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Joan Ostrove  

Actors Against Ableism?
 Qualities of Non-disabled Allies
from the Perspective of People with Physical Disabilities

Joan Ostrove, Ph.D.

My former students Maddie Kornfeld, Marium Ibrahim, and I are pleased and honored to have our work included in the recent special issue of JSI focused on ableism (Bogart & Dunn, 2019). Our project focuses on the qualities that people with physical disabilities look for and value in non-disabled allies. We acknowledge the contested nature of the concept of “ally,” which many activists rightly note must be understood as a verb rather than a noun. With a focus on the ongoing process of critical self-reflection and engaged action, we grounded our analysis in contemporary social psychological work on allies and alliances. For example Droogendyk, Louis, and Wright (2016) note that friendly intergroup contact in combination with a commitment to oppose inequality or support social change is characteristic of allies.

Ableism has motivated long-standing physical and psychological segregation of people with disabilities in the United States (e.g., Davis, 1997; Braddock & Parish, 2001), making disability a particularly important domain in which to study cross-group alliances. This physical and psychological segregation both results from and perpetuates ableism. It can take the form of cultural stereotypes of disabled people as dependent, incompetent, and asexual (see Nario-Redmond, 2010); persistent negative explicit and implicit attitudes toward people with disabilities (e.g., Cahill & Eggleston, 1994; Fox & Giles, 1996; Rohmer & Louvet, 2018); and discrimination against disabled people in education, employment, housing, healthcare, and many other domains.

Given the persistent and pervasive nature of ableism, what does it mean for non-disabled people to take meaningful action to oppose it and build meaningful and mutually respectful relationships with disabled people? We interviewed 16 disabled men and women with a variety of physical disabilities and asked them about non-disabled people in their lives who understand and care about the concerns of people with disabilities. Analyzing the responses to that question suggested six themes that are characteristic of non-disabled people whom our participants agreed could be considered “allies.” The non-disabled people they described offered appropriate help, were trustworthy in their understanding of disability identity, made personal connections, advocated and acted against ableism, were willing to learn, and communicated effectively. Our participants emphasized both the relational and the political/social change dimensions of effective allies and alliances.

Our work has important implications for social and policy change. Dismantling ableism will require, among other things, that non-disabled people cultivate the kind of qualities that our participants value. With respect to the advocacy and action aspect of our participants’ responses, it is important to recognize that disabled people are currently significantly underrepresented as policy-makers. Although that must change, in the meantime non-disabled allies can play an important role in advocating for much-needed policy related to educational access, employment, affordable housing and health care, attendant care, technology, etc.


Braddock, D. L., & Parish, S. L. (2001). An institutional history of disability. In G. L. Albrecht, K. D. Seelman, & M. Bury (Eds.) Handbook of disability studies (pp. 11-68). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Cahill, S. E., & Eggleston, R. (1994). Managing emotions in public: The case of wheelchair users. Social Psychology Quarterly, 57, 300-312.

Davis, L. J. (1997). The disability studies reader. New York: Routledge.

Droogendyk, L., Louis, W. R., & Wright, S. C. (2016). Renewed promise for positive cross-group contact: The role of supportive contact in empowering collective action. Canadian Journal of Behavioral Science, 48, 317-327.

Nario-Redmond, M. R. (2010). Cultural stereotypes of disabled and non-disabled men and women: Consensus for global category representations and diagnostic domains. British Journal of Social Psychology, 49, 471-488. doi: 10.1080/15298868.2012.681118

Rohmer, O., & Louvet, E. (2018). Implicit stereotyping against people with disability.  Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, 21, 127-140. doi: 10.1177/1368430216638536