Program Profile

Feature Issue on Disability Rights, Disability Justice

Disabled I AM


Timotheus Gordon is a research associate at the Institute on Disability and Human Development at the University of Illinois Chicago.

Brooke Willour is a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in art therapy and counselling at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, Illinois.

Brittany King is lead organizer of the Empowered FeFes at Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago.

A man with long, dark hair wearing a light, patterned sweater talks with a man wearing a dark navy t-shirt and glasses while holding a mobile phone.

T.J. Gordon chats with Disabled I AM participant Jaime Cornejo.

Disabled I AM is a multimedia campaign to empower people to own their disability identity. It was created as a fellowship project for the Self Advocacy Resource and Technical Assistance Center (SARTAC), a developmental disabilities project of national significance. It’s funded by the Administration on Community Living. Access Living of Metropolitan Chicago (a Center for Independent Living designated by the ACL) and the Disability Culture Activism Lab, a platform for creative advocacy projects and disability allyship training at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, also supported the project.

People who identify as having a disability can use #DisabledIAM on social media to tell their story about their disability pride and their viewpoints on what disability means to them. The goal of Disabled I AM is to illustrate a spectrum of disability pride across various intersections and backgrounds, such as race, gender, sex, class, location, and religion.

Phase I

Two self-advocacy groups within Access Living created the campaign in 2019. The Empowered FeFés and Advance Your Leadership Power (AYLP) wanted to fight threats to Medicaid/Medicare, police violence towards disabled people from historically minoritized racial and cultural groups, and the overall lack of public support for and mainstream media coverage of the disability community. As we brainstormed what the campaign would look like, each member of the self-advocacy groups explored how disability is collectively depicted in the media and who gets to tell the story of disability.

We found that the people who usually talk about disability identity are family members of people with disabilities, professionals who work with people with disabilities, and politicians. A few, typically white, disabled activists sometimes share stories, but that is usually the exception. Those who appear in mainstream media have typically already established themselves in their respective communities and fields. Furthermore, we were appalled at how little community members knew about disability in their neighborhoods and how little disability pride and acceptance were shown in those places. In Chicago, it is the neighborhoods where power resides. We created the Disabled I AM campaign to display the diversity and intersectionality of disability through photography as a SARTAC fellowship project. Photographer and videographer Justin Cooper hosted a photo booth where people within Access Living held up a white “Disabled I AM” frame. He ended up taking pictures of dozens of people.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our team shifted from using in-person photobooths to asking for picture submissions to our social media pages. We also travelled around Chicago and the surrounding suburbs to take pictures of Disabled I AM participants. We then collected questionnaires asking people to describe their disability identity and what they want people to know about disability. The group then posted the pictures and profiles to the Disabled I AM Instagram and Facebook pages. We posted 18 profiles within the summer and fall months of 2020.

We created digital frames that people can post on their profile pages. This allowed people to participate in the campaign without posting to a public profile and they could caption pictures using the #DisabledIAm hashtag.

Phase II

For the second phase, we collaborated with Chun-shan (Sandie) Yi, an art and culture project coordinator at Access Living, who is also an assistant professor in the department of art therapy and counselling at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Yi’s spring 2023 class, Community Practice & Helping Relationships, drew from arts and counselling perspectives to critically examine helping relationships, community care work, and research through service learning alongside disability organizers and activists. Yi’s graduate art therapy students, Yunkyung Lee, Anna Seo and Brooke Willour, then joined the second phase of Disabled I AM.

Lee, Seo and Willour researched disability rights history, self advocacy, and the independent living movements in class with Yi. Before joining the Disabled I AM team, Lee, Seo and Willour interviewed T.J. and learned about his work as a Black autistic activist.

Together, we created the Disability Narrative Mapping Project, an interactive map that contains portraits and personal statements of people’s experiences with disability within the different neighborhoods and political wards of Chicago. Aldermen, community members, and stakeholders can use it to learn about disabled people, disability culture, and the barriers to essential resources and services that people with disabilities face in their wards. This data is valuable to community leaders and social workers who work with the disability community for organizing and activism. We hope that it will foster social relationships and connections among people with disabilities in the area as it grows. The map can also raise awareness among the wider community and inspire action to increase inclusion and accessibility.

We unveiled the map in April 2023 at an event showcasing project’s intention of empowering disabled people through portraiture and personal expression. We shared our goals of gathering information and lived experiences about disability for the online Story Map, and of creating a space where artmaking could facilitate deeper discussions about disabilities and the needs of Chicago’s disability community. Attendees held a range of intersectional identities, and we discussed how important it is for the disability community to come together for various reasons, including organizing as a form of self advocacy. At the end of spring semester, Lee, Seo, and Willour documented and created a Disabled I AM project toolkit, which is in the final editing process.

Editor’s note: Impact typically uses person-first language, but supports the voice of individual authors who prefer identity-first language.