There is great power in amplifying the voices of people with disabilities, acknowledging that they are highly visible and full persons, despite what societies may say. Storytellers should be aware that, even when positively intended, stories that cast a person with a disability as just a figure of inspiration can also be limiting. People with disabilities are whole, multi-faceted and valued human beings. They are contributing members of their communities and need to be shown as such.
Beyond that, contributors may wish for their achievements or merits to be highlighted without the addendum that they managed those feats “despite their disability.” Their disability is an ever-present fact in their lives and reminders of it may be best left unsaid.
Dignified Storytelling maintains that storytelling should be a collaborative and inclusive process with contributors. People with disabilities should be involved in telling their own stories underlining the importance of representation, a popular hashtag states: #nothingaboutuswithoutus. To help ensure inclusive language, ask the person or the group you are working with how they would like to be described or referenced in any story and follow their guidance and preferences. If facilitating the story-gathering, keep in mind that there may be confidence issues that need to be addressed for those who wish to tell their story. As with other types of contributors, people with disabilities may need support to identify what story to tell and how they wish to present it. Due to a disability, there may be constraints to telling a story through one method while other avenues remain accessible. Offer ideas and facilitate people’s preferences to tell their stories in different ways – for example, visually, orally, or by using digital technology or sign language.
When working with people with disabilities, it is also important to be aware that there may be compounding traumas – for example, experiences of abuse – beyond issues around the disability itself. Even with an awareness that trauma is present, great thoughtfulness is needed about both what can be seen and heard, and what cannot. Begin interactions by recognising that trauma will be there, and then make sure there are strategies and additional professional support in place to address, or avoid retriggering, that trauma.
It is also important to be mindful of the role that intersectionality plays in a person’s life experiences. The many aspects of anyone’s socio-political identities – for example, race, gender, and education levels – combine and result in different positive and negative impacts. When disability is also present, the discrimination or lack of power a person may feel in sharing their story can be compounded. Storytelling may skew towards showcasing disabled people with higher education and more wealthy backgrounds because they may be more eloquent or have the means to raise their own profile. Storytellers must make a conscious effort not to leave unseen the people with disabilities who don’t have access to those opportunities. This group often has rich stories as well as they manage intersectional challenges that include disability, economics, and other dimensions.
The language used when telling stories of people with disabilities often uses terminology such as “empowerment” or “inspiring” that may subtly diminish people’s agency by positioning them as passive recipients or tropes. Reflect on these connotations and seek new language that does not shy away from exploring differences, allows contributors to reclaim their power and voice, and promotes whole person depictions beyond disabilities along.