Accessibility in the Peace Movement

 

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By Maureen, former Feminist Peace Network co-moderator

Some of my happiest childhood memories are of the peace and civil rights marches and rallies I attended. The outpouring of love and feeling of possibility and excitement was something I could feel many years before I could articulate it. And there was the pure, sensual pleasure — This was the sixties and early seventies — I loved being surrounded by so many swirling, bright colors and welcoming faces. And the attention — Other protestors and local media took my picture a lot when I was holding my childishly hand-lettered signs, or “marching” atop my father’s shoulders. When there was tangible progress, I didn’t question that I had played a part in making it happen.

This is the sense of demonstrations, rallies, and marches that I’ve carried into middle age, but among the things that have changed is that I now use a wheelchair to get around. I also live in a conservative part of the United States, where lack of wheelchair access is the norm. In the weeks leading up to February 15th, I receive countless calls to action, cogently and passionately articulating why everyone needs to take to the streets. I don’t know if I can explain the mix of conflicting feelings this engenders in me. There’s a deeply heartfelt excitement as it becomes increasingly obvious that the need for peace is mainstream and global. There’s some combination of anger and sorrow over the fact that people like me are erased in a definition of “everyone” that fails to recognize the limitations placed on people who need wheelchair-accessible bathrooms, fragrance/chemical-free environments, attendants, or directions and other information presented in alternate formats, to name a few, before we can take to the streets. There’s a sense of loneliness and isolation. There’s an increasing determination that this time I will get to something on the weekend of the 15th. And there’s a sense of shame about feeling any of these negative reactions when the stakes are so high, and clearly something profoundly beautiful is about to happen.

The internet has become my main source of connection to other activists, and this is where I do whatever I can think of to try to play some part in helping the marches and rallies come together, but it’s willy-nilly, scattered, imprecise. I don’t have a plan, let alone anything that feels the least bit useful to contribute to discussions of strategy or tactics. I become overwhelmed by the sense that my actions are silly and self-indulgent, that all I care about is my own self-justification. I make another batch of offers to volunteer for tasks that work well over distance. Once again, the majority of responses I receive boil down to, ‘Thank you, but what we need are bodies and money.’

The 15th arrives. I’m able to attend a rally about an hour from home, but not the march that precedes it. It’s a very cold day, with snow threatening. As my partner and I drive up to the rally location, I see a circle of people holding U.S. flags within spitting distance of the peace rally. I hadn’t expected a counter-rally, and my stomach clenches. For a variety of reasons, I’m unable to use my powerchair that day, and Chris has to push me up the grassy hill where the rally is being held. Although the demo was arranged by college groups, most of the demonstrators are my age or older, with the largest group looking to be in their seventies, but I see people of all ages, and we are all extremely beautiful. The speakers are, in my opinion, excellent. They offer facts about oil companies and the realties of war. Chris asks a man wearing a Veterans for Peace hat if she can take his photograph. He seems surprised by the question, but says yes. It’s a great picture. I ask Chris to photograph my wheelchair, decked out in its peace rally finery, and she snaps the photograph above this essay.

Chris circulates among the crowd, taking more pictures, and I close my eyes against the cold and listen to the speakers. The pro-war group, though much smaller in number, has superior sound equipment, and their insipid music periodically drowns out those speaking for peace. When they repeat the most cloying song in their repertoire, several of us groan so sincerely and simultaneously that it sounds pre-orchestrated, and then turn to exchange surprised smiles at this unexpected moment of solidarity. Still, I am not entirely “of” “my” group, either. I am consistently given that “Well, aren’t you just the sweetest thing” smile that I’ve learned to hate in the four years that I’ve been recognizably disabled, I’m offered assistance that I don’t need, and objectified in a variety of ways that don’t sit well with me. But it is a fantastic day, and I am thrilled to be a part of it.

In the weeks that follow, I continue to try to make sense of what I’m feeling. I become very, very busy. Some of it is out of the sense of urgency that many of us share, and the sense that this is no time to let any opportunity to work for peace pass by. Some of it is making tentative attempts at discussing accessibility issues in the peace movement. And some of it is pure coincidence of timing. But another part of it I recognize as part of my pattern when I’m grieving.

I end up more exhausted than I’ve been in a very long time. As I rest some of it off, I realize that what I’m grieving now is feeling like I have to choose whether to take an adversarial role or be excluded from the peace movement. Maybe “excluded” is too strong a word. There’s the internet, there are small, short-term projects, there are a number of ways I can stay plugged in at home, but I like direct action. I want to be out on the streets.

A basic precept of the disability rights movement, that lack of access is segregation, keeps going through my head. Maybe it’s at least partially because I use a wheelchair, but I say “access” and I get responses about wheelchairs and sign language interpreters. I have the privilege of belonging to a group of people with disabilities whose access is theoretically widely guaranteed by U.S. law. My head reels when I try to imagine what this choice would feel like if I needed a fragrance-free environment because I had multiple chemical sensitivities, or information presented in alternate formats because I had a brain injury or other cognitive impairment.

I hate even thinking about this. I can’t make sense of where I belong in a movement that feels so crucial to me and that, by its exclusion, seems to make clear that people like me are superfluous to it.

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