Protest Tips for Wheelchair Users — Reeve Connect
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Protest Tips for Wheelchair Users

stephanie426 Moderator Posts: 81 Moderator
10 Comments First Anniversary 5 Likes First Answer

As an organizer who has been fighting for Disability Rights and other civil rights issues for more than a decade, I have learned a lot about protesting. I have learned that protesting is a necessary tool to fight against injustice, and I firmly believe that one of the most patriotic things we can do as citizens is protest systems of oppression in our country. Many people have asked me why I don’t just do things the “polite” way by going to meetings, reasoning with people, and asking nicely for things. I spend a lot of time educating people that for the few hours they see me publicly protesting, there are months and years of doing things the “polite” way behind that. For example, disabled people spent decades politely asking for equal access – and these polite requests were ignored. However, when disabled people started protesting in the streets of Washington, D.C., demanding that their rights be codified in the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and protesting in the Capitol, and protesting by getting out of their wheelchairs and climbing the Capitol steps to demonstrate the lack of access in our country – only then was the ADA passed into law. I am reminded of this example because on July 26, 2020, we will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of the signing of the ADA. 

Throughout our country’s history, we have protested injustice. Injustices against disabled people, against women, against people of different religions, and more. We have become a better nation because we have changed due to these protests. As protests continue today fighting against injustices against black and brown people in our nation, I know that many wheelchair users want to show their support but are hesitant to protest because they do not know how. 

So, here’s a few tips for wheelchair users who want to protest:

Use shower curtains for signs

Okay, this sounds weird at first, but hear me out. You can go to the dollar store and get a shower curtain for $1 and cut it to fit the back of your wheelchair. Then, you can write a message on the shower curtain with paint or permanent marker and attach it to your chair for a hands-free protest sign. This is really convenient for people in manual wheelchairs who need both hands to push and for power wheelchair users who may not be able to hold a sign. I like shower curtains better than poster board for this purpose because they’re more flexible. 

Put protest signs on sticks

If you’re using a wheelchair and you want to hold a sign, holding a sign with two hands is likely not an option for you because you’re either using a joystick to drive your power wheelchair or pushing your manual chair with both hands. Also, as wheelchair users, we tend to be a bit lower to the ground and our signs might not be as visible. For these reasons, I like to make protest signs and attach them to long sticks. When I am driving my Edge 3 with iLevel with my right hand on the joystick, I can hold my protest sign high with my left hand and it can be seen in a crowd. If my arm gets tired, I can rest the sign behind me between my back and my cushion and it can still be seen! 

Paint your message on an umbrella!

Many of us can overheat in the hot sun as our disabilities make it more difficult (or impossible) for us to regulate our body temperatures. At the same time, we all know our power chairs don’t exactly love getting wet. Umbrellas can help in both situations! Umbrellas can block the sun and protect us (and our wheelchairs!) from the rain, so grab some fabric paint and write your message on an umbrella! It will be seen rain or shine and be used as an effective tool in any weather! 

If it’s a march and you don’t know the route, stay towards the front

Sometimes protests take the form of a march, but organizers do not always tell the participants what the route of the march is. If this is the case, stay towards the front of the march, that way you will be able to see if any of the route is about to become inaccessible. You’ll be able to see if steps are coming up or if there’s a gaping pothole to avoid. If you’re in the mix of a big crowd, you may not be able to see these things with enough time to avoid the inaccessible aspects like you would if you were toward the front. 

On the other hand, if the organizers tell you the route in advance, look up the route and see if it’s accessible to you! And, of course, if you’re comfortable, tell the organizers of any protest that you plan to come and that the route needs to be accessible. Most organizers understand that we are all in this together and are happy to accommodate. 

Charge your chair fully before you go! 

