By-and-for in the Disability Community: Nothing About Us Without Us

As a disabled person, the term “by-and-for” brings such a sense of security to me. When I’m working within the disability community, finding out a group or initiative is by-and-for is literally a breath of fresh air as I sift through the charity models and burden rhetoric that plagues my life. And while no by-and-for group is perfect (or immune from criticism), I know they’re going to do their best to honour lived experiences and empower disabled people how they want to be empowered – and I don’t feel like that’s too much to ask for.

A quick explainer on by-and-for: as you might have guessed from the term, by-and-for groups are by members of a community for members of that community. These groups work from within the communities they are inherently a part of to promote empowerment on a local, national, international, and systemic levels. They centre their members lived experience and resulting unparalleled expertise to serve their community’s needs, as determined by their community. 

You might have heard the phrase “nothing about us without us”. I love it, some think we can do better. But at the same time – it’s kinda pathetic that’s where we’re at as a society right now. For so long, non-disabled people have been dictating the disability community’s needs, wants, and experiences with absolutely no input from disabled people, and no widespread criticism for their often harmful practices. And this practice still goes on! The perspectives of non-disabled people continue to dominate disability debates, sidelining actual lived disability experience to favour burden or charity-model rhetoric. 

Sometimes working in the disability community feels like one of those inflatable bouncy castle obstacle courses. Or better yet (because I just couldn’t work out the analogy into words) catfishing. I go to meet what I assume is a by-and-for group, based on their website, messaging, and communications – and end up tricked into explaining my existence to non-disabled people instead of getting to work on pressing issues. When I first started getting into this work, I underestimated how pervasive these groups are! And this is partially explained by the shifting form of non by-and-for groups: keeping disabled people at the lowest levels of the organization to claim legitimacy while denying them leadership roles and agency. 

And what’s even more frustrating is how these non by-and-for groups have such a chokehold on the non-disabled public! I’ll spare the public call-outs (for now), but the organizations most non-disabled people are familiar with have next to no disability representation! And these organizations carry on monopolizing opportunities, funding, media attention, because they portray themselves as by-and-for, or are incredibly successful in pushing the charity model or burden narrative. 

Let’s break down some of these narratives. 

The charity model sees disabled people as charity cases – people with issues that can be solved with the right amount of money. The charity model fails to address systemic ableism and other root causes making many of us disabled people requiring additional and often unmet support. The charity model also promotes a harmful perspective that sees disabled people as less than, and denies disabled people their agency and autonomy in finding sustainable, empowering solutions to their issues. 

The burden narrative is most often pushed by parents – with the most extreme cases having parents of disabled children forcing their disabled children to testify in court that they shouldn’t have been born. Parents of disabled children often centre their personal and negative experiences of having a child with a disability, or they use their child as a way to legitimize their views that do not reflect the disability community at all. Parents of disabled children are absolutely essential in empowering disabled youth, and protecting them from harmful situations. They can do a lot of good – but they can also do a lot of harm. I’m not a parent, and I don’t plan to be – so while my criticism will not go further, I believe we all have a role in holding all people accountable for the narratives and rhetoric they’re pushing. 

Some may argue “who cares what non-disabled people are saying, they have a right to their opinion.” And that’s valid! It’s not wrong! But we have to understand that non-disabled people are operating at a serious advantage when it comes to controlling the narrative, especially since disabled people are less likely to have that power due to systemic ableism. People have a right to their opinion, but that does not absolve them of the consequences of their actions. When a parent of a child with a disability goes to court and sues a doctor for giving birth to their disabled child – that sets a legal precedent. That normalizes a narrative that sees disability as a crime punishable by death. But we don’t hold these people accountable! And so this hate speech and dangerous rhetoric is allowed to go unchallenged.

The harm non-disabled people can do is further amplified by the current legislation around Medical Assistance in Dying in Canada. Known as MAID or Bill C-7, many have said the government has made it easier for disabled people to die than live. I’m one of them. And what really kills me (or what really could kill me!) is the fact that we do not have adequate disability representation in our government! We do not have equitable opportunities to have our perspectives reflected in our institutions! While non-disabled people get to vote on whether or not to kill us and push this narrative, they’re not the ones whose lives are threatened, who are losing their loved ones, friends, and peers. 

So yes, you are entitled to your own opinion. But if your opinion is that it is better for me as a disabled person to die than live, you are not immune from the consequences of your actions. 

But before you give up on disability issues entirely, please keep reading. I want non-disabled people to care about disability issues! I want them to speak up against ableism and inaccessibility! I just believe the current way non-disabled people are dominating our spaces and conversations is not acceptable, and that we have a lot of room for improvement (what can I say, I’m an optimist.)

Before getting into some actionable tips, tricks, and reminders for disability allyship, let’s talk about how disability has been excluded from intersectional allyship movements! Despite disability discrimination claims making up half of Ontario Human Rights Court cases, we are constantly and consistently sidelined or entirely excluded from diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives! Despite making up 20% of the population and being the only minority group you can join at any time, intersectional allyship and initiatives continue to ignore our needs and agency – while claiming to value all experiences! As someone in an international development and human rights program, involved in a lot of student and community movements, I am routinely disgusted by the hypocrisy I see! To claim to be intersectional while ignoring disability isn’t just ignorant, it’s violent. And when I point this out, I’m more often dismissed than taken seriously!

To sum it all up, we all have a lot of room to improve. Disabled people too – a cross-disability allyship blog is in the works for those of us in the disability community (and non-disabled people interested in learning more!) I don’t want this blog to make you feel discouraged or overwhelmed, I want it to help you understand just how important by-and-for groups are, and how important it is to live up to the promise of “nothing about us without us.” As long as you are truly trying your best, it’s all I can ask, and it will be so appreciated. So, here are your tips:

  1. Understand that you can’t completely understand our lived experiences. Disabilities and the people that have them are complex, diverse, and always changing. Instead of accepting that you can’t know everything, commit to always learning and improving your disability allyship practice.
  2. Understand that, like all people and communities, the disability community is complex and intersectional. We are people. There is rarely a universal perspective or opinion, and our lived experiences seriously differ based on our belonging to other groups (ie. BIPOC, LGBTQ2s+, etc). Instead of treating the community and advocates like monoliths, hold space for different opinions and ideas.
  3. Understand that our understandings of disability, neurodivergence, accessibility, and more are always expanding! These are complex, evolving, and living concepts that need to change as our realities change. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by changes in understanding, take it as an opportunity to challenge your knowledge and beliefs.
  4. Commit to centring the lived experience of disabled people, and make sure you’re centring disabled people from all different backgrounds. For another blog post, but the disability community is not immune to white supremacy, sexism, homophobia, you name it. 
  5. Commit to unlearning internalized ableism, harmful stigma, and common misconceptions. It’s an excellent first step to any allyship practice, and I encourage you to check back in on these ideas regularly.
  6. Support disabled people in all aspects of life – education, employment, community, etc. We are people that deserve equity and agency wherever we go, whatever we’re doing. Not just when we’re doing what you agree with, and acting the way you want us to.
  7. Support disabled advocates, activists, organizations, and creators – it’s draining taking our intense and complex lived experiences and sharing them in the face of systemic ableism and unchallenged stigma.
  8. Push for accessibility, inclusion, and representation in the spaces you occupy. When a disabled person is already there and doing that work, support them instead of centring yourself!