Reflections on the March on Washington 50th Anniversary from National Black Disability Coalition

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Forgive my lateness in this post! It’s now November, and here is some storytelling from August.

I’ve been volunteering with the National Black Disability Coalition on some technology stuff. We started working together because the organization and I are both very interested in storytelling. I talked with Jane Dunhamn of NBDC about how it feels difficult to find a lot of public storytelling around disability in communities of color.

Shortly after the 50th Anniversary March on Washington marches, I spoke with Jane about some things that concerned her around disability at the march she attended this year. I offered to record her on my radio show so more people could access her stories. She gathered two of the three people she attended the march with: Barbara Johnson and Sandra Sermons. They each offered their perspectives and concerns. Jane edited down my recordings to a final piece, which you can listen to here on my SoundCloud page.

All three storytellers understand the original 1963 march was focused on race and economics. And all three agreed that 50 years later, the disability community–as an economically oppressed community–also needs to be included when we discuss civil rights, human rights, and equality.

Here’s the transcript of the recordings. You can hear their voices by clicking on the link just above or by playing the audio version of this whole post.

Jane: “Hello, this is Jane Dunhamn with Black Gifted and Disabled by the National Black Disability Coalition. Today we have Barbara Johnson, Sandra Sermons, and myself, who are sharing our stories from our trip to the Anniversary March on Washington on Saturday, August 24th. The first speaker is Barbara Johnson. And then we’ll have Sandra Sermons, and last myself, Jane Dunhamn.”

Barbara Johnson: “Jane invited me. We got on the bus, and I noticed this elderly lady–she probably was around my parents’ age–crawling up the steps of the bus. She had brought her great-grandchild with her, about 8-10 years old. Both of my parents were wheelchair users prior to them passing away, and I kept thinking how would I feel if that was my mom trying to get on this bus? Here we are headed to a civil rights event. Civil rights are focused around equality, yet she’s not given the same equal access that the rest of us have.

Later on, after we started the journey, one of the organizers of the trip asked if there was anyone on the bus who had gone to the first march. And the lady who had to crawl up the steps was one of the people on the bus who had been at the first march. That bothered me even more. I feel like we should’ve been celebrating her. Here we had history right here on the bus, and she was the one person who had to crawl up the steps to get on the bus.

That was the first thing about that day that started to wear away at my spirit. I see somebody had been forgotten. And I wondered about the people who were in charge of this trip. Did they ask people if they needed accommodations?

As she was crawling up the steps, one of the people who were in charge of organizing everything–I didn’t notice that she thought anything of it.

When we got to Washington, Jane noticed that there were a couple of people with disabilities who did not seem to have any information. Being the person she is, Jane could not go on without helping them. The first lady that she reached out to was a lady who used a wheelchair. She had some support with her. There were a few other people with her. But they had no information on what to do. They decided that they would follow us. And then, there was this other elderly lady who used a walker. She had no one there, and she didn’t know anything. Jane decided that she would reach out and help her also. But because this lady walked so slowly, it took her a long time to finally get to the terminal.

Now, as we were walking along, there were other people who were either using wheelchairs or walkers who were trying to get from where the bus put us off to the first terminal. As we were walking by, there was one family member who was very frustrated with the situation. I heard her saying that, ‘I’m just gonna have to call a cab cuz there’s no way she can make it.’ The lady she was with was using a walker. And the walk wasn’t an easy walk along smooth pavement. It was rocky. At points, you had to go up an incline.

It was disappointing. We’re talking civil rights. Civil rights and disability issues go hand in hand. Those people who were at that walk 50 years prior: it’s not uncommon that by now, some may have disabilities and may need assistance. I just felt like that should’ve been thought of.

There was one lady who used the walker, and she was walking very slow. I feel that she may have been in denial of her disabilities because when we finally met up with Jane’s daughter and her daughter’s friend–who both have disabilities–we were walking along, and this lady, it seemed that she did not want to be around them. Her whole attitude started to change. At one point, she was moving so slowly that Jane’s daughter suggested that we try to get a wheelchair for her, and she took offense to that.

This is someone who has a disability, but for some reason she’s in denial. And I think it has a lot to do with our culture as African-Americans. Sometimes we’re in such denial that there are disabilities among our communities. We tend to look the other way. Sometimes we will not even get supports that are there. I don’t know if it’s a pride issue.

I was very happy that I got an opportunity to go to this event. But what I saw, the lack of being inclusive with people with disabilities, I feel civil rights still has a way to go. We talk about equality for everyone. But part of equality is also making sure that everyone has equal access.

The one thing that left a mark on me was I could still see the lady crawling up the stairs because I just think about my parents. I can’t imagine having to sit there and watch my daddy crawl up the stairs to go to the march. And her great-grandchild was there, and she’s crawling on her hands and knees up the steps–the dirty steps that everybody has walked on, bringing dirt from the outside. The lady is crawling up the stairs. This is somebody’s mother. This is someone’s grandmother. This is someone who has gone through enough and has seen enough in our history. She was there at the first march. This is the one that we should be honoring, and she’s crawling up the stairs. It brings chills to me, even when I think of it now.”

