The disability rights movement quite famously took up the phrase “nothing about us without us” as part of an effort to increase representation and participation of people with disabilities with a particular focus on policy and services. Many programs, interventions, and resources describe their work as a way to “empower” people with a disability. Although the work done by many groups can help increase independence, using the language of empowerment is a little tricky. The term, if often used incorrectly, can misconstrue what is actually happening in terms of a change in a power differential. At its core, empowerment is a shift resulting in individuals having autonomy over their life. Often, however, it is used when people describe small changes that still place individuals with disabilities at a structural disadvantage. Stephanie Riger, a professor emerita at UIC, described this discrepancy as the difference between the “power to” and “power over” (Riger, 1992). Even relatively inclusive organizations may still operate without people with disabilities having real power over its operations. Decision-making is far too often left to people outside of the disability community, and this can have devastating effects in how people with disabilities are treated and portrayed.
Some organizations have heeded the call to bring people with disabilities into the fold when it comes to leadership, programing, and other efforts. Using federal dollars to prioritize providers and agencies that integrate the population they serve would help accelerate this shift. Organizations that are truly invested in empowering people with disabilities should make their inclusion a primary component of their structure.