On July 26, 2016, 19 disabled residents of the Tsukui Yamayuri En care facility in Sagamihara, Japan were murdered by 26-year-old Satoshi Uematsu, a former facility employee. As reported by the Guardian, Uematsu turned himself him in to police and admitted his crime. “I did it,” he said. “It is better that disabled people disappear.”
Tonight at 8 pm ET (which would be 9 am on Aug. 5 in Japan), Alice Wong of the Disability Visibility Project and disabled filmmaker/activst Dominick Evans will have an online vigil for those killed and the 20 wounded. The vigil and chat will include Dr. Gillan Peckitt who runs disability-related site The Limping Philospher and resides in Nada-Ku, Kobe, Hyogo Prefecture, Japan.
The conversation and vigil will give those participating a chance to share grief, express solidarity, and highlight the lack of coverage the attack garnered in the media. “There will be discussions of violence, ableism, murder, and death,” wrote Wong in her blog post about the event. “Please practice self-care.” She also wrote that while everyone is welcome to attend and participate, “this online vigil will be centered on the voices and lives of disabled people, especially disabled people of color who have been so impacted.”
You can learn more about the event at The Disability Visibility Project.
The creators of Ramp Your Voice! and the Disability Visibility Project, Vilissa Thompson, LMSW and Alice Wong respectively, have collaborated to create #GetWokeADA26. The survey, created to celebrate the 26th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, highlighted the voices of disabled people of color to examine how the Americans with Disabilities Act has affected their lives.
“As disabled women of color, we believe the disability community needs to ‘get woke’ on race, racism, and intersectionality,” wrote Thompson. “The work of getting ‘woke’ can be hard, awkward, and uncomfortable, but this is something disabled people of color expect and deserve.”
Many who have participated have said how the Americans with Disabilities Act have helped them finish school, have better work experiences and a better quality of life overall. But other participants cited how the law negatively affects those with “invisible disabilities.”
The survey also highlighted other aspects of being a disabled person of color on the gender and sexual spectrums. Many of the overlapping issues facing disabled people of color are either ignored or not dealt with at the same time. To sum up their opinions, they felt that society wants them to either fit in one group or the other, and usually, the issues they face as people of color or as LGBTQ+ individuals aren’t discussed as much as they should because of an erroneous idea that discussing disability should be done with a naive colorblindness. In many ways, disabled people of color feel like they are being told “All Lives Matter” in their everyday lives.
There are also problems within certain demographics that exacerbate issues facing disabled people of color. One person wrote how their OCD, autism, and depression went undiagnosed because of a cultural attitude in black America to hide or ignore symptoms.
One way the angst over underrepresentation or lack of representation could be solved is if those in the media actually create characters and stories that focused on disabled people, especially disabled people of color, who are represented in the media even less than white disabled people. “Another major issue that the respondents frequently highlighted was the lack of diverse images of disability in the media,” wrote Wong. “One thing disability organizations can and should do is support the creation of media by disabled POC that reflects the full range of diversity in our community.”
“When you don’t see yourself in the media or in images produced by the disability community, you think you don’t count. White privilege is never knowing what that type of racialized erasure feels like, she wrote. “Disabled POC who speak out about this have been criticized and harassed online. Online communities and activism via social media such as #DisabilityTooWhite are creating spaces where these voices are heard and valued.”
Wong and Thompson provide these tips to readers who want to know how to better serve disabled people of color.
- Listen and engage with disabled POC.
- Don’t expect disabled POC to do the majority of the labor of educating you.
- Acknowledge white privilege and other forms of privilege throughout your organization’s work/activities.
- Recognize the pain that disabled POC experience as multiple marginalized people.
- Do not co-opt, appropriate the civil rights movement or compare it with the disability right movement. Just. Don’t.
- Build safe spaces for everyone to engage openly and honestly.
- Do not represent our views without us.
- Hire disabled POC as staff, consultants, and experts; and treat them as equals, not tokens.
- Realize diversity means more than a few disabled POC in a room!
- Examine your policies and practices for implicit bias.
- Build coalitions with communities of color and other social justice movements that are already doing intersectional work.
- Support the creation of diverse media by disabled POC.
You can read both parts of the report at Ramp Your Voice! and the Disability Visibility Project. You can also read Thompson and Wong‘s interviews with JUST ADD COLOR, as well as Thompson’s #RepresentYourStory article.
