.Integrating Independence–A Conversation with Sachiko Wrong and Alice Wong on Building a Differently-abled Accessible World

Yes, another pandemic-prompted introduction. As Covid continues to be a reality-altering phenomenon, exposing the circumstances and flaws of our society on a macroscale, it often features in journalism of late.

Much of what isn’t working in our social structures has come to light over the last two years. In the rupture of “normalcy,” the pressure for change reached a critical, turning point, where the decision to remain silent was no longer an option. Structures of systemic oppression, for reasons of race, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, access to healthcare and so on, were thrown into sharp relief. Those not knowingly living in these acute circumstances had the wool abruptly pulled from our eyes.

Though I had some sense of these issues prior to the pandemic, their magnitude and my own inadvertent participation in them was only made fully clear during 2020. I recall my seventh-grade social-studies class, where I learned racism as though it existed in the past tense, heroically resolved by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. During the course of 2020 and into the present moment I have systematically educated myself on the very contemporary issues our country faces and perpetuates, but on one issue I confess I remained largely ignorant—the issue of ableism.

Depending on one’s level of exposure to differently-abled people, the concept of ableism itself might be unfamiliar. Because our systems are built assuming able bodies, it is easy to forget that there are those who cannot access doors, stairs, elevators, movie theatres, etc., in the same way as able-bodied people do, especially because we see them less often in places not built to accommodate their presence. It is a dark example of out-of-sight out-of-mind, specifically excluding a group of humans from engaging with comfort, or engaging at all, in the larger communal activities of society. Though I respect handicapped parking spaces and appreciate seeing a wheelchair ramp added to a building, as a traditionally able-bodied person, I found myself overall guilty of participating willingly, if unwittingly, in an exclusively constructed society. My lack of consideration for the depth and dimension of differently-abled needs and experience became clear.

I did some research on ableism recently, and found an article by Leah Smith—writer, communications professional and disability activist—on the Center for Disability Rights website. Smith describes ableism as follows: “… a set of beliefs or practices that devalue and discriminate against people with physical, intellectual or psychiatric disabilities and often rests on the assumption that disabled people need to be ‘fixed’ in one form or the other.”

This highlights a problematic approach our society currently takes when considering differently-abled bodies and beings—that they need to shift to fit an able-bodied structure, rather than the structure itself broadening to accommodate their way of life. It is all too easy to understand how a differently-abled person moves through the world feeling the walls of society circumferentially closing in on them due to the difference in their functionality and the lack of inclusion by differently-abled persons who make decisions that impact community structure. Navigating differences has never been the human strong suit, and physical and intellectual differences have long been treated as illnesses to be cured, rather than considered valid and respectable states of being.

Smith’s article reinforced my awareness of how little I know about the differently-abled experience and perspective, which not only lacks representation as a whole, but is an umbrella term for myriad different experiences which all require specific accommodations and compassions. It is altogether too easy for the able-bodied, in our current social models, to forget the circumstances and needs of those different from us. Our non-inclusive model supports, if not actively encourages, this “forgetting.” This reality has never been lost on the differently-abled.

Able-bodied people need an education, and community structure needs reform. I’m happy to report that a phenomenal opportunity to address both issues is coming up this weekend.

Recognizing the very real need, Marin County Office of Equity—in partnership with Book Passage; Institute of Leadership Studies at Dominican University of California; and the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Dominican University of California—created Community at the Table: Leading with Anti-Racism series, inviting the population of Marin County to engage in thought, dialogue and learning on how to support and establish racial equality. Exceptional speakers such as John A. Powell and Dr. Peggy McIntosh have spoken at these events, helping the community to reconsider and restructure itself toward an equitable goal.

The Community at the Table series continues on Friday, Dec. 17, with Yomi Sachiko Wrong and Alice Wong, two disabled activists and women of color leading the discussion, and representing the differently-abled perspective.

Yomi Sachiko Wrong is an Oakland-based disability-rights leader and self-described disability-justice dreamer who works at the intersection of disability, race and health access. She is also a writer, facilitator and trainer committed to helping movements and organizations disrupt ableism.

Alice Wong is a disabled activist, media maker and consultant based in San Francisco. She is the founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project, an online community dedicated to creating, sharing and amplifying disability media and culture.

Wrong and Wong will be joined by two Marin community disability-rights leaders—Eli Gelardin, of the Marin Center for Independent Living, and Abby Yim, of Integrated Community Services—to inform the community.

“As our County continues to evolve and grow in our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion,” Yim said, “it brings me great joy to have the opportunity to learn from the expertise and perspective of Alice Wong and Yomi Sachiko Wrong, who are critical thinkers in asking questions of systemic access for all. These questions are urgent for us to center ourselves around as our County includes a growing number of people with disabilities and older adults, who deserve to thrive in our community.”

This is an opportunity to ask the provocative, hard questions about how we can use the current disruption as fodder to build a more just, equitable and accessible world, and to see outside of an able-informed perspective. Through listening, inquiry and dedication to change we can restructure our systems toward informed inclusivity.

The “Community at the Table” forum happens on Friday, Dec. 17, at 5pm online. Register for the webinar by visiting equity.marincounty.org.
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