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.
(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.