Still Not Comfortable Being Dubbed an “Advocate”

 [Image description:  Two white men in power wheelchairs talk on a sidewalk as people walk by.]

[Image description:  Two white men in power wheelchairs talk on a sidewalk as people walk by.]

This may sound a bit Charles Barkley, but I never claimed to be an advocate. 

The label started being cultivated for me when I made my first film seven years ago. Then I started getting public speaking gigs to talk about my film and growing up with a disability. In graduate school, I continued making films about disabled people. 

And to punctuate my so-called advocacy, I moved to Oakland. The “East Bay,” which includes Berkeley, has an incredibly rich, maybe even the premiere, disability community. 

The Bay Area has many disability advocates who do the dirty work, advance disability rights and make lives of disabled people better; make my life better. 

So on the one hand, I don’t think I deserve the title. I haven’t attended a protest (in person or virtually). I haven’t done any robust community organizing. I haven’t directly engaged in the legislative process. 

And on the other hand, being called an advocate quite simply weakens the efficacy of my work.

 [Image Description:  White man in a power chair looks up a flight of yellow stairs, the back of his head facing the camera.]

[Image Description:  White man in a power chair looks up a flight of yellow stairs, the back of his head facing the camera.]

As a print journalist, as a filmmaker, as a podcast host, I have tried to illuminate the lives of disabled people. Some of these pieces had no agenda past the journalistic attempt at uncovering and hopefully enlightening. Some, mostly my films, had some sort of agenda that wasn’t dissimilar to other documentaries. And some, or maybe all, were conceived in part by the notion that disabled voices are disproportionally ignored. 

When my work is characterized as “advocacy,” the stories I tell become, or perhaps remain, exotic.  

Nobody would cover these stories and issues unless he or she was an advocate. And if you’re an advocate, then you have an agenda. And if you have an agenda, you have no shred of journalistic credibility and whatever you put forth is just subjective. 

For all intents and purposes, journalistic credibility isn’t a tenant of documentary filmmaking. And for years, the term “activist filmmaker” has been flung around and even embraced by some. 

I don’t want that label. Most of what I do is about elevating stories that aren’t covered, or covered in ways that perpetuate tropes.

Going out in public for a lot of disabled people, including myself, can sometimes feel like a political act. But going to the grocery story (hopefully) doesn’t constitute advocacy to the outer world. So why does telling stories about disabled people make me an advocate?

Reid Davenport