Be the Change: Six Disabled Activists On Why the Resistance Must Be Accessible

Welcome to Be The Change, a series on grassroots activism, community organizing, and the fundamentals of fighting for justice. Primarily instructional and sometimes theoretical, this series creates space to share tips, learn skills, and discuss “walking the walk” as intersectional queer feminists.


Hello, allied resistance forces! Carrie here, and I’m in the Be the Change driver’s seat this week to talk about a crucial point in all protests and campaigns: accessibility.

I know it’s a dry word that you might not think applies to you. But guess what: you’d be wrong! Because you know someone with access needs whether you realize it or not. And even if you’re able-bodied, you’re gonna want to know this stuff for your own use eventually (whether thanks to a sprained ankle, an acquired disability, or good old-fashioned aging). In order to successfully throw sand in the gears, we need as many people out there throwing it as possible — and that means a movement that includes all kinds of bodies and minds.

I’ll be honest: my protest experience so far has been a mixed bag there. Using a wheelchair during the Women’s March made it marginally easier to battle the crowds (as did having a girlfriend from Brooklyn who knows how to unleash an “OUT OF THE WAY, SIR!” like I’ve never heard). I’ve seen my fair share of disabled folks waving signs in the street. But for every one of us, there are ten fellow protesters who bump into our chairs without regard or who still think the worst thing about Trump’s disability politics is that he was mean once. For every one of us, there are countless more who aren’t there because the organizers overlooked them. But the good news is that for every one of us, there’s another disabled activist leading the charge toward a more inclusive movement.

Here are six of those activists, leaders, and advocates on how we can all move forward, whether on our feet, on wheels, or online — plus a resource list you need to read and use.


Kay Ulanday Barrett

Artist, performer, writer, and co-author of 26 Ways to Be in the Struggle — Beyond the Streets

A Filipinx person looks into the camera against a brick wall background. They are wearing clear framed glasses, a grey bowler hat, a mustard yellow jacket and blue shirt, and a purple bow tie.

Photo by Jess X. Chen

I became involved in queer and racial justice work in the Midwest, working with Filipinx solidarity organizing and cultural work in people of color and  immigrant arts spaces. I’ve been embedded in circles that need to critically think about power and access to resources. As I transitioned as a trans person of color and became disabled, the urgency for resources and political engagement became unquestionable.

I support and offer perspectives on various issues and have done leadership development for trans and queer youth organizing against cissexism, racism, and homelessness. Most of my work is cultural strategy, currently. How can we shift messages and impact to flourish trans, queer, sick, and disabled people of color?

What’s your experience been like as an organizer?

Much of my earlier work ventured into able-bodied racial justice and queer justice spaces. I worked organizing protest spaces that were anti-Imperialist and focused on brown women’s rights, etc — many movements that no longer apply to me since most are cis and able-bodied led. My cultural work has become seasoned in creating arts space that uplifts critical perspectives that have many communities at the table, have become more aware in ability and access, have a better grasp on gender and the effects of anti-Blackness.

“As I transitioned as a trans person of color and became disabled, the urgency for resources and political engagement because unquestionable.”

And on the flip side, how have organizers responded when you’ve brought up access needs to them?

I stopped doing protests because of the physical labor and assumed fitness/ableism it ascribes to. I notice movement building emphasizes protest in a very narrow way that leaves no room for elders, babies, people who are sick, people under the state who cannot risk public actions, or who are chronically ill. When I ask about seating, route location, other ways people can participate instead of standing and marching, making a free space, having ASL translation, I’m either met with tokenization or ignored. The movement for justice  is too busy for disabled people. So many Black, brown, queer disabled people are at the fore or have organized incredible work, but cis and able-bodied leadership seems to forget that or don’t have access to that information. I’m almost always told, “Let’s just wait and see.” This means if disabled or sick or trans people don’t show up it’s their own fault and on them. If you’re not in this space, we do not need to show up for you — or worse yet, consider you.

