Most social justice movements make a point to be inclusive of as many people as possible, especially marginalized communities. Those movements that don’t do so should. But one group that is often overlooked is disabled people, even though we exist inside every other affinity group.
As someone who belongs to multiple “othered” communities (disabled, transgender, working-class, Jewish trauma survivor here, hi!) and supports numerous others, it can be frustrating when activist spaces feel less than welcoming to a person who needs accommodations to participate. Here are a few ways organizers can be more mindful about including disabled people when creating intentional space for social justice.
Make Sure Everyone Can Get in the Door
This one seems obvious, but it’s surprising how often it’s missed. Sometimes people just don’t seem to notice that their space isn’t physically accessible; other times, it’s more clear that while they’re thinking of our needs, they just aren’t at the top of their list of priorities. A venue description will say “Sorry, not accessible!” Or it will be sheepishly mentioned that there’s only ONE step at the entrance, neglecting the fact that there are a lot of people who can’t navigate even that one step.
Even when there are clear entrances that can be accessed by people with mobility considerations, a space’s accessibility goes beyond just having a ramp. Can a person using mobility aids move freely through the space, or are aisles and passageways narrow or blocked? Are there separate areas that must be reached by steps or stairs, even if the main space is fully accessible?
In addition, is the space considerate of people with less visible but nonetheless important accommodation needs? For example, does it have lighting that could trigger seizures or scents that could cause reactions in people with scent sensitivities? Is there a sensory-neutral area where autistic and other neurodivergent people can center themselves away from overstimulation?
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Make Sure the Message is Reaching Everyone
Not everyone accesses information in the same way. Sometimes people remember including sign language interpreters for Deaf and Hard of Hearing people, which is a great start. But not every person who falls into those categories speaks sign language, and there isn’t always printed material available.
There are other barriers that are less often considered. What about people who can hear, but have difficulty understanding speech because of sensory processing disorders? What if they can hear, but can’t read, and there are printed supplemental materials or visual aids? Think about ways to make sure that people with a wide range of abilities and support needs can still access the message of your movement.
Make Sure Everyone’s Message Can Reach Others
It’s important to make sure that everyone in attendance can hear what’s being said, but it’s also important that everyone there has equal opportunity to be heard. This means considering the accommodation needs of non-speaking people, whether through use of adaptive technology, peer interpreters, or other means. It also means addressing physical accessibility and making sure not only that everyone can reach the venue, but that everyone can reach the mic.
If the seating area of your physical space is accessible to wheelchair users and other people with limited mobility, but the stage is not, the space still isn’t accessible.
Don’t Stigmatize Non-Normative Behavior
As a neuroatypical person, one of the most common ways I’ve felt pushed out and even threatened in supposedly accepting spaces is when I have been triggered into sensory meltdown, tic attack, or some other form of behavior that people tend to think, consciously or subconsciously, is my responsibility to “control.” I’ve seen firsthand the palpable distancing that happens when an adult publicly engages in socially unacceptable behavior, regardless of how controllable it actually is.
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Creating a space that is accessible for all includes neurodivergent and mentally ill people. Accordingly, it requires a compassionate approach to non-normative behavior, not immediate condemnation and removal of the “disturbance”.
Avoid Language that Further Marginalizes Disabled People
This is good practice everywhere, but it’s mandatory in intentional, inclusive social justice spaces. Examine the language you’re using carefully to make sure no one’s lived reality is being used as a metaphor. No one is “blind” or “deaf” to anything unless that person is actually blind or Deaf. No one uses anything as a “crutch” unless it’s something they use to help them walk.
Also be careful of privileging intellectualism to the point of stigmatizing intellectually disabled people by default.
Understand That We Are as Diverse as Any Other Group of People
Disabled people have very different experiences and perspectives based on a wide variety of factors that inform how we see the world and how we move through it. Two people with the exact same disability could have vastly different opinions, histories, strengths, and support needs. Asking one person with a particular disability for their opinion on an issue affecting them cannot stand in for every other person’s perspective who shares the same diagnosis.
Because the spectrum of things that fall under the umbrella of “disability” is so big, there are people who fit the definition but actually have very little else in common with each other. Added to that, many of us have more than one disability at the same time! No one of us is the model disabled person who can speak for all of us.
It’s best to pay attention to all of us as individuals as well as the unified messages we present as a community in order to get a full picture of who we are. This way, we can be fairly represented within the greater communities comprising your movement.
Let Disabled People Speak for Ourselves and Determine How Best to Serve Our Own Needs
Too often, when disabled people are included, it’s still through the filter of abled ideas and leadership. Allyship is great, but it’s always best to let the people most directly affected by a particular type of oppression be the ones to speak on it and dictate the narrative around it. If you haven’t been directly affected by ableism, you’re not going to be the best person to address how to stop it and heal its wounds in our communities. If you haven’t struggled to access necessary resources and agency in an inaccessible world, you’re not going to have the best ideas on how to break down those barriers that prevent disabled people from fully participating in the world in the ways we want to.
Instead of asking your leadership to address disabled people’s issues, seek to represent us in that leadership. Let us lead the conversation about what would help us and what we can, and want to, contribute. Speaking for us is actually speaking over us; we have our own voices if you’re willing to listen.
[Featured Image: A photo of the back of a person’s head. They are sitting down at a desk and looking at a wall covered in various charts and graphs. They have short, dark hair and are wearing a black and white striped sweater. Source: Pexels]