By Mark Alper
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 expanded the scope of accessibility beyond state and federal programs to include obligations for compliance by the private sector. Private membership groups such as DSA are exempted from the requirement to comply with the law, but as a democratic socialist organization committed to the expansion of democracy, we should be pro-active in making our meetings and activities welcoming to people with disabilities. Creativity and openness to experimentation will aid this process. Start by asking your comrades who are differently abled what they need from you.
Here are some suggestions as well as examples of how DSA chapters are dealing with accessibility. For instance, every chapter hopes to hold its meetings in free space, but with some searching, the chapter may also find accessible space. Austin DSA, for example, uses the public library, which has accessible parking. Meetings in private homes are often not accessible, but union halls and community centers should be. Public cafés are an option as long as the obligation to buy something is not onerous to members.
Let’s say that a deaf individual wants to attend a meeting of the DSA chapter and requests a sign language interpreter. The chapter doesn’t have the financial resources to pay for an interpreter. An alternative solution would be to look for volunteers or ask the individual to bring an interpreter to the meeting. Because sign language interpretation is very demanding, this may mean more breaks in the meeting. If no interpreter is available, someone might be able to write a summary of what is happening on a laptop, and communication could occur through writing. At the least, reserved seating should be held for people who have hearing difficulties. Notices of meetings can ask about accessibility issues.
If there is an educational meeting that involves a PowerPoint presentation, a visually impaired person might ask for a recording of the presentation in order to be able to refer back to it as a sighted person would to notes. An ally can be named to be with someone at a demonstration, especially if civil disobedience is planned. Barbara Joye of Metro Atlanta DSA recalls that members volunteered to read proposed resolutions and national and local newsletters as well as readings for study groups to a blind member.
Members who have speech impairments resulting from strokes or conditions such as Parkinson’s should not have to feel that they won’t be heard because others are impatient for them to finish a thought.
YDS co-chair Andee Sunderland notes that the Sacramento DSA is also aware that individuals have “invisible disabilities, like anxiety disorders, depression, learning disabilities, etc. I think [making the chapter accessible] relies on building a pretty tight community where you have an idea of what people need, what their triggers might be, what sort of things they’re good at . . . so we don’t turn them off by giving them responsibilities they can’t fulfill. . . . Some people panic around crowds or cops so we try to look out for them at demos. . . . I think the best you can strive for is a group where people feel comfortable voicing their needs and boundaries, and where they are generally taken seriously.”
Despite the advances in civil rights represented by the ADA, persons with disabilities face an ongoing struggle for essential services that are often on the chopping block by state legislatures—most particularly in the realms of housing, transportation, and education.
Mark Alper has been involved in the struggle for disability rights for 38 years.
This article originally appeared in the winter 2014 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.
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