“Nothing about us without us!”

What does this mean? Is it true here in Arkansas? How can decisions be made that affect individuals with disabilities without seeking their input? Does anyone look at the impact that these decisions might have on individuals with disabilities before they become law/policy?

“Nothing about us without us.” These aren’t just words. This slogan has been adopted by the disability community to highlight the need for full and direct participation in all decisions that impact their lives.

We don’t think that’s too much to ask! Here at Disability Rights Arkansas (DRA), we are committed to upholding the slogan in all aspects of our work. We believe that self-advocates and people with a psychiatric diagnosis need to be at the table in all policy decisions that affect them. They deserve the opportunity to advocate on their own behalf. So, what are we doing to support them and to amplify their voices?

DRA receives a Self-Advocate Network Development (SAND) grant from Partners for Inclusive Communities and the Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities to support self-advocates in expanding their networks. Typically, when policy issues and concerns are discussed, it’s the “professionals” who are involved in those discussions. We want to work alongside self-advocates to change that. At every table where policy issues are discussed that affect people with disabilities, self-advocates and people with psychiatric diagnoses need to be present and engaged.

Last month, our staff had the opportunity to view the film “Healing Voices.” The film’s producer, Oryx Cohen, is the COO of the National Empowerment Center. His lived experience is one of several featured in the film. Oryx and our staff had a great discussion about the need for alternatives to traditional mental health treatment. We all agreed that one of the most important pieces in that puzzle is missing: a strong peer support movement in Arkansas. Almost without exception, the voices of people with psychiatric diagnoses are shut out of conversations that directly and intimately affect their lives. This needs to change. Arkansas needs a strong peer support movement, and all of us at DRA are committed to supporting it.

In order for Arkansas to become a truly inclusive state with opportunities for everyone, all voices need to be heard and taken into account. The only way for this to happen is for everyone to join with us in supporting a robust peer support movement in our state. You’ll definitely be hearing more about it in the months to come!

You can view “Healing Voices” on Amazon Prime.

Tom Masseau is Executive Director of Disability Rights Arkansas. Email him at tmasseau@disabilityrightsar.org.