Even if you don’t plan to be at a protest for long, sometimes you end up getting caught up in the passion of it all and you stay all day fighting for justice. Or sometimes the weather can impact your battery life. For example, I know that when I protest outside in the winter, my batteries just don’t last as long. Or, like I mentioned earlier, sometimes the organizers don’t reveal the route of the march, so you may be rolling a lot longer than you had planned! It’s always better to go to the protest with a full charge than to find yourself without any battery before you’re ready to head home. 


  • LWolf12
    LWolf12 Member Posts: 2
    First Comment Photogenic
    Hey! Thank you for the tips! I have been protesting from a power wheelchair since 2017. Before that, I was on two legs. ;) 

    I hope it's okay to add a few things. In our current climate, protests are more volatile. I always recommend to people with mobility limitations and/or using mobility aides to keep their eye on exits: where are the curb cuts as I am rolling along the march, if they are blocked off what can I do, etc. Always have an exit strategy. 

    I was very close to being arrested at a peaceful protest in 2018 in Philadelphia. The police had barricaded the curb cuts and when they asked protesters to move locations, I was attempting to follow the orders but I was stuck. The curbs were too high to jump off into the street without damaging my chair, tipping it, etc. It was an area of the city that was very old. 

    I was the last one remaining, rolling around trying to figure out how to get out of that area, and the Riot Police surrounded me and started threatening me with detainment for noncompliance of orders and were trying to remove me from my power wheelchair. I did try to calmly explain why I couldn't move, but their interactions with protesters who actually did not want to move made them on high alert and they were not listening. Thankfully, a lawyer on site saw me and intervened, escorting me and having the police remove the barricades. I continued the peaceful protest after that incident. 

     I love your post as a whole, and agree with the mentality that we need to stop "Asking politely". When people say that, it's definitely a "seen but not heard" thought process. I often have people ask me why I am fighting for disability rights when we have the ADA [but that is a whole other conversation.]

    Thank you again, and stay safe out there!
  • stephanie426
    stephanie426 Moderator Posts: 81 Moderator
    10 Comments First Anniversary 5 Likes First Answer
    Hey @LWolf12 ! Thanks for adding to the list! You make some really great points. 

    One thing I want to add after reading you post is that you should know your rights as a wheelchair user if you get arrested. For example, you have the right to be transported in a wheelchair accessible manner. Police officers may try to take you away from you equipment or may try to shut down your power chair while allowing others to continue moving around on their legs - this is not allowed. You have the right to the same movement as everyone else under arrest. I definitely recommend taking a "Know Your Rights" Training, and to learn specifics about your rights as a disabled protestor, you should learn from ADAPT. 
  • LWolf12
    LWolf12 Member Posts: 2
    First Comment Photogenic
    Hey! Thank you for that. I did a bunch of work, training, and protesting with ADAPT and took the "Know Your Rights" Training. Unfortunately, with our current administration and police force, they actively ignore what rights people have on the books. I was glad legal aid stepped in because I was stating that I had the right to be moved in my wheelchair, expressing I was attempting to comply with their orders however the curb cuts were blockaded, etc etc. Just because the rights are written in the laws means that the police are going to follow them in a riot situation--or in general. It's unfortunate, but I've had it happen often. 

  • stephanie426
    stephanie426 Moderator Posts: 81 Moderator
    10 Comments First Anniversary 5 Likes First Answer
    Ha. I'd have to say with any administration the police will ignore your rights. I advise that people should know their rights when being arrested so that you can know what to document in order to be able to consider bringing a lawsuit against the department afterwards! We have been successful in bringing suits against several departments across the country for violating the ADA! Beyond that, I think it also really helps to bring great media attention to our issues when we get arrested - the images can be compelling!

    For example, here are a few images of some of my arrests:

  • ambercollie
    ambercollie Moderator Posts: 191 Moderator
    100 Comments 25 Awesomes Second Anniversary 25 Likes
    Thank You both for all this great info on protesting. It was very eye opening and those photos @stephanie426 yes images CAN be compelling! 
    You’ve been a part of making change happen.