Being an ally is good for your mental health
On speaking up
Hello, hope you’re well.
This week, for a variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking about speaking up in situations that are ableist or uncomfortable.
Anyone who knows me knows that I like to speak my mind. Especially when something is wrong or unfair. And especially, it seems, when I am most expected to nod and smile and shut up. There’s nothing that annoys me more than people relying on presumed power imbalances to get away with shit.
Calling out ableism has become second nature to me. Sometimes, it can even be darkly enjoyable. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. My heart still races when I do it, and depending on the situation, I have to consciously force the words up from my chest and out of my mouth. Often, it still feels risky - you never really know how someone’s going to take it - and I still ask myself, all the time, if it’s really worth the aggro.
The thing is, though, for me it’s always worth the aggro. Because no matter how scary or uncomfortable or awkward saying something is - no matter how stressed and exposed I feel - I know I will absolutely feel worse if I don’t say anything.
There was a time, not so long ago, where I was much more selective about the ableism I reacted to, mostly because I didn’t have the confidence I do now. I thought this choice made for an easier life, but actually all that happened was the instances of exclusion and discrimination built up inside me like toxic sludge. Rather than reacting in the moment and being able to move on, I carried around pent up anger, frustration and hurt. And after so long being suppressed, those emotions transfigured themselves into anxiety. There’s only so much you can allow yourself to be treated negatively before you internalise that negativity.
When I give voice to what is happening, though, I turn that experience outwards rather than in. By assigning real responsibility to the forces of ableism, I don’t blame myself. Naming and describing and challenging situations allows me to reclaim control, empowering me to take action rather than take the weight of it. While I may feel scared and vulnerable in that moment, continually doing the scary thing has made me infinitely more confident and self-assured in the long run.
Whenever people call me brave for speaking up, I want to ask them what the real, viable alternative is. Of course, you can always not say anything, but then you’re just stuck in a bad situation. That doesn’t really feel like an option, so I open my mouth and speak.
But I also want to explain that just because I’ve confidently challenged something, doesn’t mean I didn’t feel wobbly doing it. I think the belief that you have to feel absolutely calm and happy and confident speaking up is what holds a lot of people back from being good allies or active bystanders. You can be nervous and still act. Feel the fear and do it anyway.
There’s also a lot of ways you can make it easier for yourself. You don’t have to start a row or even have the answer to challenge something you know to be wrong. Even I, Lucy let-me-tell-you-why-this-is-ableist Webster, very rarely actively tell someone they’re being ableist, because it wouldn’t really get me anywhere if I did. Instead, it can often be enough to ask “what makes you think that?” or “does this seem fair?” to upset rigid thinking and stave off prejudiced decisions. Sometimes the arching of a single eyebrow can go a long way.
I want nondisabled people to spend less time being impressed when disabled people advocate for themselves and more time advocating with us. Of course, this would help disabled people quite a lot. But I also don’t believe that the mental health benefits of speaking up about discrimination only accrue to those being discriminated against. I think they’re available to everyone.
So, win win. Be a better ally to us, and feel better about yourself. It works - I promise.
See you next week,
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