I did attend actions at JFK against the Muslim ban. I was able to do it because I had a folding chair, many, many snacks, a legal observer, a home base who gets disability and chronic pain, and two or three chosen fam who understand my capacity and spoons, check in, and don’t judge political participation. I call reps and circulate actions and announcements on my social media. I check in with my disabled and sick black, non-Black POC, and trans as well as GNC homies when I can to make sure we’re all getting fed, able to commiserate. I’m constantly medicalized in this complex so that makes it hard to get out of bed, honestly.

“I think if people don’t realize that sickness and disability are fixtures in movement and liberation, they’ll miss out and not include valuable and needed efforts for us all. You can’t leave anyone behind. We can’t afford to.”

My disability has been able to illuminate my needs and make me have more compassion for my comrades. It has definitely expanded my limited ideas on political participation outside of the protest and plow through, bootstrap model. It’s made room for more awareness on how disability connects with race, class, citizenship, gender, religion. How do all these overlap and inform one another? How does the state minimize and strategically erase people along these communities? My disabilities have called for me to be real about my capacity because sometimes that’s me throwing up in bed for a few days or having spasms while at a performance. It’s helped me identify burn out in ways I’ve never paid attention to because I internalized and benefited from ableism and competition.

“There’s so much work that able-bodied people aren’t considering.”

One of the difficult parts about the political climate right now is the sheer amount of issues we need to tackle. What have you been focusing on personally?

I’m working on complicating trans justice and racial justice and trying to use frameworks of disability justice at that core. There’s so much work that able-bodied people aren’t considering. I’m trying to hold balance on my advocacy and self-care in those perimeters. I’m concerned about how trans people, not cis LBG, but gender nonconforming and transgender people (especially people of color, femmes, and sick/disabled people) are going to be impacted in this regime. Health care and housing resources were painfully scarce and not given to those communities during the Obama era. They’re going to only be further privatized and people will only be more policed from here. I’m interested in the shaping of culture for disabled and trans people. How our messaging needs to be dynamic for ourselves so we are witnessed and stay alive.

Do you think the anti-Trump movements taking shape right now are making enough space for disabled people (particularly POC and/or queer and trans folks)?

I think they could do more, and I hope they realize that our powers support a more substantial and authentic movement. I think if people don’t realize that sickness and disability are fixtures in movement and liberation, they’ll miss out and not include valuable and needed efforts for us all. You can’t leave anyone behind. We can’t afford to.


Sandy Ho

Organizer of the Disability & Intersectionality Summit

A young Asian woman with shoulder-length hair and wearing a black shirt with white trim sits in her wheelchair looking at the camera. There is a painting of a foot against a blue and orange background on the wall behind her.

via Sandy Ho

I first got involved in activism senior year of college. It was 2009 and Obama was running for President. At the time, I was interning for an organization called Be The Change Inc., and they were leading the charge on an issue based campaign to expand national service opportunities. National service and the importance of community service were a large component of the Obama campaign, which then led to the passage of the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. I was enamored by the grassroots mobilization and strategy behind the efforts that made the bill’s passage possible.

After that I decided to defer my acceptance to law school and undertook a year of service through AmeriCorps myself. My year of service was around development of a mentoring program that served first-generation community college students. Since then, I have always believed in the power of local politics and the importance of starting within our communities — in particular, the people in our communities who we never hear from on the Hill.

“Too many women kept thanking me for being there. They didn’t thank my non-visibly disabled friend that I was with — but me, specifically.”

With the Boston Women’s March, I was of course thrilled to be there. What I was not thrilled with was with the reactions of my fellow marchers. Too many women kept thanking me for being there. They didn’t thank my non-visibly disabled friend that I was with — but me, specifically. I would kind of just nod and roll my eyes. On the other hand, that morning when I was trying to board the subway and it was, of course, crammed. Usually on a regular rush hour day, out of personal safety and comfort, I would wait until another train had more room. But there was a train car of women who said “There’s room for you!” And they shuffled, and shifted, and I was able to pull into the train as the doors closed. It was the most pleasant public transportation ride I had ever experienced in Boston or any other city.

Overall I think that the Women’s March, which pulled off a tremendous feat in its own right, also showed everyone which folks get repeatedly left out, or are always added on like a footnote.

What should organizers keep in mind about accessibility when planning events?

