I first heard the expression “Nothing About Us Without Us” in South Africa in 1993. Michael Masutha and William Rowland, two leaders ofDisabled People South Africa, separately invoked the slo- gan, which they had heard used by someone from Eastern Europe at an international disability rights conference. The slogan’s power derives from its location of the source of many types of (disability) oppression and its simultaneous opposition to such oppression in the context of control and voice.
“Nothing About Us Without Us” resonates with the philosophy and history of the disability rights movement (DRM), a movement that has embarked on a belated mission parallel to other liberation movements. As Ed Roberts, one of the leading figures of the international DRM, has said, “If we have learned one thing from the civil rights movement in the U.S., it’s that when others speak for you, you lose” (Driedger 1989:28). In this sense, “Our Bodies, Ourselves” and “Power to the People” can be recognized as precedents for “Nothing About Us With- out Us.” The DRM’s demand for control is the essential theme that runs through all its work, regardless of political-economic or cultural differences. Control has universal appeal for DRM activists because the needs of people with disabilities and the potential for meeting these needs are everywhere conditioned by a dependency born of powerless- ness, poverty, degradation, and institutionalization. This dependency, saturated with paternalism, begins with the onset of disability and con- tinues until death. The condition of dependency is presently typical for hundreds of millions of people throughout the world.NOTHING ABOUT US WITHOUT US: Disability Oppression and Empowerment