Continuing our Reflections from Detroit series, Mia Mingus reflects on the process of putting disability justice into practice at the Allied Media Conference & the US Social Forum.
Reflections On An Opening: Disability Justice and Creating Collective Access in Detroit, by Mia Mingus
This summer, Detroit was an opening for me. And not just because it was the first time that there was a Disability Justice track at the Allied Media Conference (AMC) or because of any workshop or plenary I attended. Detroit was an opening for me because I got to spend over a week creating collective access with a group of twenty-three disabled folks and our non-disabled comrades. I got to spend eight days getting a glimpse into a different world and experiencing a kind of interdependency that let me loosen my shoulders; that let me breathe.
Creating Collective Access (CCA) was about re-thinking how we, as disabled and chronically ill people, engage in movement spaces. This was about imagining something more and knowing that we had to do it for ourselves because it is so rare for movement spaces to ever consider disability and access in ways that go beyond logistics; in ways that challenge the ableist culture of our work. This was about being very clear that we wanted to shift the individualized and independent understanding of access and queer it and color it interdependent. This was about building crip solidarity. We wanted to create a liberated space. We would pool our resources: body and ability, financial, material and more. We would not just think about disability as separate from class, age, race, queerness, family, children, gender, citizenship, violence, but we would understand it as intimately connected. We would think, not just about “conference and workshop time,” but we would also think about social time and what social spaces were accessible and how we would make sure no one was isolated or left out. Because in our movements much of the relationship building, socializing and bonding is done in very inaccessible ways in very inaccessible places—we know this all too well.
It all started with need. About a month before the AMC, access was the number one thing on our minds. What will we do? How will we get to food and afford enough personal attendants to come with us? Who will push wheelchairs? How much walking will there be? Who will help you go to the bathroom? How will we manage the pain, the schedule, and the pace? Where will we stay and will it be accessible (the majority of community housing just wasn’t an option)? How much will access cost?
We were hit with the reality of having to be in another city for an extended period of time, under intense conditions; the same intense conditions that frame most conferences. We knew it would be long days, stretching into late nights. We knew everyone would be stretched thin and we knew that meant something totally different for us. We knew we could make it through, by squeezing ourselves, as we’ve done before, into ableist practices of how bodies should function and perform, but we also knew what that would mean for our bodies (and our hearts) while it was happening and once it was all done. We wanted to be able to stay in our bodies as much as possible, take care of our disabled selves, and be part of the community that was coming together for the AMC and the USSF. We wanted to be whole and connected to ourselves, each other and other activists and organizers—was this possible?
We started to dream: how could we use this as a way to build community, put disability justice into practice and deepen our understanding and analysis of what it means to do this work together? What if we invited other crips to do this with us—crips who were coming to the AMC and were probably agonizing over the very same things? What if we did community care in a way that made space for many different kinds of bodies? What if we made a commitment to each other to move together and centered our access and care around queer and trans crips of color? What if we tried to create the kind of world we want to live in? We do it in our disability justice work, so why not try and create it for the time we’re in Detroit? CCA began as a hope and a dream to make what we need. CCA is a reflection of the courage, resiliency, and creativity that disabled folks have in the face of an inaccessible and ableist world.
The bottom line was we needed each other. Interdependency is not a choice. We were not going to be able to get through the AMC and traveling to another city without each other. We didn’t know what the environment would be like, how many people would be there and what kind of access needs would arise on-the-spot, as they always do. We would be building the plane as we flew it. The thought of thousands of social justice folks from the left converging at the USSF was an anxiety-provoking access nightmare, in and of itself. But we knew if we had each other, we would be okay. Together, the three of us, three queer crip women of color, got to work.
We drafted and put out a call to other disabled folks who were coming to Detroit and who wanted to be part of a community-led access effort. We made a blog, explaining what we were trying to do and our vision. We were clear that this was interdependent and we invited people to be part of creating this with us. Leah worked to get scent free information out to folks and create a scent free room, while Stacey and I worked on a basic structure for access and communication. We scrambled with three weeks to go and came up with a model of pods. We knew the disabled people who were coming would already have some type of access plan in place and we knew it would be with people they trusted and had relationships with. Together, each grouping formed a pod and our goal was to connect the pods to each other. We asked people to tell us about their pod’s access needs and what they could offer and contribute. It was broad. Some people were able to walk and get food, others were better at coordinating; some people had access to credit cards and others would need cash to be available; some people had personal attendants or able bodied friends/family members with them who could also help with getting food, driving and pushing wheel chairs.
