How to Be an Ally to Nonspeaking People


S2C, Spelling to Communicate, I-ASC, Autism, nonspeaking, nonspeakers


The Spellers & Allies Advocacy Network (Spellers & Allies) is a group of young adults who meet to discuss social justice for nonspeaking people. We collaborate and share ideas to effect change in areas such as communication access and inclusive education.

For this inaugural blog post of Spellers & Allies, I’ve put together a short guide about how to be a good ally to nonspeaking people, incorporating my personal history with activism (as a self-advocate and as an ally) and combining it with the experiences and suggestions of nonspeaking advocates from the Spellers & Allies.

What does being an “ally” mean?

In the context of social justice and civil rights, “allies” are people whose identities fall outside of a historically marginalized population, but who act in solidarity to empower that population through advocacy. “Ally” does not describe an identity, but “a lifelong process of building relationships based on trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalized individuals and/or groups of people.”

Allies can lend credibility to a movement; people are often (unfortunate as it is) more willing to listen to those who look, and act like them. Allies can provide platforms to those who want to spread the word about something, and they generally help out by using social advantages they might have, which the population they’re allied with might not. (More to come on three of these social advantages.)

Being an ally is an ongoing learning process. Well-intentioned allies may assume that they know what the end goal is for the community they support and how to do that but are often surprised to find that they got it wrong.

As a common example, those who have been taught that “person-first language” (i.e., “people with disabilities”)  is more respectful when referring to disabled people might be surprised to find out that “identity-first language” (e.g., “disabled people”) is preferred within the community that has formed around disability rights.

First and foremost, an ally’s role is to take guidance from those they are supporting, rather than try to control a situation themself.

What does being an “ally” mean in nonspeaking advocacy?

As an ally in the nonspeaking community, I am someone who is able to speak reliably nearly all of the time. I’ve adopted a term to describe the opportunities that reliable speech gives me over my nonspeaking friends, which was coined by disability rights advocate Mayer Shevin: “fluency privilege.”

The concept of “privilege” refers to the opportunities that someone receives for meeting societal expectations; opportunities that are granted simply for looking and acting like who society is built for.

Essentially, being able to speak fluently gives me more opportunities than a nonspeaking person — but it shouldn’t. In a world of equality, every person would be given the same number of opportunities.

“Want at least average opportunities, equal to the average years of standing to the side, for the others to move forward while avoiding us. I also feel that getting the opportunity at the right time is important. So, I am estimating that after really long waiting and tolerating mostly failed attempts at giving equal opportunity, I am planning to ask – ‘Give me my reparations”  -Tejas Sankar

S2C, Spelling to Communicate, I-ASC, Autism, nonspeaker, nonspeakers

That said, an ally’s job is to use privilege to help.

Riffing off of a former article written by Shevin, being able to speak fluently allows me to make connections with other people, to control how I am perceived by others (to some degree), and to “make things happen.” Accordingly, my role as an ally should be to provide support in those three realms.

I asked the nonspeaking advocates in Spellers and Allies what they think makes a good ally, and here is some insight I’d like to share.

  1. Make Connections

Get to know the people you’re supporting. Listening to what they say is most important. Form respectful and trusting relationships. Having relationships with others within a movement is what keeps the movement strong.

The types of connections an ally can make differ from person to person. For example, I come to the table with an activist background, and my personal goal is to create connections between mainstream autistic advocacy and nonspeaking advocacy.

An ally who is a parent or caretaker may have a different role, one with more direct support.


Note: All communication barriers can only be overcome with patience. When you meet someone, who doesn’t speak your language, you must work together to create shared understanding. People with communicative disabilities deserve the same respect.

  1. Take Back the Narrative

The mainstream perception of disabled people is slowly turning to one more of empowerment than tragedy and hopelessness, but nonspeaking people have still been left behind. The past couple of years have seen a bit of a shift with the formation of organizations like United for Communication Choice, CommunicationFIRST, and International Association for Spelling as Communication (I-ASC). The leadership board of trustees at Autistic Self Advocacy Network includes a few nonspeakers, and they also deserve a nod in this regard.

In this area, the work of an ally is to create space, offer platforms, find potential audiences, and then pass the microphone (or the letter board, in this case).

Sometimes “creating space” is a long process that includes convincing outsiders that nonspeakers have important things to say; but once an ally has attracted some attention to the cause, it’s time to immediately pass it to those we support. They are the most qualified to speak about themselves.

“They can help by speaking out for the rights of non speakers. They can advocate for us and let others know we are highly intelligent and understand all that is said to us.”  -Sarah A.

  1. Making Things Happen

Without fluent communication, “making things happen” is difficult. Human beings have complex thoughts which are not always condensable into words; and many nonspeaking individuals have the even harder task of condensing their thoughts into pictures. On top of this, many have disabilities that can be unpredictable.

Here, an ally’s work is showing up. Step in when someone has to step out. Liaise with another group in order to get things moving. Advocate for AAC as a first choice. Do your own research. Be proactive.

I have to admit, this is the hardest of the three; I’m not that proactive myself. But that’s why number one is important. When you foster relationships, you are building trust with people who will support you when you’re the one who can’t step up.

“Learning from your experiences as a speaking advocate would carry our rather infant advocacy organization forward. Knowledge is going to be a very essential part of our journey. Can we interest you in fully mentoring us? Realize you are not a full-time mentor. How about giving us actions that have worked for you and some that have not worked yet. Let me apply some of these and have you and other allies collaborate in them. Ally away.”  -Tejas Sankar

Article by: Ren Everett – Advocate


The mission of I-ASC is to advance communication access for nonspeaking individuals globally through trainingeducationadvocacy and research I-ASC supports all forms of augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) with a focus on methods of spelling and typing. I-ASC currently offers Practitioner training in Spelling to Communicate (S2C) with the hope that other methods of AAC using spelling or typing will join our association.

Posted By on Tuesday, April 7th, 2020 in Advocacy,Education,Families,Motor,Nonspeakers,S2C,Spelling to Communicate

2 responses to “How to Be an Ally”

  1. Ren, we loved your comment on the I-ASC presentation for Innovations Conference how courage involves vulnerability and humility. Profoundly true and beautifully said (as were all your other comments)! Awesome writing and presenting!
    Peter and Joyce Tran

    • I-ASC says:

      The Spellers and Allies are doing incredible work and we are so grateful to have Ren. Thank you again

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