Be cross-disability conscious when organizing any event. As someone who is a wheelchair user with a physical disability, this is a learning curve that I myself needed constant reminder of. When we are not cross-disability present, then we end up leaving all of us behind. Disabled organizers must also be mindful of how access to event content is presented. Organizers need to ensure that access is not prioritized because one group of people has ready access over another.

“An accessible movement of any kind would mean that when organizers go back to evaluate their impact they can say ‘Who was missing? None of the oppressed.'”

I think that there is still a dearth around queer disabled POC who do not have a place at the organizers’ table for events; organizers should also acknowledge their own privileges and consider how that will impact their event, or the ways in which they’re approaching organizing strategies.

What would a truly accessible protest, campaign, or movement look like to you?

As an organizer I’m always careful about making sure I leave time and space to evaluate our impact. So, an accessible movement of any kind would mean that when organizers go back to evaluate their impact they can say “who was missing? None of the oppressed.” But to create a movement that makes that possible, I’m not sure I know what that would require yet. I know that it would look like a movement where the attitudes and assumptions we make of the organizers, are also the same assumptions and attitudes we have for the participants.


Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

Writer, performance artist, and educator

A woman with light brown skin, salt and pepper hair, and bright pink lips looks into the camera against a brown background. She is wearing large circular earrings featuring renderings of Frida Kahlo in either ear.

I think it’s really important to redefine what is considered “activism.” The abled idea of what activism is is often stuff that is really inaccessible — 20-mile long marches (with no or crappy access info), really long meetings and direct actions that may or may not be accessible to all disabled folks, and the idea that real activism means going as hard as possible. There’s also the “professional activist” model of being on planes all the time, long meetings and conferences, etc. Those are forms of activism that are inaccessible to a lot of people — disabled people, but also parents, elders, poor and working class folks, those who aren’t able to have the time and money and spoons to do all these things. There would be a lot more people involved in movements if those models weren’t promoted as the only ones.

“I’ve seen disabled folks do everything from organize care teams when personal care attendants weren’t an option for folks to raising the money to buy accessible vans and other access equipment. This kind of activism isn’t seen as glamorous or ‘real’ in the able-bodied imagination,  but I think that’s ableist nonsense.”

I see activism in what so many disabled folks I know do — when we do life support for each other, make sure other disabled people have food, meds, rent and care, support each other when the state and systems fail us, refuse to forget about each other, learn about each other’s disabilities and what kind of support we need, listen, do medical advocacy, create disabled art and culture, crack jokes and survive. I’ve seen disabled folks do everything from organize care teams when personal care attendants weren’t an option for folks to raising the money to buy accessible vans and other access equipment. This kind of activism isn’t seen as glamorous or “real” in the able bodied imagination, but I think that’s ableist nonsense.

“I did go to the Womxn’s March in Seattle with a small crew of disabled, sick and parenting friends, and we checked in with each other a lot, yelled ‘NO’ when oblivious abled people walked into those of us who were wheelchair users, and we left without marching the whole damn four miles, which felt great!”

Since Trump got elected, I’ve been part of a circle of disabled folks, mostly queer and of color, who have been meeting monthly and keeping in touch, talking about what we need, what resources we have and what we’re afraid of. We’ve talked about starting a community fund where we each kick in a little money a month and it’s available if someone loses health care or has a need. There was also a really great conversation hosted by Sins Invalid about what community self defense looks like for disabled people, looking at models from the Deacons for Defense and Compton’s Cafeteria as models. I did go to the Womxn’s March in Seattle with a small crew of disabled, sick and parenting friends, and we checked in with each other a lot, yelled ‘NO’ when oblivious abled people walked into those of us who were wheelchair users, and we left without marching the whole damn four miles, which felt great!
I got sick 20 years ago, and my activism changed. I had been a student of color/anti-prisons activist who was always going on really long marches and did some direct actions and lockdowns that ended up in jail time. When the big anti-globalization protests of the late ’90s were THE activist thing, I felt left out, and like both I was seen as less of an activist because I was scared of what being gassed would do to me — that it would make me even sicker than I was — and that I didn’t see anyone talking about ableism or how disabled people could be involved in direct actions. The way I thought of activism changed, becoming first doing more anti-violence counseling, then more arts activism. Writing, teaching writing and making creative and healing spaces that center SDQTPOC and are accessible is activism. Making food for people and yourself is activism. Making cheap herbal remedies at home is activism. Providing folks with access info is activism.
And I would add: it’s also not fucking hard to make protests accessible! Make some short, sitting down options! Have a healing station at the vigil or occupation! Rent a van or get a van! Have crips and elders lead the march so the whole damn thing doesn’t leave us behind! We have a lot to teach the abled about pacing, hanging in there for the long haul, surviving trauma and realizing that rest is necessary.