I had done collective access before, but with three people, including myself; or for a disability justice meeting or when traveling with one other disabled comrade. I had never done anything like this before with twenty-plus people, half of whom, I had never met before, on our way to a city that many of us had never been to, all in a container of shifting how we understood access, past just survival. This time, we were all jumping together. And we flew.
We called ourselves the Pod People and we worked seamlessly together with great affection and enjoyment. It was truly a collective effort, centered around a simple value of care. Everyone pitched in getting food, helping to serve food, audio describing, reaching, pushing, texting, calling, asking, offering. We schemed together to get more accessible rooms opened for us in the dorms, access to a refrigerator and the accessible shower key from the dorm staff. Everyday, we had lunch and dinner together, no one had to worry about not being able to eat because they couldn’t get into a restaurant, couldn’t get to the grocery store or couldn’t walk far enough. And no one had to worry about being isolated while they were eating, as often happens to disabled people when they are in movement spaces.
When there were social events, we all talked about it and had two groups, the folks who wanted to go and the folks who wanted to stay in; we made sure no one was left out and checked in about access all the time. We stayed up the first night after dinner talking about disability and race and queerness and invisible disabilities and coming out as disabled and bodies and gender and geographic location and our struggle to find community. Some people were just starting to identify as disabled, having never called themselves “disabled” out loud before. Others had been doing disability justice work for years and still others had been doing this work for decades. A lot of us were trans, gender queer and gender non-conforming, most of us were women of color and almost all of us were queer. We formed an almost all disabled space that centered all of who we were. Amazing.
One of the most important pieces of CCA for me was a continued commitment to move together as crips and comrades. Every time I attempt to move through the world with other disabled folks, I am always so astounded at how hard it is for disabled people to stay together, literally. I watch how the world separates, isolates and divides us, so that we cannot move together. I watch how it is constructed for us to move with non-disabled people, instead of each other; and how it discourages folks with different disabilities from moving together. Trying to move with a group of disabled people with different disabilities is very hard, takes enormous amounts of problem-solving, energy and creative solutions. To me, one of the most powerful opportunities of CCA was another chance to figure out how we can stay together and what it would take to create a world where we understand the weight of what “access” means. So that when I say something is inaccessible, you don’t just think “there’s no ramp” or “there are no places to sit” or “there’s no close, accessible, free parking.” Instead, you feel. You feel the weight of what inaccessibility means to us. You understand inaccessibility to mean isolation, shame, exclusion, disappointment, loneliness, anger, privilege, sadness, loss of community and disconnection. For eight days, it was amazing to be with people who know what “accessibility” means; who know and feel the weight of it; and who are working to transform it.
I learned so much and was rejuvenated from my time with the pod people. Disability requires us to re-think “independence” and how we engage in movement spaces, down to how we think, move and communicate, down to our very bones. As movements committed to social and economic justice, where are the disabled people in our communities, organizations, bases, and movements? Are they isolated? How are we re-imagining access in ways that include, but are not limited to disability; that encompass class, language, gender, mamas, parents and children? What would access beyond logistics look and feel like? Access that allows people to not just be included, but maintain their dignity and connection to their communities? How do we care for each other in ways that allow us to stay connected to our bodies and stay connected to each other in order to build the kind of world that can care for us all? We are learning and trying and learning and practicing and learning again.
With my deepest gratitude to the pod people: I will forever be changed.
Mia Mingus is a queer physically disabled woman of color, Korean American transracial and transnational adoptee, living in Atlanta, Georgia, raised in St. Croix, US Virgin Islands, and born in Korea. Through her work on disability justice, race, reproductive justice, gender, queer liberation, transformative justice, transracial and transnational adoption, multiple oppressed identities and multi-issue politics; she recognizes the urgency and barriers for oppressed communities to work together and build alliances for liberation. Though her work for liberation changes and evolves, her roots remain firmly planted in ending sexual violence. Mia blogs at Leaving Evidence.