As some of you may know, the last few GAs I have spent being a volunteer with Accessibility Services. This has been such a great thing for me, as it has helped me see just a small part of the issues related to opening up facilities so that everyone can use them.
The staff of General Assembly and Conference Services have worked so hard to make GA as accessible as can be possible that I think for many people, thinking about accessibility issues when it comes to the UUA is really thought of as a GA thing.
For the past couple of years I have been advocating that Accessibility Services be moved out of Identity-Based Ministries into the department of Congregational Services. I don’t think I have been alone in that advocacy, but I don’t think any of us have been heard.
Now…..we have this new Standing on the Side of Love campaign. While one may have issues with the campaign, I think most of us can agree that there was no intention of offending the community of disabled persons by naming it “Standing”. It seems that there are some UUs who have taken offence, going so far as to ask that the name of the campaign be changed.
I had thought that I would write something on this straw-man of an issue, until this came in my mailbox. Written by the Rev. Dr. Mary J. Harrington, it says, much better than I can, what I think needs to be said. And even more than that, I think it should start a conversation amongst we UUs about the REAL issues that are out there, instead of creating issues that aren’t there.
And for those of you who may be concerned, yes, I have Mary’s permission to reprint this.
Re: use of the word “Standing” in the “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign- I am responding as some on the UUMA chat wondered what people who can’t stand physically might think about it:
I would like to begin by introducing myself and where I am coming from on this topic. Although I now use a wheelchair or scooter to get around, and can’t stand for long or walk very far, I don’t think of myself as disabled or someone with a disability but rather as someone with an illness. I claim the right to name myself and my situation as I know it to be, for me. I do not think of being disabled as my identity either, which is why it personally bothers me that physical accessibilityis included under Identity-based Ministries rather than Advocacy and Witness at the UUA, which is where I wish it was located, for what I most need from my religion is advocacy and action.
Did you know if you go to “Social Justice Issues” on the UUA website, there is NO listing for access or ANYTHING related to accessibility as a human or civil right or action issue, though MANY other issues are included? This matters to me far more than whether or not to change the word “standing” to something else, as the campaign slogan, speaking as someone who has difficulty standing physically.
As a poet and lover of poetry I am personally good with “standing” on the side of love as a metaphor. I also use the words “seeing”, “listening”, “hearing”, “tasting”, “walking”, “running” and “smelling” metaphorically while being aware that some people cannot do one or more of these literally, me being one of them, because I know people who listen and see with their hearts and minds, and I myself walk or run mentally and emotionally, and much of the language I use is metaphorical based on my own experience. That said, the poet Adrienne Rich once wrote, “These are words I cannot choose again” and then listed several. All my life I have listened for words that other people tell me, tell the community, are harmful, hurtful, hateful, exclusionary, unnecessary, and once I learn of them, I make a concerted effort to not use or choose those words again. This I believe is a lifelong commitment and discipline, especially for ministers, for people of the word.
As a physical/human being no careful word-smithing or good intentions are an adequate substitute for a useable toilet or shower – especially when accommodations for many people’s needs are readily available or fixable. The word “standing” on a banner does not have the same power to exclude and harm me personally as compared with event organizers knowingly choosing a non-accessible site for a meeting or retreat I was hoping to attend. For example for the second year in a row the New England branch of the Retired UU Ministers (UURMaPA) is holding their retreat at a facility with no wheelchair accessible rooms even though the last time I stayed there I had to pee in a coffee mug, even though I reported this problem to the coordinators, even though they asked for a year to address it and then didn’t, even though there is a fully accessible retreat center nearby in NH- which means I am excluded again although I’m a retired UU minister living in New England. The fact of this and then the process of trying to remedy it really hurt my feelings and made me super mad. But at the end of the day I don’t want to drag this kind of heavy thing around with me or have this sort of humiliation and offensiveness taking up space in my life. Which is why I have resigned from the organization and asked that my name be taken off their list. Time to move on.
Most of all I want to highlight my abundant gratitude for what has happened over the last year. The UUMA has adopted a new policy concerning accessible sites and related scholarships. Thank you so much to the Exec and the membership at GAfor developing this and voting it in. My study group Greenfield Group moved its meeting location to the Barbara Harris Conference and Retreat Center, losing two deposits in the process and affecting the travel distance for some members, as well as a slight increase in cost, as soon as I let them know the former site didn’t work for me anymore. The Mass Bay chapter retreats have also been moved to accessible sites, which I greatly appreciate, and we only meet at more accessible churches now for any type of gathering. And the accommodations at GA that made it possible for me to deliver the sermon at the SLT were perfect, exactly what I requested and then some. This has also been true when I’ve been invited to preach at our churches in Winchester and Haverhill MA and a UUA chapel service, and when I was honored at Starr King in May. The UUFP for Social Responsibility made a grant to Gulf Coast Volunteers for the Long Haul to cover the additional expenses incurred by volunteers needing various accommodations. All of these to me are practical, tangible, life giving instances of solidarity and love, way more important than the word in question, in noticing, responding to and caring about things that have a huge impact on my life, and many many other people’s lives.
One reason you might not hear as much about people’s physical needs and struggles as exists is because of the high price involved in speaking up and then not being heard or helped, being ignored, being pitied, being condescended to or patronized, being accused of costing others too much money/being too expensive, being impatient, being fawned over or its opposite- having others refuse to even see you’re there or make eye contact- I have experienced all of these from my colleagues, from other ministers, not just ordinary citizens. It can be awkward, embarrassing, insulting, offensive, infuriating, heartbreaking or humiliating, depending on the situation. It doesn’t make you want to go back for more. I’m saying this now, out loud, so you can’t say you didn’t know, from now on. And because I don’t want to say it again, I don’t want to have to say it again, even though I know that’s not realistic or even fair, it’s still what I want. A perfect, whole, healed world.
Yours always, Mary