The Disability Visibility Project (DVP) is a site everyone working towards equal representation needs to visit. Too often, those of us in the online field of social justice journalism/opinion-making stay within the racial and sexuality boundaries and forget that there is yet another group we need to reach out to; those with disabilities. People with disabilities often fit within one or two of the aformentioned groups, but all of their needs and issues are hardly ever catered to at the same time. I realized this about my own site, and while I still have work to do (and still looking for guest posts from people far more experienced than me who might be able to speak to the issues of the disabled), I decided the best thing to do would be to reach out and ask for help. One of the first people I asked was the owner of the Disability Visibility Project, Alice Wong.
Wong is a Staff Research Associate at the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at University of California, San Francisco and has authored and completed research for the Community Living Policy Center, a center for rehabilitation research and training funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research. She has created the Disability Visibility Project with the goal of amplifying the voices of those with disabilities, voices who often get shouted down by the media. The site is also a partner with StoryCorps, a non-profit organization that allows people to record their stories and share with others, as well as provide a way to create an oral history of families and communities. I was excited to interview Wong and get her perspective. In this email interview, you’ll read her thoughts on how disability is treated in the media, what non-disabled people can be better allies to their friends and family members with disabilities, and how you can contribute to the Disability Visibility Project.
What led you to start the Disability Visibility Project?
Alice Wong: I listen to NPR a lot and every Friday on Morning Edition they broadcast a short piece from StoryCorps. I also love their animated stories from their website and appreciated the wide diversity of stories. Later on I discovered that San Francisco had a StoryCorps recording booth and attended one of their live events and that’s when I first came up with the DVP.
StoryCorps is a fascinating initiative to the partnered up with. How did the Disability Visibility Project and StoryCorps join forces?
At the StoryCorps event I attended in SF around 2013, they mentioned how they have various community partnerships and I immediately thought there should be a disability-specific partnership since the SF Bay Area has large and vibrant disability community. I reached out to them and after a series of conversations on how a partnership would work and what’s involved, it was relatively easy. What’s great about StoryCorps is they have the infrastructure in place: the people, the equipment, and the relationship with the Library of Congress to archive these oral histories. Our goal as a community partnership is to make sure our people are represented.
There are some inherent problems in how the media portrays disability. What are some of the biggest problems you see in the media when it comes to reporting on disability or portraying disability in entertainment?
So many problems! I’ll focus on one: media (both creators of popular culture and professions such as journalism) is overwhelmingly non-disabled. When you have non-disabled people pitching, writing and editing stories about disabled, you’re missing the lived experience that’s intimately tied to accurate depictions of disability. And it’s more than a matter of hiring more disabled people in media–there’s also a need for a culture shift to examine how ableism is entrenched in the media. I spoke about this issue here, here and here for more information.
How does the Disability Visibility Project aim to uplift the voices of the disabled? What kind of impact do you think the Disability Visibility Project has had?
The word ’empowerment’ is overused but the DVP truly does empower people—the tools and resources are there for disabled people to use. They can shape their narrative in any way they want and by creating new media that’s more authentic, it will amplify and uplift those voices. Not really sure what kind of impact the DVP has on mainstream media but the disability community seems to dig it and that means the world to me. I hear people are using the content from our website in classes and that’s awesome. As the DVP evolved, it created a space online for people to have conversations outside of the recording booth. Our Facebook group has over 5000 members and it’s a place where I curate links to blog posts and information about disability culture. Some interesting debates take place in that group, sometimes very heated and contentious but overall folks are respectful of one another. I also host Twitter chats on specific issues such as a recent one on 4/14 on North Carolina’s bathroom law and the conversation was about transgender and disability solidarity w/ 2 disabled transgender people as the guest co-hosts. These kinds of activities energize me.
Have you seen any improvements in the media when it comes to showcasing the disabled, the issues affecting the disabled, etc.?
It’s still pretty sucky. The recent report by the Annenberg Center that was widely touted as the go-to report on diversity in Hollywood completely excluded disability in their report. It’s hard to improve things when you’re totally erased at the outset. However, there are many people working hard to start those dialogues and slowly work their way in to a ‘seat at the table.’
Social media is great in trying to balance out this lack of representation where there is room to create and signal boost great work that’s diverse and authentic.
There a lot of diversity fights out there, but unfortunately, we don’t see too many groups who advocate for the marginalized extend that fight to the disabled. What are ways the non-disabled can support the disabled in the fight for inclusion?
I know there are lots of folks tired of supporting others while others don’t support them. I noticed the conversation during the Oscars when there was pushback of Asian Americans who talked about the lack of diversity in Hollywood in response Chris Rock’s comments. It can sound like, “What about me?” and the push to de-center any specific conversation or focus.
