Disabling Social Justice and the Vote (by Priya Ray)

The year 2016 started with the “bathroom bill”, a piece of legislature passed in North Carolina, the state in which I live. When it was passed, rage exploded — not only in the LGBTQ community but from their allies as well. All of a sudden, everyone became extremely vested in the rights of the transgender community to be able to use the bathroom of their individual preference. During this tumultuous moment in time, I went out to eat at restaurants as I had always done. I met a group of friends, we ate, had some amazing conversations and simply enjoyed a really great time. After we ate and drank our beverages, I had to go to the bathroom. This is usually a normal occurence for any human body after enjoying an evening of food and drink. Yet it wasn’t.  I rolled my wheelchair to the bathroom and realized it was locked. I looked up and saw a sign on a piece of paper taped to the door. It said that “Our Bathrooms are Gender Neutral.“  For a nondisabled, cis-gendered person, the fear of not being able to use a bathroom is generally not something you experience. However, I am a cis-gendered, disabled person. To be more specific, I am a cis-gendered person who had a spinal cord injury who no longer has control of my bladder and I really had to go to the bathroom. . . now. I looked around but did not see anything informing a disabled person whether or not the bathroom was accessible. So I rolled back to the cashier and said “Are your bathrooms accessible?” I got the blank stare I get from almost every person I ask the question “Is this accessible?” The guy at the desk continued to stare at me as if I was speaking a different language. I said it again but this time quickly followed the question with “You know there’s nothing on that bathroom that lets people know if it is accessible. Accessible bathrooms are actually the law.“ He stared some more, apparently unable to answer. The thought had never crossed his mind. I told him, “Give me the key and I’ll let you know if it is.” He handed me the keys and I went back and unlocked the door. Opening it, I was relieved to see it was. As I was peeing, I thought to myself, I am an ally of the LGBTQ community. I went to protests letting people know I did not want the trans-community to be oppressed this way. I think people should be to use able whatever bathroom they want. I believed in this right because a person who is trans may feel social pushback while using the bathroom with which they identify and I do not want anyone to feel this way. But in turn, if a bathroom is not accessible, I wouldn’t be able to use the bathroom at all. Is it somehow supposed to be socially acceptable that I would just have to be ok with peeing on myself? Because I’ve never seen the kind of outrage I saw at these protests when I, a disabled person, do not have access to a bathroom I need. If we get a bird’s eye view and observe how people are treated, you see that discrimination exists everywhere. As communities, when we want to protest against something that is wrong, access is never a thought. If we want to take part we are on our own. 
Another event that happened in 2016 was the election of Donald Trump. The evening of that election, all of my nondisabled friends who are women, from different races, or identify as LGBTQ, were all in a absolute panic about how their rights were going to be taken away. As a brown-skinned, disabled woman, I was also concerned but told myself, Well this just means we have to protest harder and pay closer attention to what is really happening. As citizens, that’s just what we must do when something isn’t right. At the same time, I was also thinking of all the minorities who would have to fight for their rights, but somehow I didn’t immediately think about how my rights as a disabled person were going to be affected. The group of people I immediately thought of were those people in the Muslim community. Being a Hindu Indian, I know a lot of Muslim Indians and I began thinking about what could happen to their community. Since the hatred towards Muslims amped up after 9/11, it was not hard for me to imagine the potential for members of the Muslim population to be placed into camps like the Japanese were during WW2. When the Muslim ban happened, I was so happy to see the amount of people that came out to make sure this community’s rights were protected. I do not live in a city whose airport ever sees a large number of immigrants fly into America but I have friends that do, disabled and nondisabled alike. My disabled friends complained to me about how they were not able to participate in the rallies because people simply did not think about how to include disabled people. They found it disheartening when they could not participate fully in a cause that was so important to them, to this country as a whole. They felt excluded. 
I experienced the same thing when everyone went out to protest for the Woman’s March in 2016. Downtown Asheville was packed. I was apprehensive to go because I wasn’t sure I could actually park and participate. It’s already hard to find an accessible spot downtown when nothing is happening, but when so many people are pouring into the city for a big event, my chances of finding a spot are more improbable. I really really wanted to go so I took the chance and drove there by myself. I kept telling myself if you can’t find a spot to park, just go home and look at the posts on social media later. The weather was alright for the most part but it sprinkled rain here and there. I found an accessible spot but like almost all the accessible street parking in Asheville, the landscape architecture did not make it accessible for me, a person with a wheelchair and van with a lift. I lowered myself down but I saw my lift was going to land half on the pavement and half on this 3 by 3 foot plot of land where a tree stood surrounded by soil. Because of the rain, I knew that I was most likely going to get stuck when I got back to my van to go home. I decided that I’d worry about it later because again this was something I really wanted to do. I wanted to join everyone to let our new president to know that we will not let him threaten our rights as Americans. Not just disabled people’s rights but everybody’s rights. So I got off the lift and rolled myself to the protest area. When I got there I was so disappointed to find that nobody thought that any disabled people were going to protest. Why? Because as usual disabled people are invisible to the world. There was no area designated for the disabled. People that took part in the protest didn’t even see I was there. It was as if I did not exist. It was as if nobody could even imagine that disabled people want to scream, shout, and chant for everyone’s rights.  This lack of acknowledgement of the disabled also exists in the world of activism. Right after Donald Trump got elected a series of workshops became available to help people learn how to organize and be activists for whatever interested them. It was run by a group that fought for the rights of the Latinx communities but these workshops were not exclusive to that community. As usual, there was absolutely nothing about what the accessibility of these workshops was going to be. I called once to find out if I could even get in. No reply. I called twice. No reply. I called a third time. No reply. The fourth time, my call ended in a very stern message that went something like this: “Hey. I really want to take part in these workshops. I am disabled and I need to know about the accessibility of the venue. You do know that disabled people are the largest minority and we are also very interested in fighting for our rights. Please call me back to let me know.” It wasn’t until after that fourth call that a man finally responded. He apologized for taking so long, saying he was embarrassed that he and the organization had not thought about access for disability. 
We are in the middle of a time where everyone is afraid for their rights. We really do need to all stick together. Unfortunately the nondisabled rarely understand how to include the disabled. It’s not really hard to figure out. Just ask and we will tell you. Even better, communicate by writing “This meeting is accessible” or by putting the universal graphic of disability that is recognized around the entire world informs that we can take part in this fight with you. 

