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“The People” Speak Out


I was home on January 18 watching the DC anti-war coverage on CSPAN. I was not home because I wanted to be.

“A time comes when silence is betrayal.” This quote was attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr. by one of the speakers at the DC demo. Yes indeed it does. I am not about to fall back into complacency and accept that which I know is unacceptable. I would be betraying my disabled sisters and brothers if I did not speak out about why I was sitting at home.

On January 11 some 10,000 protestors, including myself and other disabled persons, took to the streets in Los Angeles to speak out against Bush’s impending war with Iraq. Korean Workers, mainstream Christian contingents, the Black Block, the Bus Riders Union, Alliance for Democracy, disabled people, women’s groups; these, and many others, are the bodies that will create any real opposition to the powers that be today. I had intended to go to San Francisco and add my body to the thousands of “the people” gathering there the next Saturday too.

When I called the LA IAC number to purchase a bus ticket, however, it became clear that for people who use wheelchairs equality of opportunity remains an afterthought — if at all. Out of the 17 buses leaving LA for San Francisco for the 18th demo not one was equipped with a wheelchair lift. Despite the fact that for years now the law has required access, the organizers had failed to include disabled persons as a part of “the people.” Rather we were given thought only when we appeared; when the phone rang.

The IAC volunteer said, “Oh we had someone else in a wheelchair call.” Thinking that would mean they had gotten an accessible bus by now I asked does that mean you have a lift on one of the buses?

“Wait a minute,” the person said. Click; on hold, then back on the line she said, “If you will let us pick you up and put you on the busÅ ”

I interjected “You mean you have no accessible bus?” That did not seem to ring a bell on the other end of the line so I explained, “You cannot pick me up. I do not allow that and even if I did my chair weighs over 200 pounds.” I could feel that made an impression – breaking backs maybe?

I asked to speak to one of the organizers of the bus trip and got Scott. Scott said he would call the bus company – Fast Deer – that IAC was renting from and request an accessible bus. I explained to him that the Americans with Disabilities Act and California laws made it clear that transportation was to be made available to disabled persons.

So what had happened? They just had not thought of it? Scott told me to call him back later. I said why couldn’t he call me back when he knew something. He was too busy and swamped with calls, he explained. I could hear the phones ringing and knew that was the case but damn it, for me this meant the difference between being able to go and not being able to go – something that he did not have to face personally.

Had they come through with an accessible bus, obviously, I would not be writing this commentary. The excuse was flimsy; even more flimsy was that I had to call the IAC office three times to find out if Scott had gotten a bus. Later dragged into later. The excuse finally was that Fast Deer could not get an accessible bus because the only one the company knew of was in use on some other job.

My nondisabled comrade up north said rent your own van and then make IAC pay for it! “If you don’t know lawyers who will sue them, I do.” Oh good suggestion, only it was too late by then. I would have had to drive through the night on my own.

“We want to accommodate everyone,” Scott said in his most sincere voice.

But they had not accommodated everyone unless in some twisted way the IAC office thought that lifting disabled people onto inaccessible buses was accommodating them. To get away with lifting wheelchair users and then their chairs instead of providing access as a part of the physical environment is so blatantly wrong it is wonder that anyone still suggests it. I have the right to roll onto a ramp or lift without being removed from my chair.

That is law and that is dignified. A lift signifies that disabled are first class citizens with rights – not damaged goods – and able to board a bus without “help” which is the old charity model of disablement. At least the IAC office did not patronize me and try to talk me into not going because it would be too difficult for me. I’ve had some do that. Their notion is that wheelchair users should not venture to go to Brazil or to Rome or to Genoa. Then when we are not there our views are silenced, we are not part of “the people” the organizers speak about.

Dr. King, whose name was evoked again and again at the DC rally, did not call for select equality for equality for all: for all means for all.

After some 12 years of disability civil rights some amongst these progressive organizations still do not understand the basics when it comes to disability. It is still a hit and miss kind of thing. For instance, at the January 11 rally in LA there was a deaf interpreter on stage. The interpreters did a great job, even when the group Burning Star came on stage with two rappers talking at the same time, the signer kept the beat. But these same organizers had organized the buses too. So what happened.

Some weeks back at the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action meeting on the “Costs of War” at the Methodist church in Westwood three of us in wheelchairs had to be ushered in the side door as the front of the building was inaccessible, i.e., not ramped. Amidst all the finery of plush green carpets and luxurious rows of expensively crafted wood pews and stained glass windows, I found that the restroom at the front of the church was not accessible.

It could have been made accessible. There was the space but the priority was obviously not there to remodel it to meet accessibility standards. The speakers addressed us from on high. The entire pulpit and choir area was up another inaccessible flight of stairs. What if a wheelchair user had been invited to speak? Would they have offered to carry them up those steps too? Could no wheelchair users sing in the choir?

Churches are exempt from the Americans with Disabilities Act but they are not exempt from doing the right thing. I had just attended a gathering at a smaller Unitarian Church in Studio City that had far less money for renovations but it had a new accessible restroom. The members had taken consciousness and put their money there.

My lesson from the IAC experience: don’t be optimistic that these groups will provide access. Call WAY in advance. Get on them when they do not.

Similarly frustrated by lack of access, Flo, a Znet reader, made a timely response to one of my commentaries:

“Dear Ms. Russell: I recently read your very articulate article The Social Movement Left Out. I had been searching for something to share with my local peace activist organization to encourage them to make events accessible or at the very least to indicate whether peace events are accessible on fliers/announcements. I’ve been advocating for accessible events. I have found myself at peace events recently that were not wheelchair/cane/crutch accessible.”

If one doubts that we DO participate, my friend Ruthanne who did make it to San Francisco from Northern California spotted lots of wheelchair users in the crowd. There is a hefty sized disability community in the Bay area. Another friend, Jean, was with an organized deaf group. I wondered how many people like me did not get to San Francisco or to Washington DC because accessible transportation was not part of the plan?

In all the talk of various liberations that went down at the peace rallies on January 18th it is fitting to speak of disabled people’s liberation, The wide variety of humanity includes us. Disabled are “the people” too. That means acknowledging and removing barriers that prevent our participation. That liberation must include the right to self-determination, the right to get on a bus, the right as Jesse Jackson quoted King “to fight back.” Seems that disabled people are still fighting for “the right to fight back” even when we are amongst those shouting the loudest.

Marta Russell lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at [email protected] http://www.disweb.org

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