW Media Night Twitter Chat, Online Disability Advocacy: What Is the Role of Allies? #MacroSW Twitter chats are held every Thursday night at 9 p.m. Eastern. For more information, check out https://macrosw.com. Additional resources for this article are posted to: https://macrosw.com/2016/10/10/macrosw-media-night-10-13-16-online-disability-advocacy-what-is-the-role-of-allies/. The New Social Worker is a #MacroSW media partner.
Online disability advocacy has proven to be a powerful tactic used by advocates and organizations to garner allyship and support for the causes that go under the radar in our society. For disabled advocates in particular, being able to address the issues that matter to their community is empowering, and the reach of their messages is limitless. As social workers, it is important for us to understand the obstacles that disabled people endure that go beyond what our social work programs teach. We need to learn how to establish effective allyship connections within online disability advocacy.
What Does It Mean To Be a Good Ally?
Given the current political climate, understanding what good allyship is and why it matters is instrumental for absolute solidarity among communities to occur. For individuals seeking to become allies to communities they do not possess membership in, the first step that fails to be taken is actually the easiest—listening to the voices of marginalized people. Most simply, this involves listening to what members of that community have to share about their systemic oppression and how privilege work must not be a minor part of one’s desire to be an ally. Allies have a tendency of not knowing when to be at the forefront and when to be in the background. It is essential to listen to what marginalized groups need from you and the role they want you to play in learning when to step up and when to step back.
Social workers, whether macro- or micro-focused, are familiar with how systems work for and against clients, but are not always knowledgeable of the barriers disabled people experience both within and outside of systems. As a result, social workers may be unable to grasp what it means to be disabled in America, the intersections of identities clients may have that are beyond their disabled status(es), and the diverse cultures found within the disabled community. Lacking such insights makes our profession out of touch, and thus, unable to fully address and advocate for disabled clients’ needs and rights as we should.
For the #MacroSW chat on this topic, we surveyed many disabled individuals and asked about good allyship for their community, and they responded:
- Social workers need to educate themselves about disability history, intersectionality, access barriers, and our culture. This kind of education should begin in the social work education curriculum on all levels and continue in the field
- .BSW and MSW programs should do a better job distinguishing between being an advocate for a group and working as an ally.
- Non-disabled advocates and allies need to advocate WITH disabled people.Allies’ job is to listen, respect, believe, and amplify disabled people’s voices.
Although there is division as to whether allies are actually needed or effective, there is a general consensus that allies need to know their role when immersing themselves into a community, and they need to check their power and privileges.
How Social Media Has Propelled Disability Advocacy
The strong arm of social media has been instrumental in disability advocacy. Using social media, marginalized people can more easily organize, strategize, and mobilize to address injustices committed. In addition, social media is critical to gain support and access to spaces and key stakeholders who have the power to influence their livelihood.
One of the greatest benefits of social media is its accessibility. Social media has changed the way members of the disabled community connect with each other and society with fewer barriers and limitations encountered. Social media offers a more accessible means of communication. This accessibility is particularly important for individuals who may be restricted from “being on the ground” as a result of their disabilities, lack of appropriate accommodations in their communities to access certain spaces, and not wanting to place their bodies directly in danger (such as at protest events). Social media allows disabled people to be engaged in the steadfast fight for equality and justice as they would if involved through traditional advocacy techniques. In fact, social media provides unique opportunities for their messages and voices to reach a global audience, to network with other advocates within and outside of their state borders, and to build campaigns to call attention to time-sensitive matters.
Disabled advocates utilize many social media platforms effectively in the aforementioned ways, some of which social workers may not be aware. When asked which platforms are heavily used, disabled individuals ranked them as follows:
Social Media Platform & Rank of Usage
- Facebook - 84.6%
- Twitter - 73.1%
- Blogging - 69.2%
- YouTube - 46.2%
- Tumblr - 42.3%
- Instagram - 26.9%
- Podcasts - 19.2%
- Other - 11.5%
Disabled participants also listed the following technologies they frequently utilize: Dragon, Jaws, ZoomText, texting, FaceTime, ProLoQuo2Go, image descriptions, and screen readers.
The Overdue Need to Update Our Understanding of Disability
For social workers to become effective allies to disabled people, understanding how this community uses technology is not enough. We must realize that our thinking about the disabled experience and disabled people is outdated. In our programs, we are still teaching person-first language, which is not preferred by the collective community. The way we interact with disabled people tends to stem from the medical model on disability. We have not upgraded to learning and practicing the social model that challenges us to see disabled people beyond their diagnoses. These failures on our end create friction when we attempt to step into the role of allies. Why should disabled advocates take our presence seriously when we are projecting ignorance about their culture and way of life?