While I was really angry that I had to put all this time and energy to find out if I could be a part of the workshop, I also realized there are so many logistics grassroots groups need to think about, especially when so many are underfunded and understaffed. I can forgive people for forgetting but when we are robbed of our voice from being blocked to vote that is absolutely unacceptable. 

In 2016 there were reported cases of accessible voting machines sitting in the corner unplugged and, well, inaccessible. In one instance, a person reported a flower wreath resting on an unplugged accessible voting booth, as if there were a funeral being held for her right to vote. Kathy Hoell, a 62 year-old woman from Nebraska with a brain injury who uses a wheelchair, has been prevented from voting for decades. Whether it was due to an inaccessible voting poll station, not being able to use the accessible voting booth because it was never turned on, or a voting poll worker making the decision that because of the way Kathy speaks, she was not smart enough to vote, she has repeatedly been denied access to her right to vote. Kathy wasn’t even given a literacy test like black voters were subjected to from 1890-1960. Instead, a unqualified voting poll worker assumed her intelligence based only from what they saw. These are the kind of ways 35 million disabled people are being blocked from having their voice heard in their own government every election. What people do not expect from the disabled community is for us to fight for our rights as people. According to Rutgers, Nebraska has the highest record of disabled voters to date: 70%. In comparison, only 48% of adults with disabilities have been able to vote in a state like New York. 
It seems the way we interpret democracy now is that we cast our vote and our job is done. Or worse, those who see democracy as having the freedom to not participate decide not to vote at all and hope for the best? This is not really the way deomocracy works. As citizens in a democratic nation our work is never really done. We must protest, start petitions, speak out to our communities when our rights are being violated. This is something that Kathy Hoell understands very well. When her rights were violated, she said “I just go to the top and start yelling”. By working with elected government officials and fellow disabled citizens, she was able to have more of the disabled communities voice heard through voting. I think we can all agree that Kathy is smart enough to vote. 