“Crips can still kick ass, and we can use our disabilities, not see them as liabilities.”

I really like the “home front” model Corbett O’Toole recently wrote about, where she talks about disabled and other folks doing letter writing, medicine making, safe house building, food cooking, as valid organizing. And, I also want to say that crips can still kick ass, and we can use our disabilities, not see them as liabilities. On December 15, 2015, Black Brunch, Black Out and Black Lives Matter had an action where they shut down Oakland Police headquarters. There were many solidarity groups doing support — Asians for Black Lives, Latinx people, etc. — and there was this group of physically disabled folks, many white, many elder many who used scooters and power chairs, who locked down because, I heard some say, among other things, cops often know that visuals of police beating up older white people in wheelchairs does not look good when it hits the media.

It’s also not fucking hard to make protests accessible!  Make some short, sitting down options!  Have a healing station at the vigil or occupation!  Rent a van or get a van!  Have crips and elders lead the march so the whole damn thing doesn’t leave us behind!

We can weaponize our disabilities and use our disabled magic and creativity to make change.  I recently wrote down: “Forms of disabled/accessible activism = pray. Hex. Curse. Create a toolkit. Make apple cider vinegar bandanas. Staff the phone line. Check in on the sick.” All true.

Angel Powell

Writer, editor, and Queer Crip Love Fest alumnus

A black woman with short curly hair, red lipstick, and thick black glasses looks into the camera with an open doorway in the background

via Twitter

I went through my own personal struggles with feeling like I was underrepresented and feelings of internalized ableism. Until you connect with other people with disabilities, you feel like it’s just you. I had tried to connect with other disabled people in real life, but it always seemed as if they didn’t struggle with my same issues, but the internet, honestly, was the only way I realized things in the community were bad. It was a bit more of an “honest” space.

I’ve never brought up access needs in physical spaces. It’s easier for me to interact in the online spaces because there’s no barrier on the internet. I have brought it up in those spaces and while I definitely see people growing and realizing that they aren’t as they thought they were, I also see folks being defensive. The “why do we have to include you?” kind of thing.

“We’re shut out of conversations that are important to us, and no one even realizes they’re doing it.”

I found it interesting that at the Women’s March, there were signs protesting racism, sexism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia, etc., but very few signs ableism. I didn’t expect many because I know that many don’t see ableism as a form of bigotry. But we exist in the intersection of those types of bigotry; there are gay black people with disabilities, there are women with disabilities, and so on. So we’re shut out of conversations that are important to us, and no one even realizes they’re doing it. We’re an afterthought, and I refuse to accept that that’s where I or any other disabled person belongs.

Have you been involved with any recent anti-Trump protests?

I did the ACA phone survey and that went easy. I found it kind of weak on the part of Paul Ryan that he cut his line off. It’s obvious he’s upset that he wasn’t getting the answers he expected. What I found is that anti-ACA people actually don’t give a damn about the fact that the people who depend on ACA will die without it. People have convinced themselves that we’re doing just fine without it and we weren’t. A child in a wheelchair shouldn’t have to a wait year and a half for a replacement part on their chair because their state’s Medicaid program didn’t have enough. Same goes for cancer patients who need chemo, HIV positive people who need antiretrovirals, or just insurance coverage, period. Sad to say, but this debate with repealing the ACA or Obamacare — I find it sad that people didn’t know they were the same thing — has made me realize who actually cares for me as a person.