When asked how the social work profession has a misguided view of disability, results from the earlier survey note the following:
- Medical model versus social model of disability (76.9%)
- Ableist attitudes displayed (65.4%)
- Archaic language used to describe disability (61.5%)
- Failure to respect language choice (Identity-First/Person-First) (53.8%)
- Facilities being inaccessible (46.2%)
- Failure to use technology (42.3%)
- Other (38.5%)
Correcting inaccurate thoughts and opinions about disability starts with understanding the biases and prejudices we have about what it means to be disabled. These ideas can originate from inspiration-porn images and stories we see through memes and news coverage (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inspiration_porn), or from our own fears about people who are different from ourselves. Those perceptions can and do spill over into our practice, as we may unknowingly belittle disabled clients by not centering their voices and concerns in their care plans and failing to make connections to how systems interact with clients who hold multiple marginalized identities outside of their disabled status. These transgressions should be extinguished so the profession can be truly empowering to clients and better allies to not only disabled advocates, but also disabled colleagues.
Disabled social workers are in a unique position of both knowing intimately how systems disadvantage clients and being in the position to assist in efforts to abolish obstacles. To move the profession where it needs to be, it is important to seek the perspectives of disabled social work colleagues and advocates.
Here are some actions those in the disabled community identified for social workers to take:
- See the community through comprehensive lens as contributors and collaborators beyond prism of limitations.
- Realize that all people have their own experiences, and they should be validated.
- Respect clients’ choices with regard to treatment.
- Remember that adults are adults, no matter their disability.
- Learn about intersectional oppressions.
- Get explicit training and a whole reorientation of social work education programs.
- Realize disabled people do know their own lives and have a better grasp on their capacity than other people.Disabled people will make mistakes, and they have the right to do that. They don’t need to be given less control over their choices.
- Hire more people with disabilities.
- Stop participating in harmful events such as Light it Up Blue and walks for autism (see http://bit.ly/2oqnJy4).
- Read the blogs of disabled advocates/activists. Support us.
Connecting the social work profession to the disabled community is a passion of mine as a disabled macro social worker. It is imperative for fellow colleagues to learn from the community, and being in the unique position of wearing hats from both groups, I have made it a part of my advocacy work with Ramp Your Voice to do just that. Social workers must become better allies and culturally competent regarding the needs and voices of marginalized groups, because we are ethically bound to fulfill this task. It is my hope that social work students, educators, and practitioners make it a priority to go beyond what is shared in this article and do the good work we are supposed to do—serve and empower.
Online Disability Resources
Below are a few resources to get social workers started on making a better impact when we advocate for the rights of disabled people.
- What is Disability Advocacy? http://www.daru.org.au/what-is-advocacy
- So You Call Yourself An Ally? 10 Things All “Allies” Should Know http://everydayfeminism.com/2013/11/things-allies-need-to-know/
- Identity-First Language http://autisticadvocacy.org/home/about-asan/identity-first-language/
- Social Model of Disability http://www.scope.org.uk/about-us/our-brand/social-model-of-disability
Below are some important advocates, organizations, hashtags, and syllabi:
- Lydia Brown https://autistichoya.net
- Talila “TL” Lewis http://www.talilalewis.com
- Vilissa Thompson, LMSW http://rampyourvoice.com
- Heather Watkins https://slowwalkersseemore.wordpress.com
- Alice Wong https://disabilityvisibilityproject.com
- Harriet Tubman Collective https://www.facebook.com/HTCollective/
- Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf (HEARD) http://www.behearddc.org
- Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) http://autisticadvocacy.org
- #CripTheVote http://cripthevote.blogspot.com
- #DisabilitySolidarity https://twitter.com/dissolidarity
- #DisabilityTooWhite https://storify.com/SFdirewolf/disabilitytoowhite
- Black Disabled Woman Syllabus http://rampyourvoice.com/2016/05/05/black-disabled-woman-syllabus-compilation/
- Disability Justice in the Age of Mass Incarceration: Perspectives on Race, Disability, Law, & Accountability https://docs.google.com/document/d/1J1QaOHV4wNb2zM0VqOufyex1z4piJ9edPQPaI3Rk9Og/edit
Vilissa Thompson, LMSW, is a macro social worker; disability rights consultant, writer, and advocate; and #MacroSW partner. She is the founder of Ramp Your Voice!, an organization focused on promoting self-advocacy and empowerment among people with disabilities.