What Does It Mean To Be An Ally?

A woman using a wheelchair faces several steps between her and the projection screen within an installation

When working with an oppressed group, have you ever asked yourself, “What does it mean to be an Ally?” Throughout my life as a Queer woman with disabilities, I have experienced many situations of tokenism, and even objectification. This has been within activist circles, but it has also been extremely prevalent in the arts world. I have seen it with some of Canada’s foremost theatre and dance professionals. Ranging from pity to outright objectification, the Integrated Arts movement has not gained the respect it rightfully deserves.

Most recently, I had the opportunity to speak about my experience as an artist at the Power Plant Contemporary Art Gallery at Harbourfront Centre, Toronto. Wonderfully, I had been headhunted by the Gallery to speak at one of their Sunday Series, by offering my reflections on a large-scale installation by German artist Ula Brandenburg. Now this opportunity was so exciting, because I was chosen solely on the basis of my work within the Integrated Arts movement. This was not a choice of tokenism, or pity. My work as an artist was recognized, and appreciated.

Two weeks before I went to speak, a friend of mine who is also a wheelchair user was at the exhibition, and found out that the viewing platform is not accessible. It made it very difficult to see the video from the front, which was the only accessible space. When I found out that the viewing platform was inaccessible, I was very upset and had to think quite critically about whether or not I could proceed with the speaking engagement. A number of years ago I was invited to a talk by Olivia Chow. And When I showed up I found out that the venue wasn’t accessible, so in protest I decided to leave and not support the event. Last year I was also invited to speak for an anti-poverty organization about my work as a disability rights activist and organizer. Ironically the stage wasn’t wheelchair accessible. Yet this time instead of turning away in rage, I decided to speak about my experience and how challenging it was to be carried down a number of flights of stairs by two men I didn’t even know, in a precarious office chair.

Once again I was reminded that Able-ism is still so prevalent in our world. And in all honesty my heart was saddened, and I had a sense of heaviness in my body. I had to once again question if I wanted to go out and face these difficulties again.

But in my spiritual life, I am a practicing Buddhist. Buddhism gives us the skills and the opportunities to be able to deal with difficult situations. At certain times we can feel a sense of suffering and say go away. Or we can go towards this frustration, which allows us to explore and unravel our deeper issues with those agitations, and then allow there to be sense of peace or equanimity. So through the process of examining Able-ism and my frustrations with inaccessibility, I have been able to thankfully allow myself to create more healing. For me this was an opportunity for more inner acceptance.

So I chose to speak at The Power Plant, but with a new form of resistance. This resistance included mutual respect and love. Ultimately, I am working towards creating what Martin Luther King Jr. described as a “beloved community”. This doesn’t mean that we don’t talk about conflict, or issues of inaccessibility. Coming to terms with power and privilege must make us feel uncomfortable, as we have experienced much comfort from domination. As Anne Bishop once shared: “creating change means simply taking responsibility”.

Further, for me it means I don’t get too righteously attached to the experience or to the oppressed group I self-identify with. I hope that with respectable dialogue and compassionate listening that we can create change.

Emma Goldman once said “If I can’t dance. I don’t want to be part of your revolution”. Revolution is spoken about a lot within Marxist circles that I have occupied. I’m ready for the change from our consumer-capitalist society, but often it feels like there’s a connotation of violence, and domination within these narratives. So I would like to call for more evolution within our revolution. And to not see these times when whiteness and domination are questioned as personal attacks but as opportunities for all of us to have transformation and growth to create a more balanced and loving world.

Melissa Addison-Webster is a white, Queer woman who lives with disabilities. As a performance artist she has a varied career in the Integrated and Disability Arts field, and most recently has been working with Ahuri Theatre’s production of ‘This is the Point’.


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