NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, May 29th, 2019

Fourth annual Rooted in Rights Film Festival puts disabled storytellers front and center

It is hard for us to put our­selves in the shoes of oth­ers. Too often, we mean well when we advo­cate for dis­ad­van­taged and under­rep­re­sent­ed pop­u­la­tions, but we risk inad­ver­tent­ly shut­ting out mar­gin­al­ized voic­es if our advo­ca­cy isn’t inclu­sive.

At the fourth annu­al Root­ed in Rights Film Fes­ti­val at Seattle’s Town Hall ear­li­er this month, the voic­es of peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties were put front and cen­ter.

Launched by Dis­abil­i­ty Rights Wash­ing­ton (DRW) in 2015, Root­ed in Rights “tells authen­tic, acces­si­ble sto­ries to chal­lenge stig­ma and rede­fine nar­ra­tives around dis­abil­i­ty, men­tal health, and chron­ic ill­ness.”

Root­ed in Rights Pro­gram Direc­tor Anna Zivarts (@annabikes) began the evening’s pro­gram by empha­siz­ing the impor­tant of “broad­en­ing ideas with­in our com­mu­ni­ty” and empow­er­ing peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties to tell their sto­ries.

Mem­bers of the dis­abled com­mu­ni­ty should be the ones writ­ing, edit­ing, and pro­duc­ing the advo­ca­cy mate­ri­als that reach the gen­er­al pub­lic, she said.

Nat­u­ral­ly, DRW’s Root­ed in Rights fes­ti­val leads by exam­ple.

The com­mu­ni­ty heard from three dis­abil­i­ty rights advo­cates – Wilbert John­son, Paul Tshu­ma, and Daisy Wis­lar – who were each giv­en the oppor­tu­ni­ty to tell their unique sto­ries on dis­abil­i­ty rights through film, with their own voice.

Wilbert John­son is a zookeep­er at the Audubon Nature Insti­tute in New Orleans, Louisiana, as well as a nation­wide advo­cate for dis­abil­i­ty employ­ment.

His film Will­ing to Work chron­i­cles his jour­ney find­ing employ­ment with an intel­lec­tu­al dis­abil­i­ty. After enrolling in a tran­si­tion pro­gram in col­lege, Audubon offered him employ­ment. Now he hap­pi­ly works as a ride oper­a­tor.

In his post-film live inter­view with the audi­ence, he unabashed­ly expressed his belief that every­one deserves a job, and that hav­ing a dis­abil­i­ty shouldn’t dis­cour­age any­one from achiev­ing their goals in life.

You can watch his film in its entire­ty here.

(A side note: all Root­ed in Rights videos come with cap­tions, audio descrip­tions, and tran­scripts – visu­al aids that any orga­ni­za­tion try­ing to tell a sto­ry through film can pri­or­i­tize cre­at­ing to make their con­tent more acces­si­ble.)

Sec­ond to be fea­tured was Mon­tre­al-based advo­cate Paul Tshu­ma.

A wheel­chair user, he advis­es archi­tects and busi­ness­es on how to make all wheel­chair users safer through inclu­sive design. Many build­ings, par­tic­u­lar­ly sky­scrap­ers (which seem to nev­er stop being built across our region), leave few options for those with dis­abil­i­ties to escape in case of an emer­gency.

Tshu­ma shares a per­son­al anec­dote in his film, relat­ing that he was once in the mid­dle of a meet­ing when a fire alarm sound­ed and every­one non-dis­abled rushed down the exit stair­well. With no one to car­ry him, Tshu­ma would’ve been trag­i­cal­ly stuck had the alarm not been a drill.

The land­mark Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act, passed by Con­gress in 1990 and signed by the first Pres­i­dent Bush, pro­vides good base­line build­ing require­ments for those with dis­abil­i­ties, but doesn’t man­date them in many instances.

Tshu­ma explained that many well-mean­ing peo­ple feel guilty when their orga­ni­za­tions don’t offer accom­mo­da­tions for every type of dis­abil­i­ty, and sim­ply lump togeth­er all dis­abled peo­ple to min­i­mize the pos­i­tive poten­tial impact of any acces­si­bil­i­ty mod­i­fi­ca­tions they pro­pose to make. This regret­tably caus­es inac­tion, which can unnec­es­sar­i­ly put wheel­chair users in life-and-death sit­u­a­tions.

Last­ly, the group was intro­duced to Daisy Wis­lar, an advo­cate for con­sent edu­ca­tion. Speak­ing from expe­ri­ence, Daisy shared their dif­fi­cult jour­ney through grade school, where they were “nev­er taught how to com­mu­ni­cate phys­i­cal bound­aries” with assigned helpers. Daisy’s goal? Start­ing the con­ver­sa­tion about con­sent and bound­aries for vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.

After each film was screened, an open ques­tion-and-answer ses­sion was held, with each fea­tured sto­ry­teller join­ing remote­ly. The ques­tion­ing skewed towards each storyteller’s per­son­al expe­ri­ences. For me, the take­away from the fes­ti­val was the impor­tance of dis­abil­i­ty advo­ca­cy led by peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties.

We need more of this authen­tic advo­ca­cy at the fed­er­al, state, and local lev­els.

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