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Sometimes You See It. Sometimes You Cannot

When I first became paralyzed from a spinal injury, I moved into my parent’s house. They had created a really nice, one-bedroom basement apartment for me. From the French windows in the living room you see it had an amazing view of the woods behind the house and in the far distance, there was a farm with a couple of horses running around. It was a nice little paradise. One day, I decided to get some fresh air. The basement had its own entryway so I opened the door, went out, and shut the door behind me. The door had one of those locks that you can open from the inside even though it was actually locked on the outside. So after I sat and watched the horses run around, the squirrels jumping from tree to tree, I went to get back in the house but the door was locked and there was nobody home! I thought “Fuck! Now what do I do!” There were stairs that led to a wooden deck where my dad loved to bbq and entertain. So I transferred to these stairs and pushed myself up them. Then I crawled across the deck and around to the front to see if I could get into the front door. It was locked. So I crawled back to the steps on the front of this deck and waited for a neighbor or someone from my family to show up.
45 minutes went by and I saw a young girl, maybe a teenager, walking by and I screamed out to her. She came up to me and I explained what had happened, asking if she could go to one of the neighbors’ houses and call my father. She looked at me blankly and said “Are you disabled? You don’t look like it.” In the moment I said yes and thank you without really thinking about it. While I was waiting for her to get a neighbor I thought to myself “what does that mean? What did she mean I do not look disabled? What does a person with a disability look like?” That was first time I had the realization that unless there is a visual cue like wheelchair or cane people don’t always realize you live with a disability.
Invisible Disability is a big issue in the disability community. A person that lives with a disability that nobody can see it can include any kind of disease or mental condition that makes it difficult for that person to live as independently as other able-bodied people around them. After the Parkland shooting this year, I thought how as a community we are unable to recognize people with invisible disabilities until it is too late. Three months later, the Santa Fe shooting happened. Then this morning, I learned about Anthony Bourdain’s suicide. I was not a die hard fan but always appreciated that he travelled the world, explored cuisines that were not familiar, and had life that just seemed like it was a lot of fun. Even so, he lived with a disability that nobody ever noticed, perhaps including himself. When you are told a person lives with a disability, the first thing image that will most likely pop into your head is a person in a wheelchair. In the 2002 census 96% of people have an illness live with one that is invisible and 73% of people with severe disabilities do not use assistive devices like a wheelchair. So how can you tell if a person is living with a disability? Sometimes you cannot.
How can we all learn that there is no real “look” to living with a disability? People are uncomfortable talking about disability. It’s one thing when a person like myself has a spinal injury and is in wheelchair but when a person suffers from a disability that is mental or emotional it can be ugly and hard to watch so we just push it to the side, until we are forced to look at it and again. And because of this there is a huge lack of awareness and education that leads us all to have a huge misconception of what disability is and what it could look like. Due to these misconceptions we either make the wrong choices or miss something that was right in front of us.
How do we get rid of misconceptions? 
Exploring how we actually treat people that live with disability, mental and physical, would be the first step. How do people react when they see a person with a disability? Words like weak, different, and shame are so often associated with it. When I fell and sustained a spinal injury I also sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI).  When you live with TBI people cannot tell you have it by looking at you. The effects of having brain damage can lead a person to act differently than we are used to. Perhaps they say things that other people will interpret as “mean” or “rude”. I was lucky because I still have control of what I say but it affected my ability to read and write. I remember one day sitting at table of friends and them making fun of a common friend because they did not read. It had not occurred to them for a second that I did not read either because I couldn’t. At the time I was new to living with a disability and instead of saying “I don’t read because I can’t. Do you want to laugh to make fun of me?” I was embarrassed and I sat quietly without saying a word. Maybe if I had said something, my friends would realize that just because you cannot see something does not mean it’s not there. The more we integrate other’s race, gender, ability into our understanding, we start to see that our differences are something we can all learn from rather than make fun of. As a community learns to accept the differences amongst them we could also provide support system for people living with disabilities to help them navigate a world that normally does not include them.
The media has always been another way to inform people about something they do not know or understand. When a certain reality is presented to you, you can start to believe it can actually happen. Throughout the decades, we have seen the influence television on our culture
In the span of history the media has represented People Living with Disabilties (PLD) but it was often portrayed as something we were to feel guilt or pity, that needed fixing, and the people living with them were not equal to humans without them. The Jerry Lewis Telethon for Muscular Dystrophy was an example of how the world viewed having a disability — parading a bunch of adorable children that were born with this disease and manipulating Americans to donate money to fix it. Around the 60’s the media started introducing characters that were taking part in their communities but the language people began to use was different. They began to use the language that now acknowledged that a person is deaf, has Down Syndrome, or is a wheelchair rider. These were not a group of people we should feel sorry and disregard but that could actually contribute to their community.
Although the steps the media has taken to inform people about disability have been fair, it has yet to complete the whole picture, one true to the actual reality. Of course, we cannot completely rely on the media to educate us as, they are not our educators, they are our entertainment. It up to us as a society to educate people through schools, special training and modeling to be able to recognize and acknowledge disabilities of all kinds, invisible and not.
