In Celebration of Disability Pride
by Brooke WilliamsShare
In loving memory of the brilliant and beautiful Mikki Marshall
April and Mikki last July at the Disability Pride march-
Mikki said it was one of the best days of her life!
April Coughlin has one of those infectious joy-filled laughs that make you feel like everything is going to be ok as soon as you hear it. She’s a college professor with a PhD in Inclusive Education, with a focus on Disability Studies. She is also the co-founder of W.O.W. (Women on Wheels), a powerful support and empowerment group for women with spinal cord injuries. April has been a paraplegic and a wheeler for the past 31 years, since being in a car accident at the age of 6. Check out this video to hear a bit more about her background and how she found herself on the path she travels today.
April first came into our orbit through our most treasured friend Mikki, who before her passing earlier this year, had also been an integral part of the W.O.W. team. Upon meeting April it was impossible not to be in awe of her tenacious attitude and complete refusal to give up fighting for a better world. Through advocacy and teaching, she is a role model for all of us as we navigate the complexities of our current world. We'd like to be like April when we grow up.
July is Disability Pride month and we thought it would be a great time to gather more insight and understanding as to what that means exactly (and it also gave us the great excuse to talk to April!). We recently had the pleasure of chatting with her about maneuvering through this modern world with grace and here’s a bit of what she had to say:
On the two modes of thinking about disability
This is a really simplified version but here it goes- there are two very different ways of looking at disabilities; the medical model and the social model. The medical model is the more traditional view point, which is basically seeing a person as having an impairment or problem. In this mode, we look to cure, fix or alleviate that problem so that the person can be as “normal” as possible and fit in with the rest of society. The other model is the social model, in where we see a person with a disability- for example, I am paralyzed and I use a wheelchair- but then we look at the social barriers, the architectural barriers, the societal and linguistic barriers that work to amplify that disability. Let’s say I lived in a world where it was all ramps- using a wheelchair in that scenario would not be a hardship but rather just an alternative way of getting around. So it’s really society that helps create those barriers to participation.
On Disability Pride
It’s so hard to put in a nutshell, but the first thing I think of are disability rights. Though I can become frustrated about the rights that we still don’t have or the ones that aren’t being enforced, I have to remember the ones that were tirelessly fought for and achieved by those that came before us. It’s really important to recognize and appreciate that history. Disability Pride month is more than just celebrating the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), it’s the whole idea of being included and seen as contributing and valued members in our communities. It’s also very much about being comfortable and confident in the body that you have and not trying to hide - we don’t need or want anyone's pity- we are living very interesting and fulfilling lives!
Inspiration vs Objectification
I can’t even count the number of times people have approached me on the street and said “Oh, you’re so inspiring”, and I think ok, am I inspiring because I’m a woman or because I’m in my 30’s or because you’re thinking “hey, she has a disability and she got out of bed this morning”? Don’t get me wrong, I am constantly inspired by other people, but you have to wonder what it means to be inspired by a person solely because they’re disabled and still functioning in society. There is a great TED talk by a woman named Stella Young and she lays it all out perfectly- she's really funny and it's definitely worth a watch.
During the summers I teach at a training program that works with educators on how to teach students with disabilities. So many people tend to look at disabilities as something negative, unfortunate or “less than”. Through my teaching, I try to convey to my students that it’s just a way of living and that disability is actually a form of diversity. That’s why I am a teacher. I had plenty of opportunities to go into government or law but I chose this path because I feel it’s our future. It’s so important to open people’s minds to a different way of seeing the world.
Personally what I’m fighting for is equal access. We still don’t have equal access to buildings and we still don’t have equal access to transportation. Even when we do have elevators, a lot of times they don’t work or they’re not fixed quickly enough. And I always talk to my students about this and say you can have an elevator go out of service and put a sign up that says “sorry for the inconvenience” but it’s not an inconvenience, its a civil rights issue! I mean, if you were to close off a stairwell and say to able bodied people you have to walk 20 blocks to the next accessible subway station and then not fix it for weeks, how do you think that would go over with able bodied riders? Those steps would be fixed so quickly because there would be protests and riots. There’s also a real lack of signage. Just putting a sign up that shows you where the accessible entrance is can be really helpful. I probably push miles out of my way everyday just looking for the accessible entrances or elevators. And the majority of NYC public high schools are not fully accessible and 30% are not accessible at all! That’s a civil rights issue. Especially when you consider the fact that some of the best schools, the specialized high schools, are in older buildings and they’re not accessible. You’re denying disabled students the right to attend those schools. How can that still be in 2017?
When I’m working, I’m teaching from the perspective of a 38 year old woman with a physical disability. This informs everything I teach and the way I teach it. For example, on my way to work I take the subway to get to a train to that goes to New Paltz- and before I even get to my job, I could have already encountered so many different scenarios. Maybe I came out of my apartment, pushed down the street, hit an uneven part of pavement and fell out of my chair. But then people came by and lifted me back into my chair, so now I can continue to the subway where then I’m confronted with a broken elevator. So do I choose to have somebody carry me down the stairs or do I push myself another 20 blocks to get to the closest accessible subway? I can’t separate my experiences of being in a chair and being a woman … it’s part of my every day experience. So the intersectionality is just embracing life’s complexities; you think about class, race, sexuality— everything.
I co-lead a women’s group called Women on Wheels (WOW). It’s not just a support group but an empowerment group. We’re a diverse group of women, coming from different backgrounds and perspectives and it’s one of the things I love most about W.O.W. We really do share all of these incredibly divergent stories and experiences dealing with race, class, disability and sexual identity- it’s awesome and I think it’s one of the most wonderful things about living in NYC. Having grown up in New Paltz and lived in Albany for awhile, I didn’t have much exposure to diversity and I feel like I have that here and I love it! We all have so much to learn from each other.
A bench in Central Park dedicated to MM
Keeping it cool- always
Beautiful Mikki right around her 40th birthday xox