I have been doing a lot of thinking, and a lot of writing about ableism. This has been, both, cathartic and painful…empowering and humbling all at the same time. Coming face to face with ableism is something all of us with disabilities eventually experience. But most of us don’t dive into the guts of it, or grab it by its thorny stem the way I have been doing in my writings. I think being so raw with the truths I have so far experienced as a disabled woman is something that has come with age. My words seem to have grown teeth and claws of their own, and I will not apologize for them.
Neither will I apologize for demanding access to the places in my community that harbor and nurture the arts. I will not apologize for calling ableism what it is when I see it staring at me in the face as if I could not recognize it because it hides behind a mask of inclusion while denying me, the disabled artist, basic access, basic respect while expecting me to accept continuous apologies as the only solution, as if physical access could be constructed with apologies alone.
Over the years, I have allowed myself to perform on inaccessible spaces, allowed others to lift me, drop me, lift me again. I have agreed to perform off the stage while my fellow poets and performers enjoyed the able-bodied privilege that lets them get onstage—the able-bodied privilege that lets them, over and over, book venues that are not wheelchair friendly and then invite me to come support or be part of an event where being a disabled artist makes me feel like an outsider instead of a respected and loved member of the community.
Please know, I write these words with tears of anger and pain, tears that allow me to speak up and educate instead of shaming and blaming and outing names although doing that would probably feel more cathartic right now. I want you to know, that in the name of love, in the name of my poetic activism, I will never again stay quiet when the blade of ableism cuts into my basic rights, or disrespects my contributions as an artist, as a voice in our local community. I am tired of being quiet, but I know and recognize that although speaking up IS powerful, that alone is not enough, the same way just saying “I’m sorry” is not enough. We must brainstorm solutions, generate conversation surrounding issues about what access and inclusion really mean. We must come together and realize that disabled people are tired of your able-bodied dimes. Tired of being left out and being rejected and treated as outsiders while our words are left unheard and our truths are left untouched because you’d rather opt to make sure you don’t invite us rather than going that extra mile to book a place that welcomes “our kind”.
Please know and remember there are more of us. Disabled poets may seem uncommon to you because in your able-bodied illusion you think you don’t see more of us because we must not exist, instead of the fact that we’re not around because most of your venues have unspoken restrictions of “Wheelchair users not welcome” “No crips allowed”. How is this different from the battles fought by people of color in a “white only” world? I see people with brown skin sharing poems of oppression and liberation and resistance and I feel solidarity and a connection of shared oppression that makes me want to reach out and share, only to remember that in their collective liberation, they forgot to include people like me.
Solidarity means that if a disabled poet is part of your team, part of the show, part of the shared group experience, able-bodied poets should all read off stage if the stage is not accessible. It means no poet left behind, no words heard unless ALL our voices are heard from the same spotlight from the same stage.
Solidarity means, recognizing that while it may not always be feasible to book accessible spaces, doing so should always be a priority.
Solidarity means you don’t just say we’re one of you. You treat us as such….you include us, you learn from us. You respect and validate our access needs instead of treating us like an inconvenience.
Solidarity means that disability issues are always at the table of whatever community organizing or event is taking place.
Solidarity means realizing that while some venues may be too old to abide by the ADA mandates, hiding behind this excuse when booking venues is an ableist practice that sends a message of exclusion to us.
Solidarity means making sure a place really is accessible instead of assuming that a dangerous ramp is ok because a ramp is a ramp, and so what if it takes three men to push a light wheelchair up, and who cares how terrifying it may be to surrender control of our mobility. But, damn it….NO….a ramp is not just a ramp. It must be a safe ramp and one that allows us to exercise our independence.
Yes, I know this has been a long rant, BUT, know that nothing is without a purpose. May this be an opportunity to learn, a chance to grow. I really do believe that change only happens when we make it happen ourselves. This is so very true, especially as it relates to inclusion of disabled people in the arts. We have to forge our own way in. We have to fight fucking dragons just to get to the door, forget the stage….just getting to the damn door is often a struggle.
Please remember that as long as your version of inclusion denies us full access and participation, no matter which way you may look at it, you are contributing to the continued oppression of disabled people and feeding the ableist monsters we are trying to slay with our activism.