I arrived, late, for the rally against the president’s immigration ban. The streets were full and it was impossible for me, in a wheelchair, to maneuver through the crowd — a typical wheeler’s dilemma that adds to the frustration of using a wheelchair. So I found a spot behind the raised platform stage where I could see the speakers.
No ramp to the stage, I noted.
One after another, speakers representing various nationalities and religions spoke a powerful word about the value of diversity in America. Two Sudanese girls in American flag hijabs read an original poem. An African student at the university praised America for the opportunity he has had to study here. A group of northern African Muslim women climbed the rickety step-ladder to the stage to sing a song. An imam spoke. A rabbi spoke. A Native American, the only one in the crowd whose ancestors were not immigrants, was cheered. It was America at its best, a potpourri of diverse voices clamoring to be heard. The head of the ecumenical Christian coalition made some comments about the value of inclusion. How we are better together.
And then it went off the rails.
The ecumenical leader, a large man with a cane, couldn’t get off the stage. He bent down to try to access the ladder but his knee wouldn’t cooperate. He tried bending to the other side and again failed. Finally an entire phalanx of protesters bodily picked him up and crowd-surfed him to the ground.
The next speaker was a woman in a wheelchair who was wearing a hijab. The sound technician handed her the mic and wheeled her in front of the stage. Her words were inspiring, but only 20 people could see her — me and the front row of protesters. Although she was an invited speaker, included in the program, her disability presumably known in advance by the organizers, she was a disembodied voice to the rest of the crowd.
How many times have I attended pro-diversity events that overlook disability needs? The LGBTQ pride banquet that fails to leave a pathway for a person in a wheelchair to access the buffet table. The Hispanic prayer leader who intones, “Please stand for the invocation.” My church denomination, which prides itself on being open and affirming, welcoming to all, holds a convention in a hotel that requires me to go outside in the rain from one level to the other in order to attend the plenary sessions. And the workshops are upstairs with no elevator. A march around the capitol building on a hill too steep for me to navigate. The list goes on and on. Intersectionality rarely includes persons with disabilities.
This time I spoke up. “Perhaps a ramp next time.” The well-meaning sound technician, who had donated his time and equipment, looked at me. I expected a comment such as, “You’re right. Maybe next time!” That would have been more than enough. But he just stared at me for a moment. And then turned his attention back to the sound board.
Rev. Bob Molsberry is a wheelchair-using United Church of Christ pastor, author of two books, Blindsided by Grace: Entering the World of Disability and Tour de Faith: A Cyclist’s Lessons for Living. I currently live in St. Louis, near three of my grandchildren and their parents, and dabble in wheelchair athletics along with church leadership and grandparenting. Follow him online here.