Ride or Die
By Daniel Van Sant
Daniel Van Sant is one of eight participants in the 2014 USICD Youth in International Development and Foreign Affairs internship. He and other USICD program interns have written a series of blog posts about their experiences with USICD’s internship program this summer, to be posted at this blog. USICD coordinates the internship program, which brings a cohort of students and recent graduates with disabilities to Washington, DC, each summer to complete internships at various international organizations in the Washington, DC, area. Daniel Van Sant is completing his internship at the DC office of Human Rights Watch. Learn more about the internship program at http://usicd.org/template/page.cfm?id=257. Read Daniel Van Sant’s biography, and the biography of other interns in the summer 2014 program, at http://usicd.org/template/page.cfm?id=261. The views and opinions expressed at this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of USICD.
When our group of fellows first got together at the beginning of the summer, I volunteered to be the “unofficial social chair” of the group. Well, volunteered or demanded…it’s a fine line really. Anyway, I ended up being the (self-proclaimed) social chair for the YIDA program this summer and that experience alone could have been an internship position. Obviously I came into this program knowing how to accommodate my own disability and I knew the basics of disability accessibility, but I had no idea how much work would go into accommodating all of the disability needs in our program.
I’m not claiming to be an expert now by any means, but I have developed a litany of questions I have begun to ask every establishment we consider going to. I developed these questions by spending as much time with each of my fellow interns as I could to not only get to know them as my peers and my friends but to get to know the needs of people with disabilities that are different from mine. Just when I would think that I found the perfect activity for us…oh no ASL interpretation. Then I would find something that had ASL support and…it’s not wheelchair accessible. After weeks of trial and error and healthy embarrassment all around I just got used to calling or emailing business and events to make sure that every person in our group could participate. And our group has a pretty wide range along the disability spectrum.
Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a place that is reachable by public transportation (which also has to be accessible); that has an accessible entrance, table/amenities, and bathroom; that has audio description/ASL/CART services if applicable; that has large print materials, that is service animal friendly, that is spacious enough to move around safely in, that doesn’t have bright or pulsing lights, and that has several more feature that I just don’t have space to list? Now Not only does this magical place have to have all of these things at once, but it also needs to be affordable, has to be able to fit eight people or more at once, we have to find out it is happening when we have just moved to the city, and above all else, it has to be fun. Let’s just say that I have spent many hours at sea but I still have not found my white whale.
But what I have found is the meaning of community in disability. Even though each of us has a different disability and a different disability experience, we all know how it feels to have accessibility problems, even if we don’t understand each other’s fully. What’s more is that I learned how it feels to be surrounded by and supported by other people with disabilities. For the first time in my life I felt like I was in a place where disability was the norm and that is a very powerful feeling. To know that there is a group of people who have a shared experience and are by your side.
Our group adopted the slogan “ride or die”. This is basically an “all for one and one for all” approach to group outings. If one of us cannot fully enjoy the activity, restaurant, etc. then none of us go there. And on many occasions we have all assembled at a restaurant or a bar or some other location and then we all get up and leave when we realize that one of our group is not welcome there. And the establishment always knows why we are leaving and trust when I say that the eight of us certainly make a statement just by leaving in a group.
I definitely understand the theory about strength in numbers now that I have had this experience with the USICD program. We support each other in the face of discrimination and that not only empowers us to stand up for each other but, I think it also gives us the power to stand up for ourselves. The disability community is large but I think this summer is the first time that I really experienced being more than just an individual member of that community. I now know what it feels like to be surrounded by friends who share that identity and it’s empowering. To advance the disability movement, people with all kinds of disabilities need to band together and fight for each other. The best way to fight for our rights is to fight together. It’s ride or die.