How to Be a Good Ally to People with Disabilities: Two Perspectives

November 10, 2015

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 1 in 5 Americans lives with disabilities. Yet pervasive misconceptions persist about the everyday lives of Americans with disabilities and what organizations like AAUW can and must to do to accommodate those individuals. In light of the still-unfinished work of creating accessible, inclusive organizations that empower Americans with disabilities to participate fully, what’s our best course of action?

We caught up with two members of the AAUW community to discuss common misperceptions about Americans with disabilities, how to be a good ally to them, and what organizations like AAUW can do to plan accessible events.

Maysoon Zayid

Maysoon Zayid
At our 2015 National Conference for College Women Student Leaders (NCCWSL), 1,000 current and future leaders were inspired by Maysoon Zayid. Zayid’s accomplishments are as varied as they are numerous, but she is perhaps best known as one of America’s first Muslim woman comedians. Her TED talk, “I’ve Got 99 Problems … Palsy is Just One,” has garnered more than 7 million views.

Watch Maysoon’s TED Talk »

Denise Decker and her seeing eye dog.

Denise Decker
Denise Decker first connected with AAUW as a domestic fellow in the 1970s, and since then she has served in leadership positions at several Washington, D.C.-area AAUW branches. Currently, Decker also serves as a member of AAUW’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force. “What you also should know,” she told us, “is that I have been blind since birth and am guided by a Seeing Eye dog.”

Last spring, Decker worked with AAUW staff to author AAUW’s Planning Accessible Events resource, which was just re-released as part of AAUW’s new Diversity and Inclusion Tool Kit.

Question: Why should AAUW (and AAUW members) care about accommodating people with disabilities?

Decker: It’s simple: People with disabilities are not “those people”; they are ourselves, our friends, and our loved ones. There may be a member who needs a large-print agenda in order to participate in a meeting. Another member may need a ride to and from a meeting, or may need a sound amplification device in order to hear a presentation.


Question: How can able-bodied people be good allies to people with disabilities?

Zayid: The number one thing I tell allies is, when the community you’re advocating for is speaking, listen — this is not about you. Too often I see allies get their feelings hurt because a member of the community corrects them. A true advocate does not make it about themselves.

Question: How can people best accommodate for individuals with disabilities?

Zayid: The best way to accommodate [for disabilities] is by creating an environment where people are comfortable asking for what they need without the fear of being stigmatized. It’s not easy to ask for help. When we do ask, we actually need it; we’re not just being difficult.

Question: What are the first steps AAUW member leaders can take to make their meetings and events more accessible?

Decker: Member leaders should start small. Use the checklists and contacts we [AAUW] provide in our Creating Accessible Events resource, and appoint a special needs coordinator at your branch.

The best way to determine what to do first [to make meetings and events more accessible] is to ensure that your current members don’t have needs that aren’t being met. It really isn’t that difficult to provide access; you just need to have the mindset that you want to be inclusive and then just do it. But don’t do it [be inclusive] because you have to — do it because you want to and because it is the right thing to do.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Just as AAUW works to empower women and girls, we must also work within our organization to empower our members with disabilities. As a group, people with disabilities often have a unique experience when it comes to issues of equity — from fair pay to sexual assault to access to health care. In order to succeed in addressing these issues completely, we must have people with disabilities at the table. Making sure that people with disabilities can participate fully in AAUW meetings and events is one place to start. Use AAUW’s Planning Accessible Events guide to take concrete steps to create inclusive and accessible spaces for members with disabilities.

As you begin your work, feel free to reach out to the diversity and inclusion task force for support at

This post was co-written by AAUW Public Relations Manager Ryan Burwinkel and AAUW Training and Program Manager Erica Stout.

AAUWguest By:   |   November 10, 2015

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