In part 1 of this article, I explore the experience of how nervous – and unprofessional – the police can act around demonstrators who happen to have a dis/ability. I speak here of visible dis/ability such as needing to use a cane to walk.
But my status as an activist with a dis/ability also affects my relationship with other activists.
There is a lot of nervousness within the activist community around members who are dis/abled. I have felt this sting.
Our needs are sometimes either ignored or overlooked (not the same thing) through what I believe is the nervousness of able-bodied activists who don’t have the emotional or political literacy needed to understand the complexity of dis/ability. It is the lack of understanding that causes pause and uncertainty – which permeate off people and is easily felt.
I remember during Occupy, there was an “Occupy the TTC” (Toronto Transit Commission) demo that went horribly wrong. The premise of Occupy the TTC was to hold GAs (General Assembly) type meetings while riding the public transit subway system of Toronto.
Since the call outs for these mobile meetings were public, Toronto police attended as well as Occupy activists. The presence of the uniformed police officers on the subway platform with the Occupy demonstrators caused a mini-panic, which triggered all the activists taking part to quickly vault up a flight of stairs.
Except for me. I was left behind. With the police. Who actually said they felt bad for me for being left behind.
I did call out as people ran up the staircase but it was too late. Not only was I not able to keep up with my able-bodied activists, I had no idea where they went. So I went home. Pissed off and heart broken.
When I brought up the incident at the next GA, activists were mortified that it had happened. It was a deluge of apologies from them which in fact made me uncomfortable for even bringing the incident up.
I can tell another story of where I ended up feeling uncomfortable with other activist’s nervousness on how to “handle or manage” my dis/ability and ability to participate without checking in with me first.
I was at an activist workshop at the popular 25 Cecil Street, Steelworker’s Hall. The premise I don’t quite remember, but the two group facilitators (whom I consider friends, making the situation even more awkward) were doing a hands on exercise with the participants which required a lot of quickly moving around – it was a version of musical chairs.
I put up my hand that I didn’t think I could participate in the exercise as is since I would lose every time – and no one likes losing.
To my concern, one of the two facilitators told me that I could just sit back and watch. When I returned that I felt uncomfortable, I was told the exercise could not be modified.
This is where the obvious nervousness of the facilitators began to really show. I guess they never expected someone with a physical dis/ability to exist in the community and/or attend their workshop (as illogical as that sounds).
Their off the cuff reactions and then verbal pipe-burst, talking-at-me, explanations of how I could not be included in the exercise as opposed to hearing me out, made it so I decided it was best for me to just leave. Leaving felt a less painful option than being left out.
I excused myself from the room and went outside and sat in the sunshine of the afternoon, trying to understand what I was feeling. Here were my friends and I wanted to be included by my friends … truthfully, I felt like the only dis/abled kid singled out in the playground during recess; forced to sit back and watch the other kids play. It really hurt.
I didn’t even want to go home, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I just sat there in the sunshine. I guess there was a part of me that didn’t want to flee the scene completely as if walking away would mean that the incident really did happen and my friends really could be cruel enough to exclude me.
“Nobody likes you, everyone hates and they’re all off without you having fun.”
I was “found” sitting outside by one of the group members and invited back inside as the facilitators and members had something they wanted to tell me.
There was a lot of looking at the ground and some tears, as I was apologized to. While I appreciated the apology, I disliked the drama. Again, the drama was based in the nervousness of both the facilitators and group members not knowing how to handle the situation of my dis/ability.
It felt strange to be so openly put on the spot and highlighted as being “different” than my abled-bodied friends and community members and I didn’t have a speech prepared. As calmly as I could, I tried to express how I felt inside, describing the pain inside my chest where my heart lives.
I didn’t have any eloquent words or solutions then and I still don’t. Each person who happens to have a dis/ability experiences the world different so I am hesitant to be prescriptive here. Which is really the point; that inclusion is a complex personal, social, community and political process that is fluid and organic rather than prescriptive and static.
This is why communication is extremely important, as well as playing it cool and remaining open to changing personal, social and political landscapes. Each person’s definition of inclusion is going to be different and that is ok. This is why the old adage of never ass-out-of-you-and-me, assuming should be heeded. Plus, patience and loyalty to the community. Lots of patience and kindness.
But at its core is a desire for dignity, which above all, is what everyone wants.