Disability rights marchers in Northampton call on businesses, city to open up access to all

  • Disableist movement activists Jeremy Macomber-Dubs and Olivia Marshall kick off the Rally for the Rights of All People with Disabilities, starting from the train station in Northampton, Saturday. FOR THE GAZETTE/Sabato Visconti

  • Marchers in the Rally for the Rights of All People with Disabilities march down Pleasant Street in Northampton, Saturday. FOR THE GAZETTE/Sabato Visconti

Staff Writer
Published: 4/24/2022 9:30:54 PM
Modified: 4/24/2022 9:29:29 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A celebration of the lives of people with disabilities on Saturday also served as a blunt reminder that access to public buildings in Northampton is not good enough, organizers said, and that more able-bodied people need to join the ongoing fight.

At least 120 people participated in the Disableist Movement Rally, marching and riding their wheelchairs from the train station at 170 Pleasant St. to Pulaski Park on Main Street. They held signs and chanted slogans calling for city businesses and officials to “ramp up” accessibility in public spaces beyond the limited mandates of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The rally came together about a month after Jeremy Macomber-Dubs, a wheelchair user and the chair of the city’s Disability Commission, first put out the call on social media. After a series of speeches from people with disabilities who described their struggles and made demands for change, rallygoers enjoyed a live performance of the Coldplay song “The Scientist” by Philip Price, Flora Reed and Melissa Nelson.

“It’s 2022. It’s the future, and it’s time to address this issue once and for all,” Macomber-Dubs said in his remarks to the crowd of people with disabilities and their able-bodied allies.

Many businesses in Northampton, even those at ground level, have a single step at their entrances, and Macomber-Dubs said owners should insist that the city extend the sidewalks to make room for wheelchair ramps.

“We ask you to take over and make these demands for us, to share the burden with us,” Macomber-Dubs said. “This isn’t going to happen overnight, but with teamwork, we can get the ball rolling.”

Too often, people with disabilities are placated when they complain about accessibility; they are offered false solutions and unrealistic promises, he said, while no progress is made. Businesses should make information about their accessibility, or lack thereof, easy to find online and post a phone number outside for customers who need assistance.

“This is not a complicated solution to creating a more positive, forward-thinking conversation,” Macomber-Dubs said before highlighting the benefits of hiring more people with disabilities, which he said is central to solving access problems and fostering an inclusive community.

Access is not just about civil rights, but also safety for the citizens and visitors of Northampton, he said, and the city should “finally find the money” to repair crumbling sidewalks that pose physical dangers for wheelchair users and others with mobility challenges.

A newly appointed member of the Holyoke Commission on Disabilities, Lyn Horan, said 61 million Americans live with disabilities, making them the largest minority group in the country.

“I would like to put to rest the misconception that it is only older Americans that are disabled,” Horan said. A “host” of disabling conditions “that are on the rise in this country” are often diagnosed in the late 20s or early 30s, the time when many people are raising children or building a career, she said.

“We want to work and participate in our community. We want to socialize and have a life, just like the able-bodied folks,” Horan, a wheelchair user, said. Children with disabilities, meanwhile, “deserve to have hopes and dreams ... realized in the wealthiest country in the world, don’t they?”

Disabilities that do not create mobility challenges often remain unknown to others, according to speaker Kelly Tunstall, who described the impacts of autoimmune disorders as well as the discrimination experienced by people with those diagnoses. She said people, including staff at local businesses, have mocked her for continuing to wear a mask as COVID-19 mandates are dropped.

Nyx Kolaski spoke about the discrimination and violence that are generated when “naturally occurring” physical and neurological differences are treated as disabilities that need treatment.

“When I first came across the neurodiversity movement, I did not yet know that I was autistic,” Kolaski said. “Having a community of people with similar struggles is such an incredible resource,” but not everyone who is autistic receives a diagnosis during their lifetime, so they “are left to struggle without accommodations” in a “dangerous” world.

At the same time, children who do receive an autism diagnosis are placed at risk of abusive so-called treatment methods like electric shock, Kolaski said, and behavioral analysis that causes trauma. One of the leading figures in autism research, Dr. Ole Lovaas, was also controversial for his work on conversion therapy for gender-variant children.

“As a queer autistic person, I don’t want to be cured of my queerness, and I don’t want to be cured of my autisticness,” Kolaski said, advocating for acceptance of neurodiversity rather than “awareness” campaigns that frame autism as a problem with a solution.

Olivia Marshall, also a rally organizer and wheelchair user, told the crowd that access has been a lifelong struggle for herself and others.

“It’s hard feeling invisible,” Marshall said, “but seeing all of you here definitely makes me feel seen.”

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.

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