One way to describe my disability is as “lifelong,” but I slightly prefer “factory-installed.” That is, I’m built this way. I experience the UUA’s annual General Assembly and other large gatherings through that factory installation, as well as those of being brown-skinned and queer. I am all of these all the time. At GA, there’s a temporary community of Unitarian Universalists, connected by aspirations, values, and the will to transact the Association’s business. I find friends: from seminary, congregations, even new friends.
Sources estimate that 20 percent of any group is disabled. What may vary among people with disabilities is what role this feature plays in their lives. For me, being disabled is part of a larger politicized identity. When I try to attend events without cut-outs leaving space for my mobility scooter, I don’t just feel sad as though exclusion simply hurts my feelings. Rather, I understand that Unitarian Universalism sometimes defaults to a narrative that makes disabled people invisible and troublesome simultaneously.
‘Pride is my power and resilience. It lets me go inside myself and summon a solid fist of stone. In this climate, disabled people come under scrutiny for our very existence. Something about us provokes revulsion and anxiety. In an ableist system that privileges bodies that perform like perfect, impervious machines, we look like broken, discarded toys. We expose our vulnerability.’
—Melanie S. Morrison
That doesn’t mean that no one is trying. Patty Cameron and the Accessibility Team do amazing work providing logistics, support, and advocacy for the portion of the disabled people at General Assembly who connect with services. That’s only part of the story; they cannot do it alone. When attendees who want to create disability justice arrive in a space with no cut-outs, I dream that they will go ahead and add them for one simple reason: someone with a disability is coming.
It’s not a fantasy. I am expecting my community to save me a seat in just the same way that I save them a seat. I imagine a world in which we are all, each of us, ethically and spiritually connected and nourished. We repeatedly affirm the “inherent worth and dignity of every person.” What if how we arrange spaces can be an expression of that inherent dignity, rather than acting out that we weren’t expecting disabled people to join us?
Of course, in temporary community, we must put chairs back in their original places because it’s a terrible way to spend $800, a sample cost of the convention center resetting chairs. We could luxuriate in being responsible for what we create.
Other experiences I have at large gatherings that challenge whether I belong relate to being treated as though I am too hard to respect because I am sitting down in my mobility scooter. These experiences range from inconvenient to discourteous. At one General Assembly, I had the experience of talking to a colleague and friend, when another of their colleagues saw them and wanted to say hello. Instead of standing near us so that we could form a small circle of three, the person who came up to us stood directly across from their friend and had a conversation, literally, in the space over my head.
Imagine the difference in the experience people using scooters would have if walking people maintained an awareness of paths and leaving space and did not cut off people driving scooters. Once, on a crowded patio at General Assembly, lack of awareness and perhaps miscalculation, expecting the scooter to move sideways, led to a person accidentally sitting on me when they ran out of space. I am a person. I am not for sitting on without my consent. (Mostly, I am not going to consent.)
A gift of having differences factory installed is that I have had the time, resources, and skills to recognize my bodily differences as part of my dignity and humanity. When I participate in large gatherings, there’s an opportunity to notice the ways that this knowing is distinct from common judgments of my body. I have compassion for the gap in our shared understanding, while I remain proud. It was ancestor and movement poet Laura Hershey (“You Get Proud by Practicing”) who gave this encouragement:
If you are not proud
For who you are, for what you say, for how you look;
If every time you stop
To think of yourself, you do not see yourself glowing
With golden light; do not, therefore, give up on yourself.
You can get proud.