Does your disability play into your role as an activist?

It has to. As a disabled person, the only person looking out for us is us. People claim to be allies, but then wanna shut us out of conversations about us. That’s not allyship; it’s stealing a marginalized person’s voice. And that isn’t helping anybody.

“Not everyone with what may look like the same disability has the same symptoms or abilities. And don’t ask some able person who knows us — actually ask us!”

What should organizers keep in mind about accessibility when planning events?

There’s more than just one kind of disability. So it’s not just about ramps or accessible bathrooms, it’s about sign language interpreters and Braille for reading materials and sensory materials (like headphones) for people with ASDs. And to successfully institute that, they’re gonna have to get rid of what they think disability looks like. There are people in wheelchairs who can stand and walk, there are people who can walk and look perfectly able but have valid disabilities that require them to have placards when they drive. And people are so ignorant, they think disability looks one way. Not everyone with what may look like the same disability has the same symptoms or abilities. And don’t ask some able person who knows us — actually ask us!

“It’s not rude to ask ‘How can I make sure my event is accessible for you?'”

What would a truly accessible protest, campaign, or movement look like to you?

First of all, you have to acknowledge that ableism exists and is a form of bigotry. Include accommodations for all disabilities. If you know what those accommodations are, ask! No one can fault you for asking. It’s not rude to ask “How can I make sure my event is accessible for you?” And if you don’t know anyone with a disability, ask someone with a disability to help you plan because odds are, you’re going to be overwhelmed. No one knows a disabled person better than a disabled person.


s.e. smith

Writer, speaker, consultant, and author of Your social justice events should be accessible. Period.

A white person with curly brown/blonde hair and square-framed black glasses stands against a brick wall background

via s.e. smith

My first political campaign was actually prenatal, and I was obsessed with politics as a small child, so activism kind of naturally grew out of that. By the time I was in high school in the 1990s, I was much more actively involved in organizing in addition to going to protests and participating in political campaigns. Growing up in California and near the Bay Area, which is the heart of the disability rights movement, I was exposed to disability activism from a very young age, and organising in the Second Iraq War also really informed my work in college, which examined issues of war and disability.

I worked on two political campaigns during the 2016 election and did organizing around several propositions. Now I am working with and supporting various grassroots campaigns, primarily providing disability consulting behind the scenes. As the year unfolds I’m hoping to do more work, and I’m thinking ahead to the 2018 cycle and campaigns I’d like to work with — though I don’t have plans to run for office myself right now.

“I never presume to speak for groups I don’t belong to — instead, I go out and find a stakeholder to integrate into the conversation if one isn’t there already.”

In all cases when I’ve collaborated and mentored on access for events, things went best when diversity and inclusion were foregrounded from the beginning, and when people were empowered. I never presume to speak for groups I don’t belong to — instead, I go out and find a stakeholder to integrate into the conversation if one isn’t there already.

So how have organizers responded when you’ve brought up access needs to them?

Usually badly. The most recent example is the Bay Area Women’s March, which was extremely hostile when I brought up the utter lack of disability inclusion on their website, in their values statements, and in their speaker lineup. Their defensive responses were a reminder that outside the disability rights/disability justice movements, many people don’t think that diversity and inclusion are a priority.

“It’s important to me that people understand that disability touches everything,and that if you are not addressing disability, you are cutting out a huge chunk of the population, perpetuating systemic injustice, and ignoring dangerous trends.”

As a general rule, when I discuss disability issues, I’m told it’s not important and I should wait my turn, and that includes cases when I have turned down requests to speak on the grounds of failure to ground diversity and inclusion from the start. People are extremely reactive to conversations about access (“It’s too expensive.” “No one would really use it,” “It’s too hard’) and demands to integrate disability rights/disability justice into statements of values, platforms, and so forth. Despite the fact that we make up 20 percent of the population and cut a broad cross section across other marginalized groups, apparently our issues are “niche.” It’s important to me that people understand that disability touches everything, and that if you are not addressing disability, you are cutting out a huge chunk of the population, perpetuating systemic injustice, and ignoring dangerous trends.