While this lack of information becomes an issue when it comes to things like being able to park or go somewhere, it is much more significant when your invisible disability can put your life in jeopardy. The Ruderman Family Foundation has said that nearly half of police shooting fatalities are made up of people living with disabilities, physical and mental. In our conversations about police shootings and mass shootings we rarely discuss how disability or mental illness plays role.
Sometimes, having an invisible disability combined with the racism prevalent in our society can turn deadly.  We can see this in the cases of Alfred Olongo and John T. Williams. Olongo’s sister called the police because her brother was having a seizure. When the police arrived, they did not recognize Alfred’s behavior as a person who was having a seizure. He was not on the ground shaking and convulsing which is what is portrayed in movies or TV. Instead, he was walking erratically and reached in his pocket. That with combination of being black alerted the police that he was a threat and they made the decision shoot him dead. We see this again in the case of John T. Williams, a Native American man who was deaf in one ear. As he was walking through the streets of Seattle one day, carrying a knife that he was using to carve a piece of wood, a policeman saw him and yelled four times. When he did not respond because he was deaf, the police officer shot and killed him. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the Native American population are killed by police at a higher rate than any other racial or ethnic group in the U.S. We again see the racist beliefs mixed with the ignorance of disability lead to the death of John T Willams.
Police are not trained to deal with any form of disability — they are trained to use force. The police officer is expected to match whatever force a suspect is using or threatening to use, if not more. Without being able to identify a person with a disability, it becomes difficult to understand how to deescalate the situation. When the police kills a person wrongly we need to hold the police accountable, of course, but it is the job of the police department to educate and train their force how on how to deal with disabilities of all kinds.
My old stomping ground Miami, FL, a city that has the highest ratio of mental illness in an urban setting, created a program called CIT (Crisis Intervention Team). This is a program that teaches police to identify a mental disability and how to deescalate a situation instead of escalating it. It focuses on allowing People Living with Disabilities to get treatment instead of ending up in jail or killed.
The recognition of disability in the policing world is definitely a step in the right direction but one area of disability that we have continuously ignored is that of people living with an unseen and undiagnosed mental disability. We do not address the idea of brain health until a person goes into mental crisis, like suicide or mass murder, when it is too late and can no longer be ignored. The blatant ignorance of the brain health of kids in America is something that has been sorely overlooked for a very, very long time. When I first had my spinal cord injury and was in the hospital in 1999, the Columbine shooting happened. It was our country’s first real taste of a mass shooting by teens in school. This was such a shocking event for everyone and because we want, we need immediate answers on how something like this could happen.
The news media chose to lead with the narrative that these were the actions of an “outsider” or “loner”.  As I was listening to this in my hospital bed, being visited by my friends, I thought we were all outsiders once and sure, perhaps we had occasionally wished the death of someone at school who made us absolutely miserable, but not one of us sat and actually planned out how to kill those people. This narrative of the “outsider” as a murderer was reenforced by the entertainment media in shows like Degrassi: The New Generation where the infamous DRAKE ended up with a spinal injury because Rick was looking for justice against his classmates that bullied him. Like the character, Rick, Dylan Kliebold and Eric Harris may have been outsiders but they were outsiders that also suffered from an unrecognized, undiagnosed mental disability. It was only with time and retrospection that psychologists — after carefully examining Kliebold’s and Harris’ lives, their interactions with each other and their world — concluded that these boys did suffer from a mental disability that led to the ending the lives of 17 people in their community and in the end their own lives as well. It has been 20 years and we see almost the same thing happen again. Who’s really to blame? The kids with mental illness? Their parents? Has the school system failed to meet the needs that kids have today? Or have the communities we are living in fail at providing the communal and familial structures, support, and rites of passage to assist kids today as they grow?
The fact that almost virtually nothing has been done to ensure that people like Dylan Kliebold and Eric Harris cannot get their hands on deadly weapons but what had the school system done to step in before they got to the point of wanting guns in the first place? We were willing to accept the story the media was telling us — outsiders simply getting their revenge. Harris was bullied but however he bullied people himself. Closer to reality were two boys afflicted not only by typical high school problems (bullying and rejection) but who were also each suffering from their own mental crisis. And sadly, when they met, their friendship led to them to a fatal outcome.
How can this be stopped? In secondary schools we provide school counselors and nurses but there is no support for a kids brain health. As a society we have somehow come to believe that our children are free of mental disabilities like depression, anxiety, and in extreme cases psychopathy, but it is not true. According to youth.gov suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth between the ages of 10 and 24. And since Columbine we have not instituted a national program for onsite mental therapists at schools. How would having a trained adult interacting with boys such as Kliebold and Harris changed what they did? We will never know. In reality, someone may not even realize they live with a mental disability and although we cannot always catch it every time does not mean we must not try!
Of course recognizing disability is not the one things that will resolve the meaningless deaths we see at the hand of the police, mass murders, and suicide. There is much work to be done in reforming our justice system and gun restrictions most definitely. Shedding a light on it and recognition of disabilities, however, will help us eliminate the ignorance that comes with having a disability that nobody can see.
As I was finishing this up Joe Chang from the band Golden Light Music had written A Note On Suicide where he shares his experiences with being a suicidal person and some possibilities of things that may help.

