This op-ed piece is part of a series for Queen City Nerve newspaper in which Rikki Poynter sheds light on barriers faced by deaf and disabled people like herself.

As a disabled person who recently started talking publicly about deafness, disability, and inaccessibility on YouTube, at public speaking engagements, and through my writing, I’ve become more informed about human rights, especially mine in particular.

Protests and marches have played a major role in the story of 2020 as a wider range of people have taken to the streets to make their voices heard. Unfortunately, these protests usually don’t cater to those living with disabilities.

As a deaf person and ambulatory cane user due to chronic pain and fatigue, I worry about my and other disabled people’s safety. (I would like to note that the following will be about deaf and wheelchair and cane-using experiences. I cannot speak for those who attend protests with other disabilities, as I do not have experience with anything beyond deafness and chronic pain and fatigue.)

Most protests I’ve attended or seen online have not had interpreters or any deaf-friendly resources. I was at a protest recently that featured multiple speakers, and I was unable to follow along. When a certain response was expected, I had to pay attention to my surroundings and try to keep up as best I could.

There is no plan available visually to let us know what to do in the event of an emergency. Deaf people, especially Black deaf people, are more at risk for violence due to not being able to hear environmental noises or commands from police.

Cane and wheelchair users typically are not safe due to the already inaccessible nature of cities. Many sidewalks and roads are filled with clutter or potholes. In the event that an emergency occurs, abled people will run in a hurry, potentially blocking and also knocking over anyone with an assistive device, which could cause injury. 

Sometimes, disabled people feel straight-up unwelcome. Two friends of mine, a wheelchair user and a cane user, were at the Women’s March a few years ago, where they were met with abled women making hurtful comments toward them. It was also difficult for them to get around due to everyone taking over the sidewalks and leaving no room for them to safely get through.

So how can we make these events more accessible so that disabled people can take part? Of course, this may not be possible for all events. Protests can turn extremely dangerous extremely fast, but if it is possible, try to keep these things in mind:

  • Hire interpreters, or, if you’re lucky, find an interpreter who is willing to volunteer for the event. Deaf people need access to information. It is critical.
  • If you know American Sign Language or are at least willing to help your deaf peers out and be a buddy, consider making yourself known with some sort of sign. Bring a notepad and pen, or download a voice-to-text or live transcribing app onto your phone. If something happens, such as a gunshot noise, a dispersal order, or anything of that nature, find visual ways to let us know.
  • Keep sidewalks and roadways as clear as possible when cane and wheelchair users are around. If you see someone blocking the way, let them know they need to move over. Creating a designated disability-friendly space for the march is a wonderful way to keep things going smoothly.

In 2020, we still have many things and marginalized groups to fight for. We need to work together to uplift each other’s voices and to keep each other safe. Disabled people are some of the most forgotten about people in the world, and that cannot stand any longer.

This article was originally published in Charlotte’s Queen City Nerve newspaper.

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