Emily Huhman: Make activism accessible

Wednesday, September 27, 2017 - 2:15pm

With the election of Donald Trump, students have been getting more involved in activism. From the Women’s March the day after the election, to A Day Without Immigrants, to the March for Science in the spring, to the marches and phone banking following the president’s decision to rescind Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, students have been partaking in activism at campuses across the United States. In the 2011-12 school year, 11.1 percent of undergraduate students in the United States had some type of disability. With such a large percentage of students dealing with a disability, it is important that activist groups make their events accessible to disabled students by creating a respectful and welcoming environment and improving infrastructure at events.

The biggest issue with mainstream activism is not a lack of representation; rather, it is misrepresentation. Even if intentions are good, the way those with disabilities are portrayed in activism can be problematic. A common form of this type of misrepresentation is from the “hero and pity” narrative. For example, we often see the story of “the hero who, despite their hideous impairment, was able to get into the Paralympics.” This “hero and pity” narrative creates a negative sentiment that suggests that having a disability is the worst thing that could happen to a person.

Halimat Olaniyan, the president of Disability Studies and Other Identity Politics at the University of Michigan, a student organization aimed toward representing disability narratives and facilitating discussions on intersectionality within the disabled community, echoes this sentiment. “Oftentimes people glorify successful people with disabilities, and that’s problematic,” Olaniyan said.

When this narrative appears in activism, it not only does a disservice to those activist groups, but makes their groups less accessible to those with disabilities by pushing a narrative in which the disabled don’t feel respected.

Problematic allyship is also an issue within mainstream activism. While the intentions of allies are usually good, it is important that they stay in the background — to be as supportive as possible without it becoming patronizing — rather than try to speak for the disabled community. This way, disabled folks can advocate for themselves and can feel more comfortable at activist events.

Social media showcase problematic activism. “It’s really hard, with Facebook and sites like that just being a big part of our lives. Oftentimes you have — not fake allies, that’s not the correct way to say it — but you have people going out of their way to, say, take a picture with someone who is disabled or take a picture that makes it look like they’re helping this person and turning the issue into something about them,” Olaniyan said.

It is possible to make activism more accessible to those with disabilities. Bettering infrastructure at events is the most concrete way of making activism accessible. Infrastructure can mean making sure there are adequate ways for those with disabilities to get to the event venue and attend the event comfortably. An example of improving infrastructure is having an American Sign Language interpreter to translate any speakers the event has for those who are deaf or hard of hearing and know ASL.

Activists can also take advantage of the internet to make their events more accessible to those with disabilities by livestreaming their events on social media. In January, the Women’s March on Washington paired up with the Disability March. The Disability March was an online-only march for those who could not make it to the Women’s March because of a disability or chronic illness. On its website, the Disability March allowed marchers to enter their stories surrounding disability or chronic illness, either from themselves or from someone they love. By including these types of services, activist groups can make their events more accessible.

Accessibility also means inclusivity. Arranging for more disabled speakers is key to making events more inclusive. This doesn’t just include disabled speakers at disability rights events but at events for LGBTQ rights events, events for racial justice and other issues. “It’s really moving to the affected communities (to see a disabled speaker),” Olaniyan affirmed. “It’s like, wow, I can do that too.”

Moving toward intersectionality in activism is an important step in incorporating diverse narratives in modern activism. Activists with disabilities fight for more than just disability issues. Many disabled activists are also queer, people of color or transgender, and they have important contributions to conversations surrounding those topics.

Nonviolent activism is an effective method of protest that can generate positive change in the United States. To have the largest impact possible, activist groups need to consider all people who want to partake in activism when planning their events. It is possible to create activism that includes all, regardless of ability or health.

Emily Huhman can be reached at huhmanem@umich.edu.