Recently I was asked to attend an event. I was quite interested in the topic, and given some of my recent work experience I was actually really excited about the event. The person who asked me to be there is one of the main organizers, and so when I knew I would be able to be there for sure, I let them know that given the size of the event, I would need interpreters in order to be able to attend. When the cost of providing interpreters became known the response was that we’d love to have you, but it’s too expensive and in the future we will make sure that we have a budget for interpreters.
Although there are personal reasons why this frustrates me, the more frustrating part is how invisible disability is within our community. I know several people who do fairly inclusive event planning. By which I mean they strive to ensure that events are accessible in terms of race, class, family or immigration status etc. Childcare is typically provided, event fees can be made sliding scale or optional, there is recognition of oppressions and people seek to ensure there is representation and equality. However, for events taking place outside of the disabled community, the same effort for disability is rarely made. Efforts for disability are often tokenistic at best. The event is held in a wheelchair accessible location. We’ll even try to make sure that an accessible washroom is thrown in there too. While these are important accommodations and I don’t mean to belittle them, they are a tiny piece of providing a truly accessible event.
By not recognizing the responsibility to provide accommodations for a number of disabilities, communities speak strongly about who is truly a member of their community. By planning events without a budget line for accommodations (which I recognize can potentially be the majority of the costs associated with the event, depending on the budget for the event) it indicates that disabled people are not expected to care about these issues, be impacted by these issues and that they have nothing of any value to add to the conversation. It continues to isolate disabled people, and push their agendas, insights and experiences to the margins. It negates the fact that like others, disabled people often hold complex intersecting identities and would have very much of interest to say on queer issues, race issues, poverty issues, sexuality and women’s issues, policy issues etc. It erases the identity of the disabled youth worker, or the disabled lesbian and creates a climate where you can either be disabled or you can be a lesbian, but simultaneously being both is impossible. Where one identity exists, the other is erased.
The erasure of identity has a cyclical effect, we create a climate where disabled people cannot be professionals, cannot have a sexual orientation or gender identity, or any other aspect of their identity aside from being disabled by our refusal to create space for them in our event planning. Then, because they are unable to attend events designated for professionals, queers, feminists, activists, racialized persons etc. we justify their exclusion by saying that they do not exist. After all, if they exist they would be attending the events. Instead of recognizing that these people do exist and making space for them within our communities, we are instead choosing to erase them and then using that erasure as a justification for their continued exclusion. However, if we were to approach things from an assumption that whatever the event is, whatever the community is, there are disabled people who are impacted by these issues, who are in these communities and we need to hear their voices and ensure that they participate, accessibility no longer becomes an optional line item on a budget. In fact by taking disability for granted rather than using it as an exception it allows for all kinds of new and exciting possibilities for partnerships and a stronger voice to emerge. It allows us to create a movement where people with disabilities are integrated and included and allows us to advocate even more strongly for accessibility at all levels. After all, if grassroots organizations and organizing can provide the models for truly inclusive planning with limited funding and manpower, what excuse do corporations and governments have?
Accessibility costs can be high, there is no way around that, and that particularly in the funding climate we are in right now money is scarce. However, as a movement we need to collectively decide our priorities. When disability and accessibility are not seen as a priority that creates a weaker movement. Especially now when the battles we are fighting are so important, and so big we cannot afford to leave anyone out of the conversation or the fight. The question really isn’t whether or not we can afford to provide accessibility at our events, but whether or not we can afford not to.