“Nothing About Us Without Us” : Mantra for a Movement

This blog post was written by Eli Wolff (Partners for Youth with Disabilities) and Mary Hums (University of Louisville). This article was originally posted on HuffPost Blog.

Traveling through an airport and being left on a plane because no one informs the airport mobility accessibility attendants that an arriving passenger needs assistance. Relocating accessible parking spaces without consulting anyone with a disability working in the closest building. Construction workers leaving equipment in hallways and elevators, blocking a student with a disability using a mobility device from passing through, and navigating the building to get to class.

These are typical everyday issues persons with a disability encounter that persons without a disability may never even think about. Over the course of time and life, these occurrences add up, resulting in people with disabilities feeling disrespected, disenfranchised and – ultimately – powerless.

But it does not have to be this way. People with disabilities have a voice that should and must be at the table from the beginning of any planning process and should never simply be an after-thought. Language, words, and actions can help us fight some of these daily battles. One example of words that can help insure people with disabilities are not cast aside is the phrase “Nothing About Us Without Us.”

These empowering words form a mantra that has fueled the disability rights movement over the years. To quote James Charlton who authored a book by this same title, the term “Nothing About Us Without Us,” “expresses the conviction of people with disabilities that they know what is best for them.” This mantra became the rallying call for the United Nations Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and continues to have relevance and significance more than ever. But why does it matter?

It matters because people with disabilities must be front and center as visible leaders to share our voice and our experience. It matters because it reinforces the role of people without disabilities as allies and partners who share the road toward inclusion and equality.  It matters because it unites us with all the marginalized and invisible individuals and groups who are demanding a seat at the table. Most of all, however, it matters because we as people with disabilities need to be the ones whose voices must lead the way.

“Nothing about Us Without Us” emphasizes how people with disabilities must be valued as integral and essential contributors to every sector, industry and community including entertainment, fashion, education, sports, medicine, business and law. While people with disabilities need to be leaders of disability-focused organizations, that is not enough. We also need to be front and center in mainstream local, national and international organizations.

For example, in the entertainment industry, people with disabilities need to represent themselves and be visible in movies, TV and advertising. Similarly in the world of sports, people with disabilities need to be leading the Paralympic, Special Olympic, and Deaflympic Movements, but also need to be front and center within the Olympic Movement, professional sport, intercollegiate athletics and youth sports.

The powerful phrase “Nothing About Us Without Us” ignites a vision for people with disabilities that represents pride and power rather than stigma and pity. It helps us realize that the disability community is an empowering and uplifting community that unites us and works for our rights and dignity. The phrase reinforces the possibilities for people with disabilities to be meaningfully included, and if we wish to, seamlessly become leaders in every type of organization and institution. We need to have a valued voice in every facet of daily life.

“Nothing About Us Without Us” moves us to re-define, re-imagine and transform what it means to be a person with a disability in all aspects and all avenues of our global society. It inspires a movement that extends beyond the status quo while demanding progress toward equality and justice. Hopefully “Nothing About Us Without Us” will continue to serve as a social justice call to action in mobilizing future generations.