Five Ways to Make Direct Action Organizing Less Ableist

There is an ableist misconception that those with disabilities don’t participate in marches, rallies, lockdowns and resistance camps. In reality, we are here and more of us would like to get in on the action.

I am multiply disabled due to a host of illnesses, chronic pain and mobility impairments. The issues of ableism have been a constant plague for me. I’ve lost jobs, wages, friends, family, romantic partners and more due to others’ unwillingness to make necessary accommodations and supports for me.

I also experience ableism in activist organizing spaces that purport to support the rights of the marginalized. We are often excluded from leadership and from conversations regarding justice, and our accessibility needs to attend events and meetings are rarely met. I have witnessed this the most in direct action organizing.

There is no justice without disability justice. Nineteen percent of the US population — adding up to 56.7 million people — were living with disabilities as of the most recent Census recorded in 2010. This number is only growing, as is the intensity of the multiple marginalizations that many with disabilities suffer.

Approximately 40 percent of the incarcerated population in the US has a disability and almost half of the people murdered by law enforcement are disabled. Sixty-two percent of disabled women in the US have been abused with 40 percent experiencing sexual assault and 90 percent of those with developmental disabilities having been sexually assaulted. The American with Disabilities Act passed in 1990, yet the rates of employment in 2017 were only 18.7 percent, minus employment in jobs that legally pay less than minimum wage.

Facing these intense forms of structural and interpersonal violence, people with disabilities have been deeply involved in many different struggles for justice, but ableism within direct-action organizing spaces continues to make participation more difficult than it needs to be.

What follows is a list on how to check ableism in your direct action organizing and to be inclusive of the disability justice community. This is not meant to be a complete list, but rather a beginning guide for the able-bodied.

1) Check your privilege.

If you’re able-bodied, then you have privilege based on your ability. Your access to the world and resources are, in general, far greater than for those with disabilities. Able-bodied people don’t have to worry about many of the concerns those with disabilities do. You’re likely not juggling multiple medical appointments, accessing housing, employment, social events, and more to meet your health needs all while often feeling horrible. There is no concern of whether or not you can even get into the physical space you need to traverse or convincing people, including medical providers, that your illness or disabilities are real. Able-bodied people may suffer from other forms of oppression, such as racism or sexism, but still have privilege based on ability. Remember that and keep it in check while organizing.

2) Seek meaningful inclusion of those with disabilities.

We are very often erased from the process of organizing and speaking to our experiences because we are seen as incapable or childlike. This act of ableism is one that devalues us. All organizing spaces need meaningful inclusion of those with disabilities in order to combat the issues of ableism both in society and in grassroots work.

Coupled with having us in leadership is the importance of working with local disability justice organizers as well as those on a national level. The needs of the disability community vary greatly, and organizers working on local issues must be included. It’s also vital that in coalition building the right organizations are invited. Only disability organizations that are operated primarily by those with disabilities should be welcome.

3) Add a disability justice lens to your work.

The disability community is extraordinarily diverse. We are made up of every religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, race and more. Adding a disability justice lens to your organizing work is crucial to the meaningful inclusion of those with disabilities. Sit down and ask yourself how the issues you work on directly impact disabled people and how your organizing might be ableist. The environmental justice movement, for example, is in desperate need of a disability justice lens. Our illnesses and disabilities are made worse by global climate chaos and evacuation during human-made disasters is much more difficult, often impossible, for us. The push for drinking straw bans, the uproar over Whole Foods’ pre-peeled oranges and pressure by often multiply privileged vegans to adopt their diet all in the name of saving the environment are perfect examples of where progressive activists have failed and demonized those with disabilities. Straws are sometimes needed for people with more severe mobility impairments in order to drink and eat. Items like oranges that are pre-peeled help people with dexterity issues to access fresh produce. Depending upon dietary needs, as well as financial and physical access to food, many with illnesses are unable to follow a vegan diet. Veganism is often racist and colonizing because the vegan movement often attempts to shame Indigenous people for eating our traditional foods, such as bison and whale, and block access to them, despite the fact that the loss of our traditional foods is one of the reasons Native people in the colonized US have high rates of diabetes. Organizing work must reflect the needs of all community members, not merely the able-bodied.

4) Honor and pay us for our work.

Don’t expect people with disabilities to give free labor or to pay for the expense of accessibility in organizing. We live with greater rates of poverty, our expenses are significantly higher, and even the cost of transportation to and from organizing meetings and actions is often a burden to our participation. Placing a line item for disability accessibility in your budget and fully funding it is necessary for meeting access needs. ASL interpreters, accessible meeting spaces, transportation and mobility equipment are very expensive and crucial to the meaningful inclusion of the disability community. Don’t take shortcuts either. For example, if your action has a stage, then you need to ensure that there is a safe and accessible way to get people with mobility impairments on and off the stage. Trying to simply pick us up, which I’ve seen happen numerous times, can lead to injuries as well as harm to our mobility devices, which are highly expensive and very rarely replaceable.

5) Modify your action to make it accessible.

Don’t think that because someone has a disability that they won’t participate in direct actions. We throw down hard: The 500 arrests in two months of protests led by members of ADAPT are proof of that. There are numerous ways to make your direct action more accessible.

Being honest and realistic about the demands of your action and providing “know your rights” trainings that include information on the health care rights and realities that those arrested might face are important first steps to ensuring those with disabilities can make a fully informed decision on how they want to participate in an action.

Modifying an action in creative ways, such as offering pillows and seating, choosing more accessible locations for actions, and changing the apparatus for lockdowns are easy ways to meet some accessibility needs. Make sure you have your comrades’ backs while in more dangerous situations. It can be more difficult for us to sense and/or flee from danger. Assigning someone who is able-bodied to those with disabilities who request it can be an important safety measure, as well as training your able-bodied organizers on what disability can look like and the additional dangers it may bring.

Remember that we also have specific jail support needs. Make sure that bailing out those with disabilities and illnesses, when requested, is a high priority, as is fighting for our access to medications, mobility devices, and dietary and other health care needs while in custody. This may mean sending more money to people with disabilities who are incarcerated so they can pay for medical care or buy food and supplies from commissary. Or it can mean fighting for your comrades with hearing impairments so they may have ASL access. Make sure that when your members come out of jail that you have their medication, any special foods they eat, and anything else necessary to meet their needs. Arrest and incarceration are traumatic for all people, but they come with extra dangers and challenges for us.

Last, but certainly not least, don’t think for one minute that there aren’t any people with illnesses or disabilities in your organizing space. We’re here, we’ve always been here, and we’re not going away.