A Critical Look at the Women's March: a Disability Perspective
photos by soph bonde, words by helena and soph bonde
On January 21st, the Women’s March on Washington congregated at the National Mall with an estimated 470,000 peaceful protesters. The March was estimated to be the largest gathering of disabled people in American history. As an event that explicitly included disability rights in its official mission statement, it struggled to make space for those with disabilities. On the ground it seemed like the March’s dedication to disability rights was left on paper.
In part one we interviewed different folks from ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) stage seating to the ADA tent; neither of which were particularly near the other. The issues the Disability Caucus faced reflected a lack of understanding of the community’s needs and the diversity within the disability community.
Many of the volunteers had difficulty accepting the intersectional nature of disability - they couldn’t seem to understand that a person could be both a journalist and disabled at the same time. As we attempted to enter the ADA stage seating we were misdirected by successive volunteers- for both not having immediately visible disabilities or because of our status as journalists. Although one of our team carries a cane, having a press pass apparently precludes someone being in disability seating.
The ADA seating area was spacious and close to the stage with plenty of chairs and an in-person ASL interpreter as well as a large screen that clearly showed the speakers and interpreters on the stage. The difficulty came in accessing it, as it was more than a couple of blocks from the ADA tent and crowds were especially heavy around the entrance. The disability entry and seating was also being used to funnel celebrities and speakers to the stage and people were especially excited to see who may be coming through.
For those unable to reach ADA seating there was also the ADA resources tent, a few blocks away from the ADA stage seating. The resources tent housed the Disability Caucus leadership and had heaters, water, and snacks available in addition to a mental health response team. There was little advertisement online or at the March that the ADA tent had many of the resources it had, for both able bodied folks who may have become overwhelmed by the crowds (there were reportedly many panic attacks) and those with disabilities.
Dana Fink, one of the Disability Caucus leaders and organizers, spoke with us about the origins of the Caucus and how she’d come to work with the organizers of the March. “We had to approach the organizers of the Women’s March because they hadn’t reached out to the disabled community at all,” she told us. “Mia Ives-Rublee, the founder of the Disability Caucus, moved mountains to make this all happen. We had a lot of volunteers: sighted guides, wheelchair pushers, and mental health support. The Women’s March organizers really relied on our expertise and they didn’t understand why we needed the accommodations we asked for. I was frustrated with the election, I wanted to have solidarity with people who felt the same way. [But] the March didn’t do a lot to accommodate us even when we asked for it and [we] did a ton of organization and work. They didn’t get any accessible bathrooms. The accessible stage seating was too far from the ADA tent, and the ADA tent was much too small.”
Marchers we spoke to in the tent didn’t want to attempt to get to the seating area because of the crowds, and people we talked to in the seating area had no idea how to find the tent. We saw women taking turns sitting in the tent, the space was so small and seating so limited.
It was not simply the organizational aspect of the march that was problematic, but the way those with disabilities were both addressed and ignored. At a march purporting to reflect and include all women, there could have been more space on that stage for the disability community. With over forty four speakers listed on the official Women’s March website, Tammy Duckworth, the only disabled speaker, is still not credited.
Early in the speeches there was an announcement that a blind woman had been separated from her companions. The speaker appealed to the woman’s companions and revealed both her disability and name, finishing with, “Don’t worry, we’ve got her.” The woman next to us rolled her eyes and muttered “Oh, you’ve got her? I wonder how she feels about that.” It was infantilizing and self congratulatory—they discussed the woman as if she were incapable. It was totally incongruous with the overarching message of independence and feminism the March intended.
The hard work of the Disability Caucus made all the difference in accessibility for the March, but if organizers of the Women’s March on Washington had listened and reached out to the disability community from the beginning, they could have created an event that was truly inclusive. Conversations need to be ongoing and fully invested on both sides of a movement to create change; our activism needs to be intersectional. LGBT activists are already planning a march in Washington to coincide with Pride Week later this year. Let’s hope they learn from the Women’s March and reach out early to the queer-crip community, involving us in leadership and listening to accessibility needs.
Soph Bonde is President and Publisher at Argot. She is a professional photographer in Washington DC and awkward about it. She has been described as an 'administrative machine.'