A Conversation on Avoiding Ableism and Becoming Allies

Photo of a crowd of people sitting at tables and listening to a presentation at the Disability Inclusion Breakfast.

“Undoing and unlearning ableism is hard work,” says Brittanie Hernandez-Wilson in front of a sold-out crowd at the Lifeworks Disability Inclusion Breakfast. Brittanie was one of three panelists of disability advocates who joined keynote speaker, Michelle Lauren Anderson, for the event on Tuesday, June 4, at the Glass House in Minneapolis.

Lifeworks invited community members – including business partners, professionals, and disability advocates – to the event to hear stories of personal experience with ableism, identify ways to become allies to the disability community, and engage in thoughtful conversation with their peers.

Photo of the Glass House. The front wall is featured with gray brick and white lettering that reads: "GLASS HOUSE". Green grass lines the front of the building up to a long ramp that runs along the wall. In the background is part of the Minneapolis skyline.Attendees of the Disability Inclusion Breakfast were welcomed to the beautiful space with a breakfast catered by Chowgirls Catering. Gertrude Matemba-Mutasa, Lifeworks President and CEO, kicked off the event by speaking about the importance of advancing disability inclusion. Gertrude’s message focused on the role we all play in challenging ableism: a system in which being nondisabled is treated as a standard of normal living – which in turn promotes the belief that people with disabilities are inferior to those without disabilities.

Michelle Lauren Anderson, a therapeutic horseback riding instructor, writer, and advocate, followed Gertrude’s opening remarks by sharing her story. When Michelle was two years old, 91% of her body was burned in a house fire. Now, as a burn survivor, Michelle talked about the ableism she experienced and her journey to healing. She hoped to empower others to challenge the systems of prejudice and discrimination that impact her and other people with disabilities.

“When I was first asked to speak, I was a little hesitant,” admits Michelle. “When I’ve done speaking in the past, I’ve been met with a lot of ableist comments.” Despite her hesitation, Michelle decided she would come to tell her story. “It’s a very important topic to talk about and something I’ve experienced on a day-to-day basis. It’s important to have these conversations.”

Photo of the keynote speaker and three panelists at the Lifeworks Disability Inclusion Breakfast. From left to right are keynote speaker, Michelle Lauren Anderson, Judy Moe, Brittanie Hernandez-Wilson, and Dupree Edwards.

From left to right: Keynote speaker, Michelle Lauren Anderson, and the three panelists, Judy Moe, Brittanie Hernandez-Wilson, and Dupree Edwards.

Michelle’s presentation was followed by a panel discussion featuring three disability advocates: Dupree Edwards, Brittanie Hernandez-Wilson, and Judy Moe. Michelle moderated the conversation by prompting panelists with questions on disability inclusion, ableism, and allyship.

Dupree Edwards, a teaching artist and program support assistant at Upstream Arts, spoke about why disability inclusion matters. “It’s not a perfect world, but we are making progress,” he says. “We are still advocating for our rights [and] for our needs.” Dupree also noted that disability inclusion needs to involve everyone, especially those with intersectional identities.

Judy Moe, the Executive Director at the Richfield Disability Advocacy Partnership, agrees with Dupree. “If you’re not talking about intersectionality, you’re not doing the right work,” she says.

Intersectionality, a term coined by prominent civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw, is the idea that our identities – race, gender, class, etc. – do not exist independently. Our identities interact and influence one another, shaping our experiences and the societal barriers we encounter.

People with disabilities face additional barriers if they are part of the LGBTQ+ community or are a person of color, for example. Brittanie, the Equity and Justice Director at The Arc Minnesota, touched on the need to uplift folks with intersectional identities in conversations about disability inclusion: “People at the margins have the experience. They have the answers. They live it every single day.”

Michelle continued the discussion by asking panelists to share their thoughts on unlearning ableism. Brittanie shared that we should be willing to accept feedback from those with lived experience and become comfortable with making mistakes. “That’s being human – we’re messy,” she says.

Judy encouraged our audience members to educate themselves, ask questions, and ensure that people with disabilities are represented when making decisions. “Make space everywhere you go,” she emphasized. Dupree added, “In your work, make sure ableism comes up.

After the panel discussion concluded, attendees had time to reflect with one another and share what resonated with them. One of the attendees, Maria, said, “I thought it was really interesting that Brittanie pointed out that disability will affect everyone. It’s a part of the human experience. It matters to all of us, not just those currently living with a disability.”

Another attendee, Allie, shared, “There’s always a place to begin and start moving to dismantle the systems that create ableism and working towards a more inclusive world.”

If you want to learn more about how you can be involved in advancing disability inclusion – get in touch with us! Our disability inclusion trainings bring the conversation directly to your business or organization. Get started today: https://bit.ly/3EPjwZM

View photos from the event here.