I had the opportunity to speak at FTBCon, and one of the panels with which I was involved was one on disability and the need for the atheist movement and community to get involved in approving accessibility.
One of the statements that set off the most discussion is this idea mentioned by Daniel Samuelson, and backed up by everyone else in the panel, that if he were Christian, Danny would not have become homeless. What followed what a discussion on twitter in which others tried to assert that this couldn’t be the case while those of us who experience the poverty related concerns caused by disability and sickness echoed the statement. For those of us who become atheists, the consequences stemming from our disability are direr than if we remained participants and congregants of our former religions.
This is not because religious people are inherently more moral. In fact morality doesn’t play into it at all. What religions have that the atheist movement still lacks is infrastructure and community. More specifically an infrastructure based community that understands that the best way to keep their numbers is to provide services that make it unappealing and at times impossible to leave. The services can be provided officially as part of their organization or unofficially as those organized by parishioners themselves.
In the interest of improving the lives of disabled atheists I want to offer some examples of things that the atheist community can do to help those of us who struggle.
One of the biggest challenges faced by people with disabilities, regardless of their financial status, is a sense of isolation. This is especially the case in winter when mobility might become an issue. A simple thing that atheist communities can do is arrange to provide rides to people, to the grocery store, to doctor’s appointments, and to various entertainments. Arranging for transportation or rideshares to events can also go a long way to improving attendance.
Arranging for regular transportation to major bulk stores like Costco can also be a huge help. Often buying in bulk can be cheaper but can be difficult or impossible for people without transportation. Alternately, arranging for a delivery service of some kind to pick up and drop off people groceries at their homes would also help a lot.
Food Bank Fundraisers
A lot of people with disabilities will make use of the food bank during their lifetimes. The problem is that food banks are not able to cater to special needs diets. Celiac or gluten allergy? Too bad? Lactose Intolerant? Suck it up. It’s not that they don’t want to help with those types of diets, but food banks don’t receive a lot of options to begin with. If you want to as an organization help people in your community who are struggling do a money drive and food drive for your local food banks. Help stock them with gluten free options, get them toiletries, and give them money. Any of these three actions can be a huge help. Many people forget about toiletries when doing food bank drives, but there are many people for whom the only feminine hygiene products they can get are those that come in from time to time.
It can be difficult at times for people struggling with illness to make themselves healthy meals. Either because of the effort in standing, lack of energy, or lack of money to buy healthy foods. Regardless of the reason, this is one action that a lot of churches provide that is very useful. Members of the community make extra meals which are then delivered to the needy in the community. At times, the community buys gift cards for local grocery chains, to help people buy food. Either of these options can be a huge help to someone who is struggling.
I’ve mentioned before the sense of isolation often felt by people struggling with illness and disability. Having a list of people who could use a visit either once a week or once a month from people can go a long way to reducing that sense of isolation. This can be combined with the meal program, or just be organized on its own. This service should be offered to people in the hospital who spend long periods of time by themselves.
One person’s trash can be another person’s treasure. Having a monthly exchange where people can bring in their old furniture or clothing to be exchanged can be very useful for people who can’t afford new things. Having that type of community can also be very helpful when someone loses their home due to a fire, or something along those lines.
Choose Accessible Locations for Events
Having been an organizer myself, I know that this is not always possible. However, I find that often accessibility is the lowest priority for many organizers. Often the excuse is that they never see people in wheelchairs or with canes at their events, ignoring of course that if their events are inaccessible then they wouldn’t would they.
Remember, not every person for who accessibility is an issue is going to be visible. They may not require a cane but have a problem with stairs. They may be able to handle stairs part of the time but not at others.
If your event does have elevator access, make sure they are clearly marked.
Rent a Wheelchair
Last year I was helping plan a protest with regards to the unfair jailing of atheist bloggers in Bangladesh. I did so with the expectation that I would be unable to participate since part of the protest included a march of a few km, something that was outside my capabilities. The organization however, decided to rent a wheelchair for me so that I could be included. It made a huge difference and meant that the protest had one more attendee to add to their numbers. Not everyone who has trouble with mobility will have a wheelchair of their own. They may not even know that renting a wheelchair is an option. By including information about rentals or mentioning that such is available, you open up the possibility of attendance to a lot more people.
Many people who struggle with disabilities also struggle with money. This makes it difficult to attend events, conferences, and other networking type activities. By providing scholarships or reduced cost tickets for people with disabilities, you lower some of the barriers towards attendance.
This is a big one that is often forgotten about. When booking someone for a talk, remind them to make their presentations more accessible. If they are including graphics or pictures, remind them that they have to describe them for people who cannot see. If possible, try to arrange to have the information for sign language interpreters to make it possible for people with auditory disabilities to attend. If you provide these services, make sure to make it clear by including that information on your advertisements.
Make sure you are aware of the procedures regarding service dogs. Run through them if you see one in the audience to make sure that people with the service dogs don’t have to spend all their time reminding people that they should not pet a dog that is wearing its vest.
Include a section for people to make clear their accessibility needs if they want to attend.
More Disability Themed Presentations
Regardless what community you belong to, disability activism intersects. This is especially true for feminism, race activism, and atheism. The intersections of disability, whether physical or mental, are huge. By creating more awareness, you also increase more people struggling with these problems to get involved in the community. ((Self serving yes, but if you are looking for speakers I am available for this purpose))
Hire More People with Disabilities
Often when thinking about representation, people forget about those of us struggling with disability. By hiring more people who struggle with mobility, visual, hearing, or chronic illness issues, you are likely to get a better perspective on how to be more inclusive.
This is not a complete list but includes only a few ideas of what organizations like CFI, American Atheists, and others can do to improve accessibility and the lives of disabled people in their own communities.