When I was president of my college Alumni Association, one of the best perks of the “job” was having the honor of leading the procession during commencement. For four years I, along with the current president of the Student Association, was the first person to walk through the entryway when the band started “Pomp and Circumstance.”
I gladly performed this task for several reasons. First, I enjoyed celebrating the achievements of the graduating students. Their energy and enthusiasm was contagious. Being a part of commencement made me feel better about our collective future. Second, being involved in commencement helped me build a stronger network of professional connections because I had the opportunity to further my relationships with former professors, colleagues and acquaintances.
However, the main reason I took part in commencement is because I loved the fact that all of guests, family and friends saw their graduates being led by a chick in a chair. It is estimated that over 5,000 people attended the ceremony each year. They saw me first.
Of course, they saw the faculty. They craned their necks and waved with glee when their graduate entered the arena. They quickly forgot about the woman in the wheelchair who was seated in the front row on the stage.
But for the first few minutes of the ceremony they saw me and my wheelchair. They watched me smiling as I approached the ramp on the side of the stage and then took my place to the left of the podium. They may not remember me now. But for a few moments, I was visible.
Since the United States House of Representatives voted to approve the American Health Care Act (AHCA) of 2017 (H.R. 1628) a few weeks ago, many people with disabilities have used the hashtags #IAmAPreExistingCondition or #IHaveAPreExistingCondition on social media to help gain visibility. Personally, I like the first hashtag because I agree that my disability is part of my identity. I would not be who I am without my disability.
Say what you want about hashtags, but in this age of social media they are a vital tool in gaining visibility. Salon.com, Al Jezeera, and CBS News are just a few of the media outlets to feature stories about the #IAmAPreExistingCondition hashtag trending on Twitter. Even if you don’t agree with the rationale behind the hashtag, or if you think we’re all overreacting to political events – you see us!
People often ask me how to learn about disability. The best way to learn is to read and listen to stories from actual disabled people. I agreed to act as a volunteer co-moderator of the Disability Visibility Project (DVP) Facebook page because I believe we need to share and promote disability stories which are told by disabled people. Alice Wong, founder of the DVP, does a fantastic job of curating stories which constantly challenge my way of thinking. If you aren’t following the page, you should give it a look. I’m not just saying that because I am there frequently throughout the day.
It is important to me that I support other disabled voices, especially disabled people of color. Last year, Vilissa Thompson started using the hashtag #DisabilityTooWhite. As Vilissa explained on her blog, “The hashtag forced me, and others, to discuss the elephant in the room – the racism, invisibility, erasure, lack of representation, and othering of disabled people of color.” As an advocate, I do not further our cause if I am not recognizing other people’s experience with disability and marginalization is different than mine. If I do not help change the representation of disability, I am not being inclusive in my efforts. People have called me out when I have not been inclusive, and I am grateful for their attention.
Some days, it is easy to feel invisible. We think our struggles or successes are not witnessed by others. We do our best, wondering if anyone really notices.
Yet every time I question if what I’m doing makes a difference, someone approaches me and tells me they have read a blog post or seen me at a protest or event. These little acts help increase visibility for not just me, but other disabled people as well. Hopefully these moments of visibility multiply when stories are shared, and help further reduce disability stigma and shame.