Rooted in Rights: Disability Rights are Human Rights
Rooted in Rights: Disability Rights are Human Rights

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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