I’m probably guilty of that too or may seem like it because it is rare that disability is ever mentioned so I have to say, “What about us?” to even introduce the notion. At the same time I genuinely try to be a good ally and support activism across movements and intersectional identities.
One thing non-disabled people can do is think, “Who’s missing?” and do something about it whenever there is a discussion of diversity. It’s not only about race, gender, age, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Plus engaging with disabled people is another step after asking that initial question.
We know about Black Lives Matter, 18 Million Rising, CAIR, NCLR, etc. But even though disability and racial issues overlap, it doesn’t seem like they’re always focused on at the same time. With that said, who are some disability advocates/advocacy groups the non-disabled should get to know?
I’ve had to good fortune to come across some amazing disabled people of color in my local community and online. Here are some disabled people of color your readers should check out (among many others):
Mia Mingus, a queer disabled woman of color who writes about and works in disability justice and transformative justice community organizing
Showing Up for Racial Justice has a Disability and Access toolkit that folks can use
Dior Vargas, a Latina feminist mental health activist who is the creator of the People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project.
How can individuals contribute to the Disability Visibility Project?
There are several options—folks can record their story using the StoryCorps app, if they live in San Francisco, Atlanta, or Chicago they can go in person to the recording booth. We also accept guest blog posts for as another option for those who prefer to communicate via written or visual language. We also partnered w/ another organization’s Instagram campaign #365DaysWithDisability where people can submit photos. Details on how to participate here: https://
What’s your vision for an inclusive America?
The fight for racial and cultural diversity is something that’s been heavily publicized, but other diversity fights, such as the struggle to showcase the stories and issues of people with disabilities, is constantly unfairly overshadowed. There are a lot of biases in America when it comes to disability and the perception of “usefulness.” NPR’s Laurie Block’s piece on stereotypes affecting the disabled sums up stereotypes into six categories:
1. People with disabilities are different from fully human people: they are partial or limited people. in an “other” and lesser category. As easily identifiable “others” they become metaphors for the experience of alienation.
2. The successful “handicapped” person is superhuman, triumphing over adversity in a way which serves as an example to others; the impairment gives disabled persons a chance to exhibit virtues they didn’t know they had, and teach the rest of us patience and courage.
3. The burden of disability is unending; life with a disabled person is a life of constant sorrow, and the able-bodied stand under a continual obligation to help them. People with disabilities and their families–the “noble sacrificers”–are the most perfect objects of charity; their function is to inspire benevolence in others, to awaken feelings of kindness and generosity.
4. A disability is a sickness, something to be fixed, an abnormality to be corrected or cured. Tragic disabilities are those with no possibility of cure, or where attempts at cure fail.
5. People with disabilities are a menace to others, to themselves, to society. This is especially true of people with mental disability. People with disabilities are consumed by an incessant, inevitable rage and anger at their loss and at those who are not disabled. Those with mental disabilities lack the moral sense that would restrain them from hurting others or themselves.
6. People with disabilities, especially cognitive impairments, are holy innocents endowed with special grace, with the function of inspiring others to value life. The person with a disability will be compensated for his/her lack by greater abilities and strengths in other areas–abilities that are sometimes beyond the ordinary.
The stereotypes many Americans hold about the disabled either being unable to contribute to society or being seen as inspiration porn need to go away. These stereotypes, like all stereotypes, limit how we view each other and deny us the ability to see each other’s humanity. The only way to extinguish these stereotypes is for people to become more exposed to the issues of the disabled and become aware of their needs, issues, and concerns. Enter the Disability Visibility Project.
The site, started by Alice Wong, MS, is an “online community dedicated to recording,amplifying, and sharing disability stories and culture.” The site works towards this goal through their partnership with StoryCorps. To quote the site:
The DVP is also a community partnership with StoryCorps, a national oral history organization. Staffed by one individual (see below) and supported by the community, the DVP aims to collect the diverse voices of people in the disability community and preserve their history for all, especially underrepresented groups such as people of color, immigrants, veterans, and LGBTQIA people with disabilities.
Wong is a Staff Research Associate at the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at University of California, San Francisco. Wong is also an author and completes research for the Community Living Policy Center, a center for rehabilitation research and training funded by the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research. Wong has also personally helped me in my quest to make JUST ADD COLOR represent more sides to fight for equal representation other than just the racial/cultural side. I appreciate her help immensely and hope I can live up to the advice she’s given.
I highly recommend y’all check out the Disability Visibility Project!