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Life, Liberty and Accessibility. Making Activism Inclusive.

2 Heart it! Melinda Campbell-Weber 1.3k
June 7, 2018
Melinda Campbell-Weber
2 Heart it! 1.3k

Ever since the presidential inauguration, people all over the country have made their disappointment, anger and support known through marches, protests and rallies. Over the past year, we have had the Me Too movement, the Time’s Up movement, the March for our Lives Movement and the Women’s March on Washington, which was one of the largest protests in U.S. history.

If you’ve ever been part of planning a protest, you know that organizing one takes planning. Those planning discussions revolve around many things, but some of the main topics are potential speakers, media strategies, advertising and even permits and insurance.

But have we ever stopped to consider how we can make our protests more inclusive and accessible?

The recent demonstrations that I have witnessed are an inspiring display of civic awareness and unity that have represented many different groups, but I’ve noticed there is one group that is consistently left out: people who suffer from disabling chronic illnesses, as well as physical and mental impairments. Did you know over 56 million people in this country are living with a disability? That’s nearly 1 in every 5 people. Despite the large number, they remain ignored and unaccounted for in many situations, including the political climate.

The unfortunate truth is people with disabilities are often left out of even the most inclusive protests. As a disability advocate and trainer of disability laws for over ten years, I am passionate about bringing education and awareness to caregivers, advocates and people with disabilities alike. What I have learned is that people with disabilities, like any other member of society, want (and deserve) to be treated as equals. The way we treat individuals with disabilities can greatly affect how others perceive their worth. Part of every individual’s worth includes having an awareness of our rights. It is important that we know that we ALL have the same rights, regardless of ability. At the very core, these rights can be broken down into two basic categories, Explicit Rights and Implicit Rights.  Explicit rights are the ones that are written and spelled out. These are laws. Made by the United States Constitution and the states in which we live.  Implicit (or implied rights) are not written. We are born with these rights. These are things like spending money on what we want, choosing our own friends, going where we want – when we want to, living where we want to live, and most importantly, being presented with the opportunity to voice our opinions in a public forum. We often take these rights for granted. But all too often, the most vulnerable populations at some point in their lives have had their implicit rights violated by not being provided those choices, because others made their decisions for them or excluded them entirely.

When we look at how people with disabilities can participate in protests, we need to be aware of a few details. Rallies often take place outside of government buildings, like city hall. They usually require standing outside in large crowds, something I have experienced firsthand to be a nightmare for people with physical disabilities. If we are planning a march or rally, we need to try our best to create a space that is accessible for everyone.

Here are a few suggestions that can help make protests more accessible and inclusive:

Only Use Spaces that are Genuinely Accessible. Avoid spaces that do not have ramps or street level doorways. It doesn’t matter how cheap (or free) the space is. It is not truly an inclusive event if you are excluding an integral part of the community.

Plan around Spaces with Restrooms.  When accompanying my friends with disabilities to a march or rally, this is one of the first questions they ask. Not every disability is centered on mobility. Some folks must have access to restrooms. Make sure there is a restroom within a close distance from the rally, less than a block away preferably.

Make sure to announce that folks should give up their seats if someone with a disability asks for it. Enough said.

Create spaces for people with varied abilities to sit and rest their bodies. It is difficult to focus on the calls for justice, fairness and equality being made by a keynote speaker when every aching muscle in your body is screaming at you at the same time. As a part time caregiver, I have often had to take the person I was assisting home because it was too painful to stay. Their bodies are not always as forgiving as those without disabilities. Staying out too long in those conditions can cause setbacks that can last for weeks or months.

Offer wheelchairs and folks to push them. Enlist volunteers to help. Many people with disabilities can walk with limited assistance and prefer to do so, depending on the distance. Having wheelchairs available can be a real lifesaver for those that become fatigued. And when you incorporate wheelchairs in your rally, please remember not to place them last, bringing up the rear with their only view being butts and armpits. Suggest they lead the way at the front of the march, especially if your platform involves healthcare, advocacy or disability rights.

Hire an ASL Interpreter. We all communicate differently. For events themed around diversity or the empowerment of minority groups, it is critical to ensure clear communication access is available. When I have accompanied deaf and/or hard of hearing individuals to diversity themed events and there is no interpreter or captioning available, it has caused them to doubt the sincerity of the inclusive message conveyed. Inclusion means everyone can participate. And if you decide to bring a sign to the protest, that’s awesome. Just be sure you do not block anyone’s view of an ASL interpreter while you are expressing yourself.

If your space is not wheelchair accessible, let everyone know. It is important to advertise the lack of accessibility in all forms of social media and printed media way ahead of time.

For every march, offer an alternative.  Organize a panel or community forum, phone bank event, provide contact information of elected officials, start a go fund me to accept donations, or offer an online opportunity to attend the event. Part of the reason why the Women’s March was so successful was because they offered an online alternative for those with disabilities that at last count at least 45,000 participated.  There are infinite ways for people with disabilities to get involved that do not require standing, but can still make a tremendous impact. Just because a person is unable to leave their home, does not necessarily mean that they are politically immobile. Like so many others, they can make an impact without having to take a single step.

By following these guidelines, you will not only increase your protest’s impact, but more people will participate, and more people will take notice. That is, after all, what every good protest is about.

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