The slogan "Nothing About Us Without Us" expresses the urgent need felt by people with disabilities for access to voice and control in their struggle against oppression. Dating back at least to 1993 when it was used by Michael Masutha and William Rowland of Disabled People South Africa, who borrowed it from a disability rights gathering in Eastern Europe, this slogan has spread around the world as people with disabilities pressed for their rights (Charlton). (1) Most recently in About Us, an edited collection that compiles personal essays by people with disabilities that were first published in the New York Times "Disability" column, editors Rosemarie Garland-Thomson and Peter Catapano explain that their title echoes the "unifying call of our civil rights movement--'Nothing About Us Without Us'" because these "stories are claims to self-representation and recognition that this slogan demands" (xxiii).
Comics, too, work well as a vehicle for authenticating discourse, as I will establish in a moment. (2) Yet comics addressing intellectual disability (ID) seem to stand in uneasy relation to the demands for voice and control that this slogan expresses. Analyzing three comics about intellectual disability, I will argue that their strategies of collaboration and appeal to multiple literacies recalibrate the claim for authority in representation, so that "nothing about us without us" emerges as a practice that enables--and transforms--both people with intellectual disabilities and the artists and writers who live and work alongside them.
But first, let's consider the authenticating power of the comics medium in general. Through the process of what Thierry Groensteen calls iconic redundancy, comics repeatedly represent the protagonist through multiple manifestations of the body on the comics page, as well as through its continuing physical presence in the cartoonist's drawn line (124). The comic thus offers visual testimony that moves beyond abstraction, normalization, and marginalization. As Frederik Byrn Kohlert explores in a fascinating study of comics and marginal identities, comics provide authentication for speakers by drawing on a multiplicity of modes of representation, or "multiliteracies," including "Linguistic Meaning, Visual Meaning, Audio Meaning, Gestural Meaning, Spatial Meaning, and the Multimodal patterns of meaning that relate the first five modes of meaning to each other" (15-16). (3) Auto biographical comics in particular rely on a range of strategies for authenticating identity. As enumerated by Elisabeth El Refaie, they include "explicit authentication," "authentication through detail and quoted dialogue," "authentication through documentation," "authentication by 'making strange,'" and even the strategy of "subverting authenticity" (144, 148, 158, 165, 172). In short, by juxtaposing words and images to both show and tell, to create tension or to confirm, and by playing with temporal reversal and the exploitation of multiple perspectives, the medium of comics links the material with the cultural, enabling an expression that testifies to the embodied experience of impairment, as well as the cultural context within which it occurs.
In comics, visual images of the authors' bodies carry narrative meanings. Take, for example, Kaisa Leka's I Am Not These Feet, Peter Dunlap-Shohl's My Degeneration, and Al Davison's Spiral...