“If the only time nondisabled people pay attention to us is to share ‘inspiring’ stories or talk about how brave we are, that actively sets our liberation back. We are here. We are in the room. We are watching.”

It’s not a mistake or a coincidence that disability rights are often the thing the government comes for first — for example, attacking the ACA was the first thing out of the gate for the new administration, but instead of talking about disability, people bleated about nondisabled people losing their health care. Obviously that’s an issue, but the fact that the repeal is going to kill disabled people should be centred in any conversation about the ACA and the fact that it is not is a problem.

Similarly, people ignore issues like the attack on disabled voting rights, access to education for disabled people, and much, much more. I resist being turned into inspiration porn, patronized, and tragedized — if the only time nondisabled people pay attention to us is to share “inspiring” stories or talk about how brave we are, that actively sets our liberation back. We are here. We are in the room. We are watching.

“If you don’t think disability is important enough to be included from the beginning, I want no part of whatever you are trying to sell me.”

What should organizers keep in mind about accessibility when planning events?

I actually just wrote a checklist for Rooted in Rights on accessibility, and I know other disabled people are building upon and expanding it (we’ve also made adjustments in response to critiques). That’s probably one place to start, though the larger thing is that you must include disabled people from the start. If you do not have disabled people on your board/planning committee/whatever you want to call it from the very beginning, you will fail. Probably massively. If you don’t think disability is important enough to be included from the beginning, I want no part of whatever you are trying to sell me. If you think that having a single disabled person is sufficient, it’s not. Disability is hugely diverse, both in terms of specific impairments and access issues and other lived experience. As a white disabled person, I don’t have the same perspectives and needs as a disabled person of color. As a trans disabled person, I have specific needs and concerns that cis disabled people don’t understand.

“If you’re attending an event or fired up about something, resist the temptation to forge forward — do your research, and find out whether they are committed to true diversity and inclusion. If they’re not, use your voice to fix that.”

The breadth and diversity of the disability community means that it struggles with its own diversity and inclusion issues. Racism, for example, is a pernicious and persistent problem in the disability community, and something that white disabled people need to work on. (Some disabled people of color distinguish between white-dominated disability rights and POC-led disability justice.) If anti-racism isn’t part of your disability praxis, you are absolutely doing it wrong. Sexism, transphobia, and other -isms are also all present in the disability movement — working on those is an ongoing process and it’s important to be centering the voices of people affected by those issues and following their/our guidance.

Everyone has a responsibility to advocate for diversity and inclusion in all facets of life, including activism and organizing. If you’re involved in planning an event, foreground these things. If people fight you, ask why they’re resistant. If you’re asked to support, attend, or appear at an event, find out about their values and efforts on diversity and inclusion. If they aren’t sufficient, tell them, and tell them to fix it if they want your support. If you’re attending an event or fired up about something, resist the temptation to forge forward — do your research, and find out whether they are committed to true diversity and inclusion. If they’re not, use your voice to fix that.


Maria Town

Former disability community liaison at the White House Office of Public Engagement, organizer of #AccessibleOrganizingMeans and #ProudProductofIDEA

A young white woman with long brown hair and wearing red lipstick and a pink scarf smiles widely into the camera

via Maria Town

As someone who was born with a developmental disability, I had to become an advocate for myself early on. Of course, when I was a little kid, I didn’t think about it as advocacy; I thought about it as me trying to be a kid on my own terms. Thinking about it today, so much of the advocacy within the disability and women’s movements is about pushing for policies and systems that allow people to live life on their own terms. I got involved in my first formal activist experience towards the end of high school and beginning of college when I became a student activist focused on issues on my campus.

“So much of the advocacy within the disability and women’s movements is about pushing for policies and systems that allow people to live life on their own terms.”

Right now, I’m interested in making sure that young, diverse leaders can successfully run for office in local and state elections. I’ve worked to support Tom Perez’s campaign for Democratic National Committee Chair and Michael Blake’s campaign for DNC Vice Chair. I’m also investing in organizations focused on developing young progressive leaders like the New Leaders Council, She Should Run, and LaunchProgress. These organizations are working with women like Chelsea Wilson who is going to go home to Oklahoma and run for office and Stephanie Chang, who is running for re-election in the Michigan State House.

