Inconsistent allies – why disabled people prefer action to words

I was reminded last month why it’s important to stress ANU values when employing staff to build a respectful and diverse team, and to act as role models to both staff and students. 

As a neurodivergent staff member whose brain works differently from most, I can sometimes make what others consider ‘mistakes’. I will sometimes respond literally to a question when the person is expecting a different response. I may also totally miss inference, sarcasm or jokes in discussions. Often people then become upset and can lash out in frustration, which is called a micro-aggression. Last year I wrote a post listing some of the common ableist statements towards people with disabilities.  

Recently someone asked me a question to which I responded literally and my response apparently wasn’t ‘right’ in their eyes. They became frustrated and responded in a way that was nasty and inappropriate. It was unfortunate because this was part of an interaction with a person who knows about my disabilities and considers themselves an ally for people with disabilities. It’s an example of the inconsistency and uneasiness we experience with allies. It’s why so many people with disabilities believe that the only ones who can speak for diverse groups are those with the lived experience, and not those whose experience is external, i.e. parents, siblings, friends, clinicians or autism researchers. 

Upon reflection, I realised my example was a case of direct disability discrimination as defined by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC). This happens, “when a person with a disability is treated less favourably than a person without that disability in the same or similar circumstances.” (AHR, 2014 p.1). Unfortunately, discrimination against disabled colleagues is far from uncommon. The recent Australian Institute for Health and Welfare (AIHW) report indicates that 20.1% of colleagues of disabled employees act in a discriminatory way (AIHW 2022, p.165). Unsurprisingly, people with psychosocial disability also account for the highest proportion of disability discrimination complaints the AHRC receives. This in turn leads to people within this disability group being the most likely to avoid situations, including work and/or study, because of their disability. 

My example person’s response shows that they haven’t truly evolved and accepted disability. It’s disability on their terms, meaning they will judge when I can do something ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Inconsistent allies are unhelpful to people with disabilities as they perpetuate the pain of being part of an un-excepted minority group and, in my opinion, it does far more harm than good.

Unfortunately, this type of ally is someone who can tick a box that they’ve done the training, listened to lived experience voices, and used the relevant sticker or email signature in reward. Essentially they can claim to be an ally, but do not feel the need to act like one. But it’s the action that’s important to people with disability! I’m personally getting to the point where I’m wondering about the validity of forms of allyship where the person’s actions indicate someone who has not moved “beyond individual action to direct attention to oppressive social systems” (Nash et al. 2021). There’s little personal risk for allies in these forms of allyship, as the “ally’s position of dominance” (Nash et al 2021) is not disrupted and, in the case of my example, the practice of assimilation upon a disabled person such as myself is reinforced.  

So, when on a recruitment panel recently, I wrote an interview question specifically addressing equity and what the interviewee has learnt working in diverse teams from team members different from themselves. I wanted a clear understanding of how this person might respond in this type of situation, and whether they were likely to be a constructive systemic ally, as I wanted to try and avoid discriminatory moments between team members. Sometimes these discriminatory moments are accidental, but most times they show a lack of thought and consideration for others’ points of difference, particularly the second, third and fortieth time. These moments generally point to an individual who hasn’t evolved to accept new ways of thinking about people and teams and the forms of diversity within them. The interviewee questions were sent 24 hours in advance in line with good inclusive interview practice. 

The question we asked interviewees was:
“In this role you will be a point of liaison and coordination between the various members of the School and College community. We have a diverse team, School and College community. So,

  1. What experience do you have working directly with diverse team members (disabilities, age, culture, gender)?
  2. How do you respond to difference?
  3. If you do have experience, what did you learn from working with team members different from yourself? 

Why is all of this so important? 

Understanding discrimination and the forms allies take can protect more staff and students with disabilities from bearing the brunt of microaggressions, and improve the safety of their work and study places for them. It’s an important conversation for us all to have with staff and students. 

The recent AIHW People with disability in Australia 2022 report indicates that almost half of all “complaints received by the Australian Human Rights Commission are about disability discrimination.” 

  • 27% of complaints are by people with psychosocial disability, followed by 19% of people with physical disabilities and 13% of people with sensory disabilities (AIHW 2022, p.170-1). 
  • 29.5% of people aged 15–64 with disability said discrimination was by an employer.
  • 4 in 9 (44%) people aged 15–64 with disability avoided situations because of their disability (AIHW 2022, p.165). 

Good practice, good business Australian Human Rights Commission (2014)
Workers with Mental Illness: A Practical Guide for Managers Australian Human Rights Commission (2010)
People with disability in Australia 2022, Australian Institute for Health and Welfare
‘It’s not about you’: how to be a male ally, The Conversation, Nash, M., Moore, R., Grant, R., Winzenberg, T., April 6, 2021.
Towards a more inclusive University. Preventing ableism and micro-aggressions in the classroom and in teams Interact blog July 2021, Rickard, S.

September 2022

Dr Scott Rickard, is a staff member with disabilities (neurodivergent +), and is the Education Transformation Officer at the School of Computing and the Chair of the ANU Disability Action Plan Education Provider of Choice Action Group”