Black disabled protestors and disabled allies are essential to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Special thanks to Sam Shoemaker and the S.A.F.E.R. organization at Bowling Green State University for inspiring this guide and helping gather so many useful resources.
As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to bring awareness and justice against police brutality and the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many other Black Americans, disabled protesters are wondering how they can share their voices safely and accessibly.
This guide is meant to help disabled protestors and Black Lives Matter allies demonstrate with disability in mind.
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Disabled people of color are among the most marginalized groups in our country and beyond. Black disability activists have been fighting to resurface this often-overlooked history.
The truth is that disabled Black Americans are being killed at an alarming rate by the police, too. Moreover, Black people are losing more lives than white people due to the COVID-19 pandemic because of a lack of health resources — and because of the systemic racism that is the foundation of the United States.
This is exactly why Black disabled protestors and disabled allies are essential to the Black Lives Matter movement.
The resources in this article are just a start to a greater discussion on accessibility, protest safety, and disability inclusivity. Additionally, a lot of these tips look at accessible protesting through the lens of physical disability.
Though more resources are needed to cover the bases of the needs of disabled protesters on a larger, more comprehensive scale, we hope this helps start the conversation and collective brainstorming on how exactly disabled Americans can protest with their health needs in mind.
That being said, let’s jump in.
In many cases, organizing protests starts with social media outreach. It’s important for protest organizers and organizations to create accessible social media content. This includes:
- alternative text descriptions for images, graphics, and hard-to-read fonts
- captions on any videos and press releases (you can find supporters of the movement who will add captions on Twitter here)
- clearly stated information on protest location’s accessibility
Whenever possible, protest organizers should look to hold demonstrations in an accessible place and with accommodations in place for disabled protesters.
Locations that allow wheelchairs and other mobility devices often don’t have stairs or steps. Organizers should be cautious of locations with uneven terrain that would make it difficult for disabled protesters to participate.
Additionally, protests should always involve sign language (BASL and ASL) interpreters and be prepared to communicate using nonverbal methods (writing, pictures, etc.).
Protesters during the pandemic should still try to maintain safety guidelines, like washing hands and wearing a face mask. Wearing face masks that are clear around the lips is accessible for lip-readers.
Sanitation centers should be clearly marked for protesters as well.
If these accommodations seem overwhelming or you aren’t sure where to start when organizing accommodations, you can see an example of an accessible protest that took place in Milwaukee.
Having an accessible place to protest is preferred, of course, but there are instances when the protest location holds a lot of meaning to the movement.
For example, thousands of protesters demonstrated with their fists raised above their heads on highways across the country. Protesting on the highway was an intentional choice because these roads are where so many Black people lost their lives during unjust traffic stops.
Also throughout the nation, protestors are toppling statues of slave owners and historical white figures who took the lives of countless Black people and people of color. But these sites aren’t necessarily friendly to wheelchairs or mobility devices.
In these situations, we must not forget to include disabled protestors — even if they can’t be there physically due to inaccessibility or other complications.
Holding alternative protests at parallel times in accessible locations is one option to ensure inclusivity.
There’s a variety of reasons why disabled supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement might not be able to protest in person. Inaccessibility is one. But on top of that, a lot of disabled protesters are also higher risk for COVID-19.
Mobility concerns, health risks, lack of access to transportation, and so on: These are all factors that can influence disabled protestors.
This is where social media comes in.
Protesting virtually might not seem as effective as protesting in person, but keep in mind that your voice counts, however you’re able to share it.
Protests aren’t just physical power. Demonstrations need organizers. Organizations need researchers, writers, and artists. The skill sets you have — even if they don’t include being able to physically protest — are important to the movement as a whole.
Consider calling your local government representatives if you can’t make it to that park protest. Or start a conversation on Instagram and Twitter using hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #BlackDisabledLivesMatter.
And here’s a note for my fellow white disabled allies: When we can’t march on the highways or protect vulnerable bodies with our own, we can look to the white people around us and hold them accountable for their actions.
Shut down your racist uncle. Talk to your parents about why the phrase “all lives matter” is harmful and perpetuates the injustice. Use your white privilege. Reflect on your white privilege. Then, work outward from there.
Small accommodations to consider
- Plan for breaks where you can rest physically and emotionally as needed.
- Take a buddy with you. Better yet, find another disabled person and make sure to have each other’s backs.
- Use mobility devices for marches when needed, and go at your own pace (your buddy will be able to stay by your side if you feel like you’re lagging behind).
- Have an exit plan prepared in case you have a medical emergency or health issue that needs to be addressed. This might mean mapping out the nearest hospital or having your emergency contact alert and ready for any calls.
- If you’re bringing a sign to the protest, consider writing your medical condition(s) on the back, and include any medications you take. This can be really helpful if you’re separated from your buddy, or if you have trouble verbally communicating in situations of high stress.
Planning ahead for a protest, especially during the pandemic, is also important to preserving your mental and physical health needs.
First and foremost, wear all the protective gear you can. If you don’t have access to eye protection (in the event of tear gas being used) or masks, consider turning to other protestors ahead of time to find the equipment you need.
For protestors who experience chronic pain, it could also be useful to have pain medication prepared. Proper pain management can help you keep going as the protests continue, and protect your body at the same time.
Protests are often physically taxing, even to able-bodied people. Be prepared to handle an increase in pain and fatigue.
Just because you have to take a seat in the middle of a speech or have to fall behind during a march doesn’t mean that you’re any less of an ally.
Disabled protesters will have different needs and different ways of approaching protest, and that’s OK.
As we talked about earlier, the physical ability to protest is valued, sure. But so are all the other ways you can help.
Contributing to the cause, for example, is a great way to make sure that your support spreads throughout the entire organization.
And if you can go to a protest but aren’t sure how to physically and safely participate, consider:
- handing out food and water
- offering shelter
- offering videography services to document the movement
- setting up a resource hub for protestors who need information
- standing by eye-washing stands to help out in the event of police force being used
Remember, too, that protesting takes a lot of physical and emotional energy. Try to prepare to have some self-care techniques and practices in place for during and after the protest.
That way, you’ll save yourself from burnout and be ready to join the next protest — in whatever way you’re able.
Get in touch with your local disabled communities for more ideas. Share your approaches to accessible protesting with others as well!
Aryanna Falkner is a disabled writer from Buffalo, New York. She’s an MFA candidate in fiction at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, where she lives with her fiancé and their fluffy black cat. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Blanket Sea and Tule Review. Find her and pictures of her cat on Twitter.