I started a conversation online called #AccessibleOrganizingMeans, and I also started #ProudProductOfIDEA to allow people with disabilities to comment on the importance of inclusive public education in response to Betsy DeVos’ confirmation as Secretary of Education.

“As an organizer, it’s not my job to judge or question an accommodation request. It’s my job to do whatever I can to make these requests realities.”

What’s your experience been like as an organizer?

I’ve organized many leadership and advocacy focused events. Creating an event where everyone can participate equally requires thoughtfulness, humility, and resources. Access related work is factored into my event planning timeline and is a budget item as much as booking a location or paying speakers fees are. I also know that participants may need accommodations that I am unfamiliar with. As an organizer, it’s not my job to judge or question an accommodation request. It’s my job to do whatever I can to make these requests realities.

And what about as a participant?

Oh goodness. I’ve had quite the range of experience as an event participant. I attended an event a few months ago, and when I raised access concerns, the event staff just looked at me and walked away. For another recent event, I used a wheelchair to facilitate my participation, and I attended with two friends — one of whom has a visual impairment and another who is a little person. When we went to sit down together, event workers explained that the front row was only for wheelchair users, even though all three of us would have problems seeing during an event with a large crowd. Let’s just say we were disruptive in a productive way.

“When I am sitting, I don’t appear to have a disability. During the protest, other participants kept asking me to get up from my seat so they could stand on the bench for a better view. When I would get up, they’d look incredibly guilty and say something like ‘I didn’t know,” and proceed to stand on the bench and take their photo.”

For other events or actions, when I have raised access needs, organizers have figured out how to accommodate folks and inquired about what they could do better to make sure all participants could engage in ways that worked for them. One of my favorite experiences was working with the Obama White House Social Office. For the White House reception honoring the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, we worked together to implement a whole series of changes that would make the East Wing accessible. One of these changes was establishing a quiet room for anyone who needed to take a break from the 500-person reception. The office continued to set up quiet rooms for events that included Autistic participants or other participants that had sensory processing disabilities.

“I wish fellow activists and protests would respect that some of us need to sit or be in an accessible section, even if disability is not readily apparent.”

I have attended two protests focusing on the Trump immigration ban. One of the reasons I attended these protests is because they started out in Lafayette Square Park, which has a large number of benches, and I can sit on the bench and participate in the protest. When I am sitting, I don’t appear to have a disability. During the protest, other participants kept asking me to get up from my seat so they could stand on the bench, get a better view, and take a photo of the protest. When I would get up, thus revealing my lack of balance and mobility disability, the photo-taking protestor would look incredibly guilty and say something like, “I didn’t know,” and proceed to stand on the bench and take their photo. I wish fellow activists and protests would respect that some of us need to sit or be in an accessible section, even if disability is not readily apparent.

Does your disability play into your role as an activist leader?

Absolutely. It was disability that first brought me to activism, and I am engaged in disability activism in both my personal and professional life. My activism is founded on the belief that disability is a powerful and beautiful part of the natural human condition. One of the more tangible ways that my disability plays into my activism are the forms of participation takes. You’re not likely to see me at a march or standing at a rally that is multiple hours long, but I will show up if the conditions for an action fit with my access needs. You can definitely find me online and working with organizers to make sure their events and actions are as accessible as possible.

“Pushing one’s body, working through all hours of the night, and subsisting on little food and a lot of Red Bull would not be an unspoken expectation to show your commitment to the movement.”

What would a truly accessible protest, campaign, or movement look like to you?

A truly accessible protest, campaign, or movement would provide multiple ways to contribute and participate, and each contribution or method of participation would be viewed with equal regard. Pushing one’s body, working through all hours of the night, and subsisting on little food and a lot of Red Bull would not be an unspoken expectation to show your commitment to the movement. Movements and campaigns would be trauma-informed. Many activists are likely to have experienced trauma in their past or present. Further, activism can create trauma. If you are someone who gets arrested, is exposed to violence, or who is asked to tell your story of an experience with discrimination, abuse, or hardship, that can create trauma. Movements need to take this seriously and create space and expectations for self-care. Within a truly accessible movement, no fellow activists life is looked as is less than because of their class, race, ability, education, language, or former incarceration.


