Protesting Tips for Wheelchair Users

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. 

About Stephanie Woodward: Stephanie is a brand ambassador for Quantum Rehab® and works as a disability rights activist. She has received many awards for helping communities become more accessible, as well as for her actions in fighting for the rights of disabled individuals as it relates to Medicaid and other support services. Click here to learn more about Stephanie.