Most days, my greatest challenge is not actually my freedom sticks - what the rest of the world likes to call 'forearm crutches' - or navigating the world with my sticks. (I’m pretty good with them, if I do say so myself.) Often, the greatest struggle is navigating other people's’ perceptions, actions, and reactions towards my sticks.
It’s the variety of ways the assumed association between the visual input of “STICKS” and conditioned thought response of “NEEDS HELP” plays out: the looks and comments of pity or sympathy, insistence on opening my door or carrying my bags, running to pick up something I’ve dropped, or handing my change to a friend. Yes, offering to hold the door is often polite, can be appreciated - but when you never get to open your own door it starts to feel a little patronizing.
As I've reflected on these experiences, I've noticed my own awareness growing around how we address (or more often - don't address) accessibility in the alternative break movement. It's a huge question: How are we working as programs and individuals to question our attitudes and behaviors - both conscious and unconscious - around ability?
We have a lot of work to do around this, but for starters consider:
- Are we holding our AB meetings in physical spaces on campus that are wheelchair accessible?
- Are we being forthcoming with trip descriptions about what is and isn’t required of participants so that folks can make decisions for themselves about accessibility?
- Are sign language translators available at our info sessions?
- Are student leaders trained to evaluate participant applications in ways that consider learning disabilities?
- Do online applications have a text 'read aloud' option?
- Are the program’s PR materials both visual and auditory?
- Are trip leaders trained to appreciate various types of participation (ie, not equating 'taking a pass' on an activity with disengagement or lack of interest)?
As with any programmatic discussion about diversity initiatives, we need to make sure folks with various abilities - intellectual, developmental, physical, mental, etc. - are included in our program’s leadership and decision making. At all levels of the program, we should be creating spaces that are inclusive and then asking all students what support they need to participate fully - instead of making assumptions about need, based on what you can or cannot see.
As programs reconvene for the year, consider: What can we commit to this year? How far can we push and improve our own accessibility practices even in the next four months? We're counting on you to lead the way.
PS - Who participates in alternative breaks and how is not “inspiring” or worthy of congratulations. But that’s for another post.