An Accessible Resistance Resource List

Recommended by our illustrious contributors above!

26 Ways to Be in the Struggle — Beyond the Streets (Tikkun Magazine)

#AccessibleOrganizingMeans (Twitter)

The Accessible Stall Podcast

Access Suggestions for Mobilizations (Sins Invalid)

Access Suggestions for a Public Event (Sins Invalid)

Autistic Self-Advocacy Network

Crip the Resistance: Thoughts and Resources for Accessible Protests (The Geeky Gimp)

#CripTheVote (Twitter)

#CripTheVote and Online Disability Activism (TASH Amplified Podcast)

#CripTheVote Chat on Disability Identity and Activism (Storify)

#CripTheVote Chat on Intersectional Activism and Disability (Storify)

Disability Visibility Project

Harriet Tubman Collective

HEARD

How to Make Your Social Justice Events Accessible to the Disability Community: A Checklist (Rooted in Rights)

I Belong to the Home Fires Resistance (meriahnichols.com)

#ProudProductofIDEA (Twitter)

Ramp Your Voice!

Rooted in Rights

Sins Invalid

Talk Poverty

Your social justice events should be accessible. Period. (Medium)


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Carrie's body is weird and she's making that work for her. She lives in Los Angeles, where she does a lot of crossword puzzles and longs for a squished-faced dog. Help her get better at Twitter.

Carrie has written 70 articles for us.

14 Comments

  1. Thanks for this Carrie. I didn’t know a lot of this!

    Sandy Ho gives me LIFE. I’m so frequently disheartened by people’s need to applaud the disabled as though that is an act of inclusivity. It’s not. It’s exclusive when someone is like “ALYSSA! So glad YOU made it here!” and then just “heys” everybody else they come into contact with.

    Whilst limitations may cause our efforts to be somewhat “invisible” there are so many disabled people working every day to find new ways to be a part of social change, and while that’s a beautiful thing, we hardly need an EXTRA pat on the back.

    It’s like I always say. I put my pants on the same way you do.

    …only if I absolutely have to.

  2. It’s good to see this being talked about. I have mobility issues (currently: mostly OK at walking, within certain limits, but significant problems with prolonged standing) and worry about what would happen if I went to a protest and wasn’t able to sit down regularly (etc.) – this of course applies to a lot of events, not just protests, but I do feel guilty about not going to protests when it feels like everyone else I know is going to them.

  3. Maria mentioned being trauma-informed – does anyone have any resources for how to do this or what it might look like? When I google it turns up human rights stuff and social work practice, but I’m looking for things I can do or talk about with my friends and comrades. Any leads would be appreciated – books links etc.

  4. This is wonderful. We need to ensure that every event has full hearing access which includes a hearing induction loop, captioning and ASL. Organizers cannot pick one over the other. Selecting how a person receives information is not appropriate.

    We also need parents of children with disabilities included in leadership. Far too often, children with disabilities are never discussed and regulations fail to include access for them. Parents are left out of the equation and we cannot raise children to succeed unless access is in place for them.

    Janice S Lintz, CEO/Founder Hearing Access & Innovations/Mother of a now grown child with hearing loss

  5. Love this 🙂 especially the casual references to spoons – I love that has become such a casual reference. I also really appreciate the reference to creating disability art as activism. I am disabled actor theatre maker type, and so my spoons are focused on that and the changes I can make within my industry, but I often feel guilty that I should be doing more. It’s so validating to hear people share similar experiences. There isn’t an equivalent space like Autostraddle for the disability community so it’s wonderful space is being made here

  6. It is informative and amazing at what each person has said and conveyed. Sometimes people ignore the issues that need to be addressed when it isn’t bluntly thrown in their face. People should be much more aware of disabled accessibility and how it impacts more than just the people that are physically not capable. We tend to judge people on the outside before we get to know them and their background. I think accessibility for disabled people should be a top priority within the not just the U.S but nation wide.

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