Disabilities 101 + Being an Ally

Last month, we had the pleasure of speaking with Doris Quintanilla of The Melanin Collective for our monthly Ater 6: Career Conversations event. She spoke to us about working with a disability, advocacy, and how to be a better ally. We are delighted to have her this month as a guest contributor on the blog as she shares tips on how we can all be better allies.

by: Doris Quintanilla, Guest Contributor

I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to share my story as a disabled Latina in the workforce with the amazing Minda Harts and women at The Memo. I got to rep The Melanin Collective as we discussed Working with a Disability: Disabilities 101 and Self-Advocacy. After our fireside chat, I wanted to make sure I shared concrete ways we can be allies to people with disabilities in the workplace.

Fast Facts:

  • 1 in 5 people in the United States has a disability.1
  • People with Disabilities (PWD) are 19% of the population, making us the largest minority group in the United States.1
  • Labor statistics for PWD isn’t readily available or collected.
  • The employment rate for those with disabilities is 27%, while those without disabilities is 65%.2
  • It is completely legal to pay a disabled employee less than minimum wage in most states.3 (Hey Walmart, we see you!)

What is a person with disabilities?
The ADA defines a person with a disability as a person who has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activity. This includes people who have a record of such an impairment, even if they do not currently have a disability. It also includes individuals who do not have a disability but are regarded as having a disability. The ADA also makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person based on that person’s association with a person with a disability. 4

PWD can have visible disabilities -- e.g. prosthetic limb, sitting in a wheelchair -- and invisible disabilities -- e.g. cognitive, intellectual disabilities, chronic illnesses. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. Some people are born with disabilities, while some people, like me, can end up disabled for various reasons — illness, injury, or genetics. You never really know. The key takeaway though is that if we are lucky to live long enough, we will all be disabled at some point in our lives.

In the process of navigating my own disability, I realized just how unprepared many workplaces are at accommodating the needs of PWD. Sometimes, it’s the lack of physical equipment that can make our working lives more manageable. Sometimes -- especially when it comes to invisible disabilities -- it’s that companies flat out don’t want to make accommodations.

But while organizations and companies still have catching up to do, there are tons of actionable things you can do to be an ally to PWD in the workplace. Here are my top 10 ways!

1. Mind your business. Not to sound blunt, but this is important for framing the conversation. If your coworker would like to share her disability (or not) it is up to her. Employees are not legally required to disclose anything to their employer, beyond the fact that they need accommodations. Asking people with disabilities to do the emotional labor of explaining if they were born like that or answering, “What happened to you?” or “Is that even a disability?” is invasive.

2. Keep your hands to yourself. This rule also applies for people’s equipment or service animals. Guide dogs are not meant to be pet: they have a job and they need to be focused. Similarly, wheelchairs, canes, prosthetics, and work equipment are not props or toys. Keep your hands to yourself.

“I don’t know you. Please don’t touch me. Not only is it rude, but it’s also very distracting. Plus, it can make my handler nervous. We don’t touch you. Please don’t pet me.”  SOURCE: AnythingPawsable

“I don’t know you. Please don’t touch me. Not only is it rude, but it’s also very distracting. Plus, it can make my handler nervous. We don’t touch you. Please don’t pet me.”

SOURCE: AnythingPawsable

3. Educate yourself. Do the work to learn! Think about it this way: PWD are already working full-time in the office, full-time with their body and their ability, and full-time trying to live a regular life. It is not our job to educate others, or to make you feel better about any micro- and macro-aggressions in the workplace. The onus is on you to be responsible for your conduct.

4. Pay attention to who's taking up space. Oftentimes people with disabilities are left out of conversations, meetings, and spaces where their thoughts, ideas, and feelings would be an asset. If someone is not in the room when they should be, take the time to find out why. If you’re in the position to demand their inclusion, be that person. If you see a coworker missing a lot of work and you have the capacity to support them, ask how you can be helpful. The most important part of being an ally is being mindful of how you take up space, demonstrate respect, and acknowledge others — just like you would help someone struggling to open the door while they’re holding a latte on one hand, purse in the other, phone under their chin, and struggling to find their keys! Do what you can to be aware and don’t make it a burden or a chore.


5. If you see something, say something. If you see someone being disrespected, harassed, abused, or attacked, use your able-bodied privilege to stop it. We need people to be allies by stepping in and ending conflicts. Just because we’re used to it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt us.

6. Elevate people’s voices. “Nothing about us, without us” is imperative to our survival and ability to thrive in any space. See us get overlooked or ignored? Say something. Pause the meeting, ask the person if they wanted to share, or simply restate what they already said and give them credit for it.

7. Universal design is the future. “Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.” 5

  • Think about incorporating universal design in everything you do. Make websites and social media accessible. Consider learning about 508 compliance and how to make your website, content, and graphics accessible to all.

8. Address people the way they want to be addressed. There’s a big push to ask people what their pronouns are and to show respect by using the appropriate terms. The politically correct term for our community is “people with disabilities, but I do want to make sure you know that there is nothing wrong with the term “disabled.” Refer to people by their names and pronouns. Listen and respect their decision to be labeled or not, and mirror what they use.

9. The D Word.

“There is nothing wrong with the word disabled.”  Source: SCREENSHOT: Disability 101 Flashcards #DIS101Cards. A project by @EBTHEN.

“There is nothing wrong with the word disabled.”

Source: SCREENSHOT: Disability 101 Flashcards #DIS101Cards. A project by @EBTHEN.

10. Make events accessible. I want to give a special shout out to this amazing article by Jodi-Ann Burey. “Cane Chronicles: 8 Tips to Make Your Next Networking Event More Inclusive.”

Learned something new? Have other ideas? Tweet at us at @TheMCSquad_DC!


Doris Quintanilla is on a mission to educate, empower, mentor, and effect change in the lives of women of color. She is the Executive Director & Co-Founder of The Melanin Collective & DC Ambassador for the Reproductive Health Access Project.



1 Persons with a Disability: Labor Force Characteristics, 2018

2 AIR Index: The Pay Gap for Workers with Disabilities

3 A loophole in federal law allows companies to pay disabled workers $1 an hour

4 What is the definition of disability under the ADA?

5 National Disability Authority