Access, advocacy, and allies. (Part 1)

I attended a conference last month about inclusion for marginalized people. There were keynote speakers, storytellers, and workshops. The conversations were rich and full and important. We learned about colonialization and de-centering whiteness. The intention was that the conference be a safe space for people who have been oppressed and marginalized to tell their story and share their truth. It was good and it made me aware of my whiteness in a way that I am usually not, due to privilege. I was glad to be there and to be able to learn from those who shared.

But it was not a safe space for me.

The building was large and old and had many stairs. The elevator was old and broken in a way that meant it could only be operated by someone on the outside, leaving me dependent on others for access. The carpet was plush and deep, which is problematic for wheels. The cords were left lying loose so I couldn’t roll over them easily. The accessible washroom was preceded by two stairs. Some workshops were offsite, a 20 minute walk away. And on and on.

I felt like I was fighting physical barriers all day.

The previous day had involved a lot of travel and a lot of walking (into the wind which is extra hard for me) and then because I was out of routine I forgot to take my bedtime meds which keep me breathing well overnight.

This meant that every breath hurt and my entire body was steeped in pain.

Partway through the afternoon, after listening to theology and philosophy, one of the speakers up front urged us to take a moment from the intellectual engagement and instead focus on embodiment.

Feel the goodness in your body…Focus on your breath…Find the spots of tension and release it…Be in your body…Relax.

I had worked all morning to ignore my body so that I could focus and pay attention but all of a sudden I was snapped right back into that painful prison and was unable to think of anything else. Didn’t she realize that not everyone feels goodness in their body? That not everyone can breathe easily? That it’s not so easy to just relax?

On top of fighting the building, and fighting my body, I felt like I was fighting social barriers as well.

Eventually it was too much and I left in tears. I walked and stretched and went yarn shopping and had dinner with new friends and then watched tv in my pyjamas with old friends and went to bed feeling much better mentally and physically.

I was surprised that in a conference about marginalized people there was such little awareness of disability needs. Disabled people are a minority that exists within other minorities. People who live at the intersection of minority groups get hit from multiple sides. We need to make sure that disability is part of every conversation about oppression and inclusion and access so that all voices can be heard.

As frustrating as it was to have a weekend with such poor access it led to a great opportunity to give feedback to the conference organizers. Accessibility only improves with advocacy and I’m learning to play my part in that.

More on that next time.

An empty corridor of a shopping mall with large skylight windows overhead.

A mostly dead city-centre mall I found as I was walking and stretching at the end of the day. Wide open hallways, elevators and escalators, accessible bathrooms that were easy to find. It was a great antidote to my day.

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