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When Discussing Disability Representation, Advocates Should Stay in Their Lane

Oct 05, 2020

Disability advocacy is important work and I believe all that disabled people, of any diagnosis, should do their best to be advocates of everyone else with a disability. Ambulatory Deaf or HoH people should absolutely let a venue know that their lack of wheelchair accessible restrooms is a problem; hearing wheelchair users should speak out about the lack of sign language interpreters at conferences, etc.

But there’s one area that people with one type of disability should not directly advocate for people with another type of disability: media representation. For example, as a wheelchair user, my opinions on how A Quiet Place, or The Shape of Water represents deaf or HoH people don’t matter nearly as much as those of actual Deaf or HoH people and I should work to elevate their voices and promote their work instead of publishing my own thoughts on the topic.

The same thing goes for media centered around wheelchair users. If your disability does not include the use of a wheelchair, I absolutely do not want to hear your opinion on Me Before You or Bright. I don’t give a flying fuck if your full‐time job is advocacy or if you have a goddamn doctorate in disability studies. If you’re gonna talk about the emotional or social impact of a particular piece of media on people with a specific kind of disability, you sure as hell better have that disability.

Seriously, what kind of asshole would I be if I, a hearing wheelchair user, set out to write two‐thousand word essay about the impact of A Shape of Water on the Deaf Community? Answer? A huge one. And if you’re writing about disability representation around a disability you don’t have, you’re an asshole too.

Oh, a major publication reached out for your opinion? Great, decline the offer and instead ask them to hire someone you recommend with a similar disability. If you wouldn’t hire a sighted amputee to do sensitivity edit of a book full of blind characters, why the fuck is it okay for you to write about the emotional impact of media representation on a disability you don’t fucking have? What’s that? The publication threatened to shelve the piece entirely unless you write it? Great! Let it gather dust then. Name and shame the publication. Promote the works of lesser known disability advocates who are qualified to write the piece instead.

“But I’m a disability advocate!” you shout. “I want to help fix bad representations of disabled people!” Great! When media misrepresents The Disabled™ by reinforcing stereotypes around The Disability™, I’ll gladly support anything you want to publish. In the mean time, remember that disability is not a monolith and there are voices in the community who are more experienced and more important than your own when it comes to calling out specific instances of harm.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying you shouldn’t advocate for the needs of people with a different disability than you or correct misinformation. If you hear someone referencing stereotypes or misinformation about a particular disability, please correct them and point them to first‐hand sources with accurate information. If you notice something that’s accessible to you but inaccessible to others, speak up! That is where we need your voice! What you shouldn’t do is speak for the feelings of people with a different disability than you. That’s not your voice and not your place. Instead, elevate the voices of advocates whose work is often overlooked, especially in news media and on social networks. Want to express how hard The Shape of Water can fuck itself with a scuba flipper, but aren't deaf or HoH? Great! Go retweet or share one of the myriad of articles or Twitter threads written by Deaf and HoH folks. Boost, don't bury. Speak up for, not over.