Sandra Sermons: “I don’t know that I had any expectations. I said, ok, if I can be some miniscule part of this history-making event, then that’ll be good enough for me.

In my experience, unfortunately, the African-American community does not do a very good job of accommodating people with disabilities. So I’m not surprised that the lady crawled on the bus. I’m really not. You could make the argument that somebody should’ve helped her. I think we as a community are not comfortable with disability, and that manifests itself in many different ways.

I talk about my community, fair enough. But honestly, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, and I wouldn’t want to be anyone else except me. Because along with the craziness comes a very supportive family and friends.

The lady in the walker didn’t know what she wanted. And then she got mad when Scherrone suggested it. My thought was, ok, but if you knew what you wanted and knew how to best help you, we wouldn’t be in the situation we’re in now. The only parts that I really remember, the lady in the walker: well first, her ability to move was tedious. When I say tedious, not just for us but for her as well. It was obvious that that was not the particular accommodation that she needed. She was moving very slowly, and she got a bit aggravated with us cuz we were going faster. And then Scherrone tried to help her out. I think what the lady in the walker said was something like, ‘I’m not even sure why you’re rushing cuz you don’t have anything else to do with your time anyway.’

I just felt like ok, this is a day we’re supposed to be showing love to one another and behaving like Dr. King. And this is not how Dr. King would have wanted anybody to behave or would’ve behaved himself. Plus, you are the one who was slowing people down. And rather than talking about people, what you need to do is figure out what you need. That was what I remember thinking.

Scherrone and I have been blessed immensely, and so to be able to share is part of what we were trying to do. Sometimes that’s received well. Sometimes it isn’t. It was kinda aggravating cuz we tried to help, and in return, we ended up being late. At the same time, we had something that she didn’t. We were trying to share it, and we kind of had to walk away with, ok, at least we tried. The point of it was simply that we tried to provide assistance. The only thing you can do is offer. Whether or not somebody wants to accept it is up to them.

I am a person who’s blind. With the exception of this, I wouldn’t have even had a ‘disability experience’ except because of that woman.

I was very glad to be a part of it. I wish that I could’ve been a part of it back in ’63. But I’m thinking that my predecessors–even though I’ve never met Dr. King, any of the key people, Ralph Abernathy–still, I would like to think that they’re looking down on us from Heaven, looking down on me seeing that I’m doing a good job carrying the torch. And I’m just glad that I could do my little part.”

Jane Dunhamn: “I went to the event with Barbara Johnson to meet my daughter–my daughter lives in the greater D.C. area–and a friend of hers, who are both women with disabilities.

The bus was not accessible, and one of the people on our bus who was 80-plus, had to access the bus crawling on hands and knees. No one on the bus seemed to be outraged. There was no inquiry. That was something that I chose not to say anything. I watched and listened to see if there was any reaction from anyone else on the bus as well as the coordinator. And since there wasn’t, although I was outraged, you have to pick and choose. I decided it is not my call. Because of the warm feelings and stories that people were sharing, I chose not to interject that particular piece. I knew it would have changed the climate of the bus for a ride that was gonna be several hours long.

The woman on the bus who was a walker user walked very slowly and was by herself. Someone else encouraged her to come with me to see how to get to the shuttle since she didn’t have any assistance. We went off in two groups. The lady who used the walker got to the Metro stop much later than the first group because of the pace in which she walked. So the first group arrived. And because of assisting the group, I arrived and hour and a half late meeting my daughter.

The first group were pretty uncomfortable with people with disabilities. We waited a little bit longer, and the other lady came. And she too was uncomfortable with people with disabilities. When my daughter saw her, she suggested we could get a wheelchair for her. The lady was upset that she was not gonna use a wheelchair. She began to make comments that she’s not like ‘one of these people’ and just not understanding how disrespectful that was.

At one point, my daughter turned to see how far we were coming behind her with the lady who was taking a little bit of time. And her wheel of her wheelchair came off the sidewalk and was on the grass. It was a little bit of an incline. So as people were walking by, they were helping to get the wheelchair up. And they were telling each other to take their time to make sure that my daughter was safe. The lady couldn’t make up her mind if she actually wanted to get on the vans that were taking people over to the monument said, ‘Oh, that’s ok. She doesn’t have anything better to do anyway.’

I’m always a mom first, and floods of emotions came back to me about being protective of my daughter and how people see her in the world. So at that point, my daughter’s friend said, ‘Oh no. Ma’am, I think you should make your way to the van.’ So we separated.

I apologized to my daughter and her friend. Now I had brought this attitude they are confronted with on a daily basis from their Black community, which took away their spirit and joy of the day. In helping people, I brought negative energy to two people that I love.

My experience with the march was a different experience. It was a time of evaluating what the march meant in regards to our lives with disabilities and where is there a place for disability within the Black community and civil rights. If I’m confronted with giving information and assisting people and taking them to a group of people with disabilities, would I do that again? Or would I not say anything? I don’t know. I did not come away with a clear answer. I can’t be so irresponsible as to bringing toxicity to a group of people that I care and love. So where does that leave us? Where does that leave–I need to put it on me. Where does that leave me? I don’t know.”