I developed juvenile chronic arthritis when I was 15. There were times when I couldn’t walk, dress myself or hold a tea-cup. I had a year off school and spent it mostly in hospital. It was one of the worst times of my life. The pain I experienced was beyond words. As a result, I had to create a tough exterior, and go inwards to manage pain. I remember walking to the bus-stop on a good day and my friend asked why I wasn’t talking - I hadn’t even noticed she was speaking! Pain management required every fibre of my energy to concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other, let alone talking and moving at the same time.
After a year in hospital, I went back to school but I was a year behind and had to start my exams with new friends in the year below. I met head girl, Karen; we’re like chalk and cheese in many ways but we share the same values.
I was considering university and thinking about my personal statement; our teachers encouraged us to signal our energy and engagement through writing about our hobbies and extra-curricular activities. I couldn’t volunteer, let alone play sports! The simple effort of getting ready would leave me reeling in pain and unable to fathom how I would get through the day.
One day, Karen surprised me by saying that she was appointing me as a house vice-captain. I wouldn’t have contemplated having the role as it came with a responsibility I could not fulfil: to collect our large cardboard school registers from the main office and deliver them across the school complex. I was embarrassed. I was going to have to say that I couldn’t walk that far. I wasn’t sure I had the inner courage to say those words to someone I didn’t know well, who was popular and funny. I didn’t want to say - in front of anyone - that I couldn’t do something because of pain. Managing an impairment sometimes means managing the internal pain that life hasn’t quite gone to ‘plan.’ I told Karen the truth- I couldn’t accept the role as I could not walk that far. Instantly, she said “don’t worry, I’ll get someone else to do that bit of the role for you”. And in an instant, I had been offered what felt like a ‘gift’ and had something different to add to my university application.
I was stunned; one of my first, and most memorable gifts was the gift of an ally. She didn’t expect a thanks and we never spoke of it again until almost 40 years later. She only has a vague recollection of the moment.
She had looked out for me during an important moment when I needed a stand-out personal statement for University. She took a problem away from me, she adjusted the way the school did things and she enabled me to do the role in a different, though equally valuable, way.
I have subsequently had the good fortune to have met and worked with some of the most gifted champions and allies in many workplaces, though that moment with Karen is also a defining moment for me personally in what it means to be a champion or an ally. And of course, we never quite know what impact we have when we look out for someone.
Using my experience with Karen – as well as dozens of other experiences from others via surveys and roundtables, PurpleSpace produced the Purple Champions and Allies Leaders’ Guide. In this, there stood out for common traits of great allies, which I hope others can use to be great allies too.
- They tend to be the first to spot, then create solutions for the barriers that disabled people face
- They get things started, make things happen and set the tone for others to replicate
- They are not afraid to get things wrong, say the wrong thing, or make a mistake – in the knowledge that their intent is good and if they do make a mistake they will learn. (Clifford Chance’s Director of Inclusion, Tiernan Brady conveys this point powerfully in this interview)
- They display simple human kindness when it is often just too difficult, painful or embarrassing for individuals to ask for adjustments, or be themselves care about people because they know this drives engagement.
Being an ally shouldn’t be an overwhelming commitment that consumes lots of time and energy. It really is the small steps that make all the difference. I’ve loved hearing stories from disability employee network/resource group leaders all around the world of the little acts that allies did which had made a huge difference to someone’s confidence and comfortability.
We love supporting our community of members across the world with important themes, such as allyship, in the work that they do. If you’d like to find out more about how to be a great ally, you can also take a look at our 25 ways to be an ally resource.
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