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DIY Community and Accessibility

What DIY?

As I started writing for DIYabled, I was getting asked by a lot of folks what is DIY? The acronym stands for Do It Yourself and while a DIY movement has a lot of history, the term itself can really refer to anything from remodeling homes to fixing your own bike. When I talk about it, I am referring to the DIY ethic that has existed in the underground music scene. It was an ethos that had its beginnings in the 1970s as a way for bands to bypass the corporate mainstream industry by, you guessed it, Doing It Yourself. Over the last 50 years, this DIY ethos has grown from the art/punk music scene to what we see today. All genres, from intimate folk shows to electronic dance parties to experimental music, have turned to the DIY ethos as a means to develop an opportunity to make music and play for the people who helped create it.

Why DIY?

I was fortunate to part of a group of folks in the 90s that worked together to set up an infrastructure for bands to tour, put out records and actually play their music for an audience! We lived in the south and wanted to play our music and share our art there and beyond. We did not fit into the mainstream at the time so we created our own spaces: houses, basements, even the outdoors. No places were off limits. With a generator and some speakers a show could be created just about anywhere. It was a community we created ourselves for ourselves. DIY is about community. And without a community, we are alone.


Why think about accessibility?

People Living with Disabilities (PLD) make up the largest minority in the world. It’s been reported that there were about 57 million PLD in 2010 in the U.S. alone. As a community, if you are not thinking about accessibility, you are excluding a huge group of people. Any group of individuals that understands the true meaning of the DIY ethic also understands that without it, this minority could not live. Because most people I meet have no idea what accessibility means exactly, I decided to make this zine to give some tips about DIY accessibility.

How to know or make your space is accessible?

Due to the nature of DIY, accessibility is a huge issue. But this does not mean that you can’t try to make your space PLD friendly if not completely PLD accessible. What that means is PLD can get in and out of a space to enjoy an event, even if they may not be able to use the bathroom or parts of your space are not completely accessible.

The space. Wide open spaces with with no obstacles like record shelves or garbage cans in the way.

The entrance. If it is completely ground level, perfect. If there are stairs, build a ramp. There are lots of DIY wheelchair ramp tutorials on YouTube. The ADA requires a ramp ratio of 1:20, so for every inch of height, you need 20 inches of length for the ramp. A step that is 3 inches would require 5 feet or 60 inches of ramp. This is not always possible to do with the amount of space available so if you have to, just make a steeper ramp. Do it! Having a ramp will allow any person in a wheelchair to access your space. If it is too steep you can always use our greatest resource, humans, to help push the wheelchair up the ramp.

Doors. The ADA requires door widths to be at least 32 inches. If your door width is a bit smaller, that is fine because that width is for an average wheelchair to fit through the doors. Some people have wheelchairs that are smaller than 32 inches and some that are larger.

Bathrooms. The biggest challenge. ADA has specifics and from my experiences, DIY spaces rarely have accessible bathrooms. A door that is actually wide enough is required but if the wheelchair can actually get in and the person can get to the toilet, having grab bar would help. You can purchase them at your local hardware store and they’re really cheap!

In reality every space cannot be accessible. When a space is having an event, informing people in advance about whether or not they can get in is another way to include the people of your community. An easy way to do this is displaying an accessible symbol if your space is PLD accessible. This is a symbol saying that you are PLD friendly, please contact for specifics. You can also put up an accessible symbol with a line through it if your space is completely inaccessible. Disability comes in so many shapes and sizes that you should always offer contact information so if PLD are intrested they can make 100% sure they can get in. These small gestures of consideration are important because there is nothing more heartbreaking than watching all of your able bodied peers walk into an inaccessible space.

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