Stuck in the Dirt

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Emily Ladau

Stuck in the Dirt: Why Advocating for Justice and Access Never Stops

I’ve been insulted a time or two or twenty for the things I say as an activist. I’ve been told that I’m a complainer, a c**t, the reason the world is a mess. I’ve been the subject of other people’s mockery and ridicule to my face and behind my back. “I wouldn’t want to spend my whole life talking about the same old thing like Emily Whatsherface,” someone once said to a friend about me.

I don’t feel obligated to defend myself. I know who I am and the people who are part of my life know who I am. There is so much more to me beyond my activism, and it’s often outside the realm of what I choose to write about.

Perhaps, however, it’s time for me to defend why it is that I publicly devote so much of myself to activism. You see, I don’t just stir things up for the sake of causing trouble or being a pain in the ass, though there are plenty of people who think I do both of these things for a living.

My reasons for focusing on disability are simple: for all the incredible progress that’s been made thanks to activists around the world, the problems and injustices people have been fighting against for years are still far too prevalent, showing rather few signs of letting up. This isn’t pessimism; it’s realism. It’s the truth.

Everywhere I am, I find that we’ve come so far, but we’ve got so far to go. Here’s a prime example: I recently spent the week in Atlanta, Georgia for a conference. During my trip, there were so many moments of celebration for disability acceptance and access. I’ll shamelessly admit to singing Party in the U.S.A. at the top of my lungs with my friends while riding the Atlanta SkyView (okay, NOW you have permission to judge me a little) because I was so psyched to be riding a wheelchair accessible ferris wheel for the first time in my life. I was delighted to be able to roll right on to the Atlanta Streetcar without having to ask a bunch of strangers to help me board like I do in the New York City subway.

But – and when you’re disabled, there’s almost always a “but” when it comes to equal access – the party stopped when I ran into an accessibility fail so ridiculous that I would have laughed myself right out of my chair if I hadn’t been so downright angry.

I march-rolled in a parade through Downtown Atlanta celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. At the end of the parade there was about an hour-long event with speakers. I wanted to stay for the event, but it was burning hot outside, so I went to seek shade, as did just about every other wheelchair user in attendance. Every bit of shade in the arena required climbing steps to get to it. The only option for wheelchair users was to go sit outside the arena behind metal bars in a pile of dirt and wood chips.

Now, here’s where I imagine plenty of people think I should shut up and stop complaining so darn much. “So you had to go out of your way to find a little shade. Get over it.”

The thing is, though, that people with disabilities almost always have to go out of

our way to access things. We are very much stuck in a world where we are separate but equal, and for that matter, we’re not always equal either.

As it happens, I was also literally stuck in the world of separate but equal. My heavy wheelchair sunk into the dirt I rolled into so I could find shade and I had to be dragged out of it by at least 5, if not more, very kind people.

And in case you forgot already, this was an event honoring the Americans with Disabilities Act – the very piece of legislation meant to prevent things like this from happening in the first place. I had a solid talk with one of the organizers after the event who took responsibility and apologized, for which I was truly appreciative. Even so, it was disheartening that 25 years after the law was put in place, those of us who are disabled struggled to find access during an event celebrating access.

I know there are much bigger troubles in this world than stairs with no ramps. I know there are people who perceive advocacy like this as trivial and who perceive me as a broken record who picks fights against things that seem like no big deal. But I keep talking about the same things because the same things keep happening. And I will keep talking about the same things until the same things stop happening, because from deep within my core, I believe in justice and access for all.

Emily Ladau is a writer and disability rights activist whose passion is to harness the powers of language and social media as tools for people to become informed and engaged social justice advocates. She maintains a blog, Words I Wheel By, as a platform to address discrimination and to encourage people to understand the experience of having a disability in more positive, accepting, and supportive ways. You’re welcome to connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.