For more coverage of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, check out our special report.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the most consequential abortion case in decades, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Nothing short of the future of Roe v. Wade is on the line, and advocates and activists will descend on Washington, D.C., to demonstrate in front of the Court to make their voices heard.
Political protest and demonstrations are central to democracy. The right to peaceably assemble is written into our Constitution. And whenever our country finds itself in a moment of social change or turmoil, political demonstrations are a fixture. After the 2016 presidential election, people came from all over the country to flood the streets of Washington; more recently, in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, demonstrations took place all over the country for weeks.
But demonstrations are not the only way to participate in these pivotal moments in history, and for members of the disability community, being physically present at a rally or march may present challenges that able-bodied people never have to consider. Likewise, the rhetoric around protests and showing up in the moment can exclude those for whom in-person participation is not an option.
As a disabled person, I’ve seen all of this firsthand. Ableism is unfortunately pervasive, even in progressive spaces. And it’s not uncommon for the discourse around social change to reflect that—with comments implying that not showing up for a rally or demonstration signals apathy or that engaging in other forms of advocacy, like sharing resources on social media, is simply virtue signaling.
I am excited to witness all the incredible advocacy at the Supreme Court on Wednesday—to see activists coming together and making their presence known, while demanding abortion be recognized as health care and the fundamental right it is. But if, like me, that kind of engagement isn’t an option for you, it can feel like you’re not doing enough.
Participating in physical demonstrations is not the only way to engage in moments like this, and the actions disabled people like me take are enough. They are valid. If you’re a disabled person, though, it can be tough to know how to participate when it feels like everyone is physically on their way to Washington.
I don’t have all the answers, but I’ve found my own way to participate in these moments. For example, during the police protests, I offered to answer men’s suiting questions (I have a side gig as a menswear stylist and writer) with proceeds going to the NAACP. I also raised roughly $3,000 for bail funds by offering my Twitter followers a nude photo in exchange for a bail fund receipt. (I’m proud of the hashtags I created for this: #BoobsForBail and #ButtForBail.) Beyond that, I share as many resources as I can on social media and with my peers. As a journalist, I’m lucky enough to be able to write about these issues, which is how I’ll be spending the day of oral arguments Wednesday in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health.
As I worked on this piece, I made a call-out on Twitter to find out how other disabled folks show up for the issues that matter to them. Many take part in advocating on social media, sharing posts and other information, as well as donating when they can. They also send postcards to elected officials and create social media posts of their own to help spread awareness. And some folks said they donate their skills and resources to organizations free of charge, things like helping organizations with data entry. One person said they take part in car cruise protests, which can be more comfortable for disabled people for whom standing or walking for long periods of time is untenable. Each of these actions is as critical and impactful as showing up in person.
If you’re organizing a demonstration, remember that protest and demonstration look different for everyone. So here are some quick tips to ensure your advocacy is as inclusive and ableism-free as possible.
Language matters: If I had a dollar for every time I saw a tweet that said, roughly, “If you’re not showing up at a protest, do you even care?” I’d be rich. So let me cut to the chase: Don’t do this. Don’t say anything like it. It signals that you have no awareness of disability or chronic illness, and it implies that people who don’t engage physically in demonstrations aren’t valid activists. If you want to invite people to be present at your rally, say something like, “Join us if you can!” or “Join us if you’re able!” These differences may seem small, but they matter.
Consider disabled people in your planning: I can’t speak for all disabled people, but I know I would partake in more in-person demonstrations if the planning involved the needs of disabled people—if I knew before going to a rally that there was going to be ample seating, or if the details of a march included restrooms or places to stop and sit along the way. And the best way to meet the needs of disabled people? Include us in your planning. If your team doesn’t have a disabled person on it, chances are you’re going to exclude us.
Build options into your action items: While every disabled person I spoke with was invested in creating protest options that meet their needs, it would be even better if the organizers of rallies and demonstrations build options for disabled people into their plans. That might mean providing a livestream of the rally that folks can join remotely, or maybe you have a way for folks to get involved on social media—like a hashtag to share or a petition to share and sign. This #AbortionIsEssential toolkit for digital action is a great example. Again, including disabled people in this process should not be optional. Our voices are important.