Performative Disability Allyship

theater stage
Are messengers seeking to disrupt ableism or just seeking praise for “taking a stand” that will never result in substantive change?

Performative followed by any word implies that the messenger is acting in a performance. The messenger might think they are demonstrating allyship to an underrepresented minority group, but the approach is surface- level, at best. Before I became familiar with the phrase performative, I have previously used the term “disability optics” to identify messages that, at their core, seem to care more about how one appears with respect to disability than the actual impact they have. However, as the phrase “performative” has become more ingrained into the US collective consciousness since George Floyd’s murder, I am hereby rebranding “disability optics” to “performative disability allyship.”

The opposite of performative is authentic. Authentic disability allyship is actually doing the work and improving the situation for employees, prospective employees, and customers with disabilities. Here are things that I consider to be classic examples of disability optics / performative disability allyship.

  1. Performative disability allyship messaging is usually extremely simple — a few soundbites, one or more hashtags, and a retweet — but nothing substantial. Performative disability allyship messaging never dives into the complexity underlying the issues facing people with disabilities. There is no root cause analysis, innovative thoughts, or new insights.
  2. Performative disability allyship messaging frequently takes the form of “inspiration porn.” One form of inspiration porn is portraying people with disabilities as inspirational solely or in part on the basis of their disability. Stella Young coined the phrase “inspiration porn” in material leading up to her stereotype-shattering TED talk, “I’m not your inspiration thank you very much” Sharing an image of a child with two prosthetic legs with the message “Why should you have an excuse when he doesn’t” doesn’t further disability equality in any way. What it does is disrespect and offend people with disabilities.
  3. Performative disability allyship messages that contain “real employee stories” repeatedly refer to the same employees and the same stories. When you have one blind employee or a handful of employees that use ASL as their primary form of communication, guess who shows up in the corporate disability messaging? This problem is not only a slap in the face to the people who are repeatedly asked to participate, but it also sends an extremely negative message to people with invisible disabilities who are never asked to participate despite being 70 % of the disabled population.
  4. Any anger expressed in a performative disability allyship message puts a spotlight on the messenger’s able-bodied privilege. You aren’t telling people with disabilities anything new when you are publicly commenting on the injustice of the unemployment rate for people with disabilities. It may be the messenger’s disbelief that the problem exists, but it is our daily and permanent life experience. My least favorite example of this issue is when people with significant financial resources (frequently celebrities) have a temporary disability (think: scratched cornea, sprained ankle) and then talk about they didn’t realize how hard it is to have a disability. SMH.
  5. Performative disability allyship messaging stops at “waaah, it’s terrible”. Yep, cry me a river. So where was the messenger’s allyship before they scratched their cornea or sprained their ankle?
  • Did the messenger hold themselves personally accountable for failing to help identify and correct systemic disability bias before the “tragedy” that caused them to consider this issue from the other side of the equation?
  • Did the messenger identify future actions they would take to help others in a similar, permanent situation in the future?

It’s rare to see either, much less both.

Performative disability allyship messages are responded to with praise, approval, or admiration for the messenger. And there, in a nutshell, is exactly why the messenger sent the message. Who needs to go through the effort to BE an ally if all they have to do is look like they are being an ally and their public will love them for their “work.”

On the 30th anniversary of the ADA, Americans with disabilities are beyond exhausted with cute posts and actions contradicting words. At a previous employer, I was excluded from a golfing event (no wheelchairs on the greens or in the carts!) the same day that I was asked to participate in a Special Olympics event that was intended to show how my employer cared about people with disabilities.

We want policies changed. We want AI-based talent acquisition replaced with people trained in disability unconscious bias looking at resumes and giving people with non-traditional backgrounds a chance. We want equality. I’ve been fighting for that all my life. I’ve had to explain to my daughter why we didn’t achieve that before she went into the workforce as an adult with a significant hearing loss, and I sure as hell don’t want to be explaining it to my grandson 20 years from now why we are still waiting.

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