Allyship – having an ally; being an ally – is so important. I cannot emphasise this enough.
What is an ally?
For a person with a disability, it is a lifeline. Someone who has your back and ensures you are included and supported. Someone who provides you with a psychological safety net by stepping in when things are difficult. Someone who enables you to perform to your very best. Someone who knows your need to practice self-care in order to protect your mental health. Someone who accommodates your working style, who helps to remove the barriers we face every day rather than accepting the status quo. Someone who listens and learns about our life experiences.
I talk about allyship a lot during my disability awareness training because the difference it can make is game changing.
Some of you may be Strictly Come Dancing fans. In 2021 Rose Ayling-Ellis became the new Strictly champion with her professional partner, Giovanni Pernice. Her dancing was beautiful. Her rhythm, her musicality, her timing … perfection. Yet this incredible dancer could barely hear the music. She is deaf.
“I want to break down the stereotype that deaf people can’t dance and can’t enjoy music” Rose said when she joined the 2021 cast.
By being a true ally, Giovanni helped Rose do just that.
Rose communicates through sign language and lip-reading. So Giovanni made sure to look at her when he spoke and took the time to learn enough sign language to help them through.
She couldn’t fully hear the music and the beat, so he designed their early dances in a way that meant she remained in close body contact with him. She followed him rather than the music and so it helped her keep time and feel the rhythm. By the end, her confidence had grown so much that she was able to dance by herself.
Perhaps most importantly, he listened, he learned and he became fully invested in Rose’s purpose for joining the show. It became their purpose.
From the very beginning, Giovanni was an incredible example of an ally … and a good looking one too!
Does allyship in the workplace really matter?
Yes. Undoubtedly, unarguably, definitively, yes. For all the reasons I listed at the start of this blog post.
In particular we need our allies at work to give us the all too important psychological safety net to feel safe, included and supported.
Unfortunately there have been times when I have had the experience of not having an ally at work which removed that psychological safety net. It gave rise to feelings of fear, discomfort and shame.
The COVID pandemic was a particularly difficult time for me. Working from home meant endless and tiring video calls while trying to manage teams remotely, and lipreading groups of people on a small screen took a big toll on me. Some colleagues, in particular my boss, did not check in on me to ensure I was coping okay. This left me feeling even more isolated, alone and unsupported.
Things that to others may seem small, like the work Christmas parties being held online, further left me feeling isolated and excluded. I, of course, understood the necessity during lockdown. But to have someone acknowledge the impact on me, to recognise that I could not participate and consider other inclusive ways or at least include me in the decision as an ally, would have made a world of difference. Unfortunately no one did acknowledge me and my disability. No one asked me if this format was okay. I had no allies in that respect. With the online groups too large for me to lip-read and keep up, I was excluded at an already difficult and lonely time.
I have experienced managers who would not flex their working styles to allow me to work in a way that accommodated my deafness and so I experienced discomfort and fear while trying to work to their way of working. I even experienced a counsellor who labelled me as difficult, instead of asking me if I was okay. Family reasons meant that I was going through a particularly difficult time. But the lack of allyship from the counsellor meant there was no safety net in which I could open up and talk to him about my family situation.
I look back at these occasions and shudder. How things have changed, not just more disability awareness, but also awareness of the mental health impacts.
In my previous blog post I talked about how words matter and the need for inclusive language. That labelling someone as difficult is harmful, as often there is an underlying reason for their frustrations – in most cases it is barriers in the workplace and society that we face every day.
Without our allies, it would be harder to break those barriers – it is down to our allies to educate themselves, listen to our issues and help us break these barriers down.
The positive power of allyship
Just as Rose and Giovanni have shown, good allyship can be incredibly powerful.
I have some great allies amongst my hearing friends who, while they won’t completely understand what it is like to be deaf, support me in any way they can. They look at me when they speak so that I can lip-read. They automatically check the seating arrangements when we go out to eat to make sure they are seated in good light so I can see their faces, and that I am not sat in the middle of too much distracting noise. And they accompany me to subtitled performances at theatres and cinemas so that we can enjoy shows and films together.
I have also had great allies at work for most of my career. One boss in particular comes to mind.
Before the days of video calls, conference calls were the norm. In order for me to join in, I relied on booking a palantypist to join the call and provide me with live subtitles on my laptop screen. They were a life saver and enabled me to do my job effectively. Unfortunately they required 24 hours notice and so it was not always possible to book them for spontaneous or short notice calls.
On these occasions, my boss would step in, in my place, with no drama and no fuss. They understood what I needed, that it was outside of my control, and that it was something that they were able to do to help.
Those actions of allyship removed the fear of not being able to do my job. That is how powerful allyship can be.
So how do you become an effective ally?
Here’s what you can do to become an ally to people with disabilities in your place of work:
- Engage early with them and build relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability – show that you care
- Actively seek to learn about disability and accessibility to build your own disability confidence, so that you can better support them and ensure they are included and able to do their job
- Hold yourself accountable when you make mistakes and be prepared to re-work your approach as needed
- Be consistent in your support – there is nothing worse than someone showing support only to then withdraw it
- Check in on colleagues and team members, ask if they are ok, if they are being included or left out
- Find safe spaces to talk and be open to other people’s perspectives – recognise your bias and remove it
- Value differences in people and listen to new approaches and ideas
- Call out any non-inclusive behaviours you see that can make people feel not valued
- As an ally who is also a boss, encourage and expect your team to be allies, and flex your own working style to accommodate your employee’s disability
- Think about how you can implement allyship principles into your day to day behaviours.
You don’t need to have all the answers to be an effective ally and there is no big secret in how to be one.
By being thoughtful, curious, supportive and ready to learn, you can help your colleagues to thrive and perform at their very best.
What are the benefits to you as an ally?
These behaviours, described above, are the behaviours of an ally. They are undoubtedly positive behaviours to embrace and they are all conducive to growth.
As an ally, we learn more about the world, more about others, and more about ourselves. We recognise where, when and how we can make a positive difference, no matter how big or small.
We gain perspective, experience, empathy and knowledge. We gain purpose. All these things that can enrich and enhance our lives.
Let’s go back to Rose and, in particular, Giovanni.
Rose was the contestant. The show was supposed to be about her Strictly journey. And it was. But those of you who watched will have witnessed Giovanni’s own journey, as he embraced and immersed himself in Rose’s world.
Year after year, he has been the professional, whose job it is to teach the contestant how to dance, to be confident, to perform, and to live for the joy of dancing. Yet with Rose, the teacher became the student. We all watched as week after week, he gained a new-found love and appreciation for life, a renewed joy in everything around him, and a purpose that perhaps had been missing before.
Allyship isn’t a job or a role. It is a way of being, a way of thinking, an enhancement of all the good things you already are.
The downside? There is no downside. So come on, now is the time to jump aboard and help us make a real difference to people’s lives.
If you would like to learn more about how to be an ally in creating inclusive workplaces for your business, please contact me via my website or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org for further training and help.
Written in collaboration with Written by Lyds Ltd (www.writtenbylyds.com)