Nothing About Us Without Us
Image: The back of a person using a wheelchair in front of blue sky with white puffy clouds Credit: Photo by james williams on Unsplash
A slogan widely adopted by disability movements worldwide, “Nothing about us without us” speaks to the importance of consultation and participation of disabled people in any decision-making that affects them. Initially, the phrase was used by labour organizers going as far back as the 16th century but became a rallying cry of the disability movement in the 1980s amidst South African policy advocates (James Charlton, 1998).
Developing an Understanding
Media is often where we learn about the world around us before we experience it. It also has plenty of power and influence over widespread ideas about marginalized groups. If we’re only seeing the same set of stereotypes shown to us repeatedly, we are not getting to witness and celebrate the intersections and nuances around disabled identities. Disabled people should be the ones who are writing, acting, producing, directing, recording, and editing their stories. Authentic stories can challenge stigma and redefine some of the narratives around disability, mental health, and chronic illness (Rooted in Rights, 2019).
What we see onscreen is often a very slim piece of the spectrum of disability. Disabled characters are often relegated to a single experience or perspective, and rarely are there depictions of multiple disabilities at once. This is where intersectionality is so important in every step of media making.
For instance, Peter Dinklage’s plotline in 30 Rock opens in new window relies on his disability as the joke – being a man of short stature, Tina Fey’s character Liz Lemon often mistakes him for a child, both infantilizing and desexualizing him. Conversely, Netflix’s Special opens in new window is written by and stars Ryan O’Connell, who is a gay man with cerebral palsy. Each storyline is carefully considered and emphasizes the intersections of his identities. While you could technically consider both examples of representation, Special allows for nuance and humour, coming from a place of knowledge; we’re laughing with Ryan, not at him.
When media is made in the “nothing about us without us” framework, it presents disabled perspectives in a way that is inviting, interesting and validating – something to be experienced rather than viewed at a distance. It allows for stories that disrupt oppressive narratives. It opens up the space for emotion, humour and empathy. Most of all, it makes for good media.