Part of a Whole

My name is Nicolas Steenhout.
I speak, train, and consult about inclusion, accessibility and disability.

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Memories Of Disability Rights Protests And Police Officers

I am a disability rights activist. I have encountered police officers at various protests I was at. Often, they just stood in line, chatting with us. Other times, they arrested us. By and large, it was good fun, but more importantly, we often got results.

By "we", I mean whichever group of disability rights activists that were at the protests I attended. These protests were usualy last resort action. Usualy, we tried writing letters, making phone calls, and attempted arranging appointments before organising a protest. When the people still refused to even sit down face to face and discuss the issues, then, a protest was organised.

Yeah, we can be called "rabid activists", but we don’t generally organise an action without having exhausted other avenues first.

I was lucky enough to be initiated to this kind of advocacy when I moved to Chicago. I started volunteering at Progress Center for Independent Living, a non-profit, non-residential, service and advocacy organisation run by and for people with disabilities. Within a couple weeks of hanging around PCIL, I was invited to a protest. Over the years, I ended up going to a lot of them.

One of the things that I remember most about going to protests is the sense of empowerment I felt. It is quite hard to explain how good it feels to suddenly be one of hundreds of people using wheelchairs. I’m usualy the one with the rather visible difference. I’m usualy the minority. But to be in a crowd of 200 or 300 people in wheelchairs, it is an amazing feeling.

Of course, not only wheelchair users attend these protests. People with all disability types tend to go (whether the disability is "visible" or not). And people without disabilities also attend.

But I ramble, let’s get to the juicy bits, my interactions with various police and law enforcement officers. Before I do, quick disclaimer: I am in no way intending to dissrespect the work of law enforcement officers, nor am I accusing anyone in particular of negative stuff. I am merely relating my experiences.

I remember:

  • A guy in civilian clothing chatting with us, asking our plans for the following day. Seeing the same guy in uniform directing state troopers in position the following day.
  • An animal control officer using one of those pole & loop to "capture" a blind man’s guide dog while the police was arresting the blind man. Dog and man were separated for hours, dog put in the pound.
  • A Deaf woman being handcuffed with her hands behind her back and denied an interpreter.
  • Police wanting to arrest >350 wheelchair users, showing up with one accessible paddy wagon. They did not know how to operate the lift, they asked us how it worked…
  • After we occupied two floors of Ohio’s Governor’s building, the police locking up all toilet facilities to force us to leave.
  • Same protest, after we didn’t leave, police showing up with rubber gloves, goggles and face masks to forcibly remove us from the building. Yes mate, spinal cord injuries are contagious!
  • Being pushed by a state trooper away from a door I was blocking. He (inadvertently, I *think*) tipped me out of my wheelchair. Lucky for me, news cameras were rolling at the time…
  • Being offered cheap plastic rain ponchos by police while we were piled three deep, in an autumn protest in rain and wind (these guys were cool, but it didn’t stop them from arresting us in the end!)
  • A black officer arresting a white woman using a wheelchair. We were protesting the fact that there were no accessible busses in that city. The officer asked the woman her name. She said "Rosa Parks". The young officer didn’t bat an eye. He didn’t have a clue.
  • Three officers attempting to go from one end of a building’s lobby to the other. We had packed ourselves like sardines. *No* wiggle room at all. Wheels interlocking. Crutches on the ground. They made their way to the centre, literally climbing over people. Gave up. Got stuck there until we left, several hours later. They were cool, had good chat with them.

I could probably list other similar things. If you’ve been at one of these protests, you probably could too.

Since I’ve moved to New Zealand, I don’t meet many people with disabilities that have that kind of activism (if any) in their blood. But that’s a story for another post!

5 thoughts on “Memories Of Disability Rights Protests And Police Officers

  1. I live just outside Washington DC, USA. I’ve been witness to hundreds of wheelchair users and disability rights activists storming congress, and what a sight it is! :)

    I have not, as yet, protested formally for the disability rights movement (or any movement for that matter) as I’m a private citizen, and quite private indeed.

    Yet, I’m amazed and inspired by your work and activism, and perhaps someday I’ll find the strength to stand with you.

  2. Disabled people have marched for their rights in NZ in the past and may do again. Some of us are seasoned protesters from the 60’s and 70’s and protested against inaccessible transport in the 90’s.

  3. Thanks for your comment. It would be good to see people with disabilities grow a bit of a backbone and demand their civil right. I’m not sure what it will take to make it happen though. What would you suggest?

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