The Power of Allyship

What is allyship?

Allyship – having an ally; being an ally – is so important. I cannot emphasise this enough. 

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 and 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 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 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 as he embraced and immersed himself in Rose’s world and became her ally.

Does allyship in the workplace really matter?

Yes. Undoubtedly, 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.  My boss did not check in on me to ensure I was coping okay. This left me feeling even more isolated, alone and unsupported.

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. The lack of allyship from the counsellor meant there was no safety net in which I could open up and talk about my struggles as a deaf person. I look back at these occasions and think how things have changed, not just more disability awareness but also awareness of the mental health impacts. That labelling someone as “difficult” is harmful, as often there is an underlying reason for their frustrations – in most cases it is the barriers in the workplace and society that are difficult, not us. We need our allies to help break down these barriers.

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 support me in any way they can. They look at me when they speak so that I can lip-read. They check the seating arrangements when we go out to eat to make sure they are seated in good light so that I can see their faces, and that there is not 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 to people with disabilities at work?

Here are some tips you can follow:

  1. Engage early with them and build relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability – show that you care
  2. 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
  3. Hold yourself accountable when you make mistakes and be prepared to re-work your approach as needed
  4. Be consistent in your support – there is nothing worse than someone showing support only to then withdraw it
  5. Check in on colleagues and team members and ask if they are ok
  6. Find safe spaces to talk and be open to other people’s perspectives – recognise your bias and remove it
  7. Value differences in people and listen to new approaches and ideas
  8. Call out any non-inclusive behaviours you see in others that can make people feel not valued
  9. As an ally who is also a leader, encourage and expect your team to be allies, and flex your own working style to accommodate your employee’s disability

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. But by being thoughtful, curious, supportive and ready to learn as part of your everyday behaviours, you can help your colleagues to thrive and perform at their very best.

What are the benefits to you as an ally?

These behaviours of an ally are undoubtedly positive behaviours to embrace and they are all conducive to personal 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. That too is the power of allyship.

Sarah Petherbridge
Sarah Petherbridge

I am a passionate and authentic disability awareness trainer helping businesses become more disability confident and create inclusive workplaces for people with disabilities. I am also a public speaker on disability, inclusion and mental health. I belong to two speakers organisation – The Speakers Collective and This Can Happen, and through them I can be hired out for speaking engagements. 
 
I draw on my experience of working as a professional with a disability in a corporate environment for several years. I was born profoundly deaf and I communicate by way of little hearing, lipreading, some BSL and intelligent guesswork! In my last job as a senior manager at EY, I helped set up and run the disability network called Ability EY for people working at EY with disabilities and long term health conditions. We had over 500 members and I draw on my experience of running this network when advising businesses to set up similar networks.
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