In the Blog

Accessible Organizing Means…

March 8th, 2017     by Denise Reich     Comments

Illustration: Sophie Freedman-Lawson

Did you participate in the Women’s March on January 21st? Many of us did – millions, in fact, in countries across the globe.

But did all of us make it to the march, or feel included there?

Before the march, in an article for TheEstablishment.com, Emily Ladau pointed out that disability was mentioned exactly twice in the Women’s March’s platform. One of those mentions referred to caring for and chronic illnesses as a “burden.” Yep.

Members of the Disability Caucus of the Women’s March on Washington wrote a statement about their reasons for marching, noting, “We believe that ALL women’s issues are issues faced by women with disabilities and Deaf women. Women with disabilities and Deaf women must be at the table among all minorities and groups in setting any agenda impacting women in this country.” Sonya Huber established the Disability March, which became an official sponsor of the Women’s March. Participants submitted statements and photos, which were posted on a website and displayed at the march in DC. Suffering the Silence’s Marching with Me project also allowed people to participate remotely. People with disabilities and illnesses submitted their photos, which were printed out and carried by marchers in DC.

However, as many people noted, the fact that disability was originally all but absent from the Women’s March mission statement – and that “burden” sentence - was, to state it lightly, a problem.

Even though I initially was interested in the march happening in my city, as the day drew closer, my anxiety grew. My various medical issues made standing in the middle of huge crowds for hours pretty iffy for me. Before I definitively decided not to attend, though, I checked the Women’s March website and discovered that there was a much smaller, lower-key “sister march” happening in my region. The organizers of this satellite event specifically created it with the understanding that not everyone could get to the main march. The crowd numbered in the thousands, instead of the hundreds of thousands, and the march route was much shorter.

I was lucky enough to find a local march that worked for me. However, as per the #AccessibleOrganizingMeans hashtag on Twitter, some people with disabilities encountered major obstacles to participation. On January 21st, the hashtag began trending, as people with disabilities and illnesses began noting issues they’d had accessing the marches and problems with accessibility and inclusion they’d encountered elsewhere.

In my city, at least five new marches and rallies are currently being organized. Not a single one has supplied any information on how they plan to make their events accessible – not even, ironically, the “healthcare for all” march. Even after being repeatedly asked, the organizers never provided any details of accessibility at the event. Even though healthcare is certainly an issue of critical importance to many people with chronic illness and disability, it was too much trouble for the organizers to make sure that people with disabilities and chronic illnesses could actually attend.

Illustration: Sophie Freedman-Lawson

If your event, product or facility purports to be inclusive and tolerant but you don’t make it accessible, are you really living up to your mission? We all know the answer, don’t we?

The following suggestions for improving accessibility are only the tip of the iceberg.

1. Make it clear, up front, how your event will be accessible.

Nobody should have to track down an organizer to ask if a building will be accessible to people who use wheelchairs; if there will be sign language interpretation; if there will be places to sit or if it’s totally standing-room only; or if other accommodations will be provided. Make it clear in the event information. Don’t just cheerfully say, “We’re working on it” and then never come through with details. Don’t expect every single person with a disability to approach you to ask. If you can take the time to add, say, driving directions or a schedule to your Facebook event page, you can add accessibility information.

2. Consider transportation-related issues.

Finding reliable, affordable, safe transportation can be a problem. If you’re organizing an event, it helps to remember that everyone’s not going to be able to drive or walk. Is there mass transit nearby? Will it be running both before and after the event? Can you work with a local rideshare company to get a promo code for participants?

And if you’re planning to go to an event, you can help foster others’ participation. If you have information on the easiest mass transit route, by all means, share it! If you have a car, can you give a lift to a neighbor or friend? If you’re taking the train or bus, seek out others who are also taking mass transit and ride with them. If you’re taking a rideshare, perhaps you and a friend or neighbor can go together to split the cost.

3. Look for actions that people can do from home.

There are people who look down on individuals who do not engage in canvassing or other in-person actions, such as protests. They believe that if they can do it, so can everyone. They seem to forget that most of these activities can pose real financial and logistical obstacles for some people. For instance, canvassing requires walking and standing for hours, the ability to endure different weather conditions, as well as time (i.e., no work, medical appointments or treatments, childcare or other caregiving obligations) and transportation.

Encouraging people to carry out volunteer or activist actions from home is a way to keep them involved and share their voices. The Disability March and Marching with Me allowed participants who could not physically attend to virtually engage. Other examples someone might be able to do from home include:

  • Blogging
  • Taking photos
  • Writing songs
  • Writing articles or essays
  • Designing and creating signs, shirts, buttons, stickers or other items to raise awareness
  • Creating protest/awareness ‘zines
  • Creating art
  • Calling, writing or emailing politicians
  • Writing letters and op-eds for local or national publications
  • Signing petitions
  • Translating articles or interviews
  • Transcribing videos
  • Participating in live streaming conferences or events
  • Speaking via Skype or sending testimony to events
  • Letting peers know where to find accurate, timely information
  • Posting on social media: sharing news on local actions and events, inviting friends to participate, or providing links to pertinent articles on truthful, accurate news sources.

4. Don’t constantly ask for donations.

Not everyone can afford to donate. And no, it’s not as simple as skipping a latte or giving up a concert ticket; many people honestly don’t have money to give. That’s true across the board, but in particular, many people with disabilities live in poverty in both Canada and the USA. Many people with disabilities wait for years for their disability cases to be decided, during which time they have no regular income at all.

Consider how you’d feel if that were your reality, and you wanted to be involved in your community and connect with your elected officials, but every single email you received from a political, social justice or environmental group asked you for donations.

I have ended up unsubscribing to many political action groups and politicians’ email lists because the requests for donations have been so relentless. During election cycles in particular, some of these groups will send numerous emails every single day, and every single one will be a plea for money. Many of these communications try to guilt the reader into donating. After a while I end up unsubscribing or deleting the emails unread, which means I become disconnected from the cause.

It’s a sad fact that campaigning and social action require money, and lots of it. It’s also a sad fact that many people just cannot afford to donate. There has to be a balance, and a way to involve people from all economic strata without constantly hitting them up for donations.

As the Women’s March on Washington - Disability Caucus wrote, individuals with disabilities and Deaf individuals must have a seat at the table. If you’re organizing an event or action, make sure those seats are there.

Tags: activist report, body politics, disability

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