Blog post about 'Being a disability ally' by Alexia Black

Image description: Alexia Black is smiling and looking at the camera and her face is framed by her dark fair and black glasses. She is wearing a beautiful pounamu around her neck. 

Hey there.

How are you going?

The last year has been pretty tough on all of us, so I appreciate you taking the time to tune in.

I’ve been asked to write about being an ally of people with learning disability. It’s not something that you see too much written about – so it’s a great opportunity.

Problem is, aren’t we trying to get away from all of that? You know? Giving the microphone to the non-disabled person?

We all know the story.

Non-disabled people have been calling the shots for people with learning disability for Millenia.

We’ve come a long way in the last 20 years and people with learning disability are now staking their claim to their rightful seat at the table. We have incredible leaders from within the learning disability community in Aotearoa, who won’t be silenced anymore. It’s a beautiful thing.

Labels aside (and yes, I identify as a Disabled person but that’s not the point here), being an ally is all about knowing your space, and not taking others’.

So why am I taking this space?

Unfortunately, allyship does not always come naturally. It is a learned skill. It often feels unnatural as it can come into conflict with our prejudices and our other values (more on that later), and it is something we need to constantly challenge ourselves to do better on.

I love a training course created and run by people with learning disability as much as the next person, but is it the responsibility of people with learning disability to train us all to do better?


We need to take responsibility for being better, and work alongside people with learning disability to create mainstream attitudinal change.

As Sir Robert Martin always says, “we need the whole community to work together to create change”.

Me, writing about allyship, is part of my allyship. Not in place of my friends’ self-advocacy, but in support of it.


Alexia’s top tip: Realise that you are a role model.


Yup. You sure are.

For good or ill, you are teaching other people all the time how to treat people with learning disability.

When you speak to people with learning disability, other people are learning.

When you speak about people with learning disability in front of them but not including them, other people are learning.

When you don’t answer someone’s question and defer to your colleague with learning disability, other people are learning.

When you jump in and do things for people with learning disability without being asked, other people are learning.

You get the picture.

As an ally, there is a fine balance we must

tread between shutting up and speaking up.

When you are an ally of people with learning disability you are trying to create an environment where people with learning disability can learn to speak up and people without learning disability can learn to listen.

There are loads of ‘how to be a good ally’ blogs out there and most of them will probably give you the same advice as I am going to. You see, being a good ally of people with learning disability is pretty much the same as being a good ally to any other under-represented group.

But these are the values that guide me in my mahi, and they have served me well over the years:

1. Be guided by the people themselves

This is really easy.

People with learning disability are the experts of their own experience.

If you are assisting someone with learning disability, realise they are an individual who will want and need different assistance from any other person with learning disability who you might have known in the past.

Learn from the person what kind of assistance they want or need from you, and then do that.

Unless they ask you not to. Which they are 100% entitled to do.


2. Step back

Good allyship is about knowing when to step back and when not to.

When to step back:

  • We have this tendency to want to wrap people with learning disability in cotton wool. Don’t do that. Doing the things and making mistakes are the way we ALL learn. Don’t take that away from people.

  • Some people will not want or need any assistance from you. Period.

  • As soon as you start answering for people with learning disability, other people will stop talking to them and start talking to you. Almost every time.

  • Perhaps a hangover from the ol’ days of support, people who are assisting sometimes overhelp as if to justify the existence of their job. Yes, we want to make sure that people are not being neglected and ignored (because that is a HUGE problem), but also, people don’t need to have someone in their face all the time, ‘helping them’. Remember that stepping back can be a sign of great assistance and don’t jump in to judge if you see someone assisting from a distance.

When not to step back: see next section.


3. Step up

While things are improving, we all know there’s still a long way to go. People with learning disability have worse health outcomes, abuse statistics, unemployment rates and more stigma than just about anybody else.


Being a good ally of people with learning disability means you will need to use your privilege and step up when bad things happen.


An example that I’ve experienced way too many times, and something I still struggle with, is when older support workers tread on the rights of people with learning disability. My ingrained kiwi value of respect for older people can make advocacy in that space hard. 


Another example is when people make a joke about people with learning disability and I have to be the party pooper and make everyone uncomfortable by saying “actually, that’s not ok.” We don’t like to rock the boat in New Zealand by going against the group. It can be super hard stepping up, but it’s vital.


Stepping up can also mean stepping up to make great things happen.


  • When other accessible formats are being discussed, remind people about Easy Read.

  • When reasonable accommodations are being discussed for events, bring up things like the pace of speakers, plain language, breaks and extra time to prepare for activities.

  • When you are working alongside people with learning disability, check in with them to see if they are getting the assistance they need, especially before assuming you know what they need.

  • When Disabled people are being consulted or appointed to leadership positions, have people with learning disability or the Disabled Persons’ Organisation for people with learning disability been invited?


Advocacy is still needed, alongside Self-Advocacy.

As an ally, you will need to be brave.

We need your voice too.