Peaceful protest has long been one of the key methods used by people campaigning for a better world. When we picture what a protest looks like, we might imagine a group of people standing or marching together, chanting or singing loudly, and waving banners and placards. But what happens when the people attending protests aren’t able to do all of these things? And what might accessible protest look like?

“One of the things I’ve said countless times is: The longer you live, the more likely it is that you’ll become disabled at some point. And if we just thought in those terms, I wouldn’t have to do this work.”

- Alisa Grishman, disabled activist

We have a couple of objects in our collections that show how people have found different ways to have their say at protests. The first of these is currently on display in our Defining Peace exhibition. This hard hat, adorned with messages opposing the allocation of funding to the Trident Nuclear programme instead of NHS hospitals, was created as an alternative solution to carrying a heavy placard, which the wearer was unable to do. It was first used on a march in London during March 2017 for the National Health Service, where the wearer was part of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament bloc.  

Helmet from CND campaigner, 2017

The second object that we wanted to share from our collection is this banner made to sit on the headrest of a wheelchair, which was used at the January 2017 Women’s March in York, and again at a protest against Donald Trump later in the month. Like many of the banners we have at the museum, it was created using the applique technique, used here to add the blue and white women’s march logo. As well as being a beautiful object, this banner also gives the person using it an alternative way to tell the world what they’re protesting about in a similar way to the builder’s helmet. The addition of these objects to our collection serves as a reminder of the many different ways that people can have their voice heard, but also the barriers that disabled people might have to overcome in order to participate in traditional forms of protest.

Wheelchair banner, Anne Norton, 2017

For some people, how to get across their message at a protest isn’t their biggest concern, as there are other issues that might exclude them from participating altogether. For wheelchair users, the route or location of a march might not be accessible if it hasn’t been planned with everyone in mind, and for people without mobility aids the need to be standing or walking for longer periods of time can cause problems. For those that are able to march easily, there can be other issues: deaf protestors may not be able to engage in important speeches at the events without signed interpretation, or the noise and crowds could be too overwhelming for some protestors.

“Concrete is usually more accessible than grass areas for those with walking aids/wheelchairs”

- Dominique Coleman

The risks of protesting are also not necessarily the same for everybody. A report from the Scottish Activist Legal Project found that disabled protestors faced additional difficulties if they were arrested, including trouble accessing important medications, and a lack of suitable facilities where they were being held. Disabled activists also reported being “singled out” by officers while protesting and made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe, while others reported having equipment taken from them before protests began.

This is not to say that protest has to be inaccessible, and for a long time disabled activists and organizers have found ways to adapt the traditional forms of protest, as well as finding new ways to make their voices heard. Disabled activists protesting against media portrayals of disabled people and a lack of legal protections in the UK in the 1990s used their wheelchairs to block streets, chained themselves to public transport, and lay down in the roads. In 2020, black disabled activists in Washington DC organized a separate protest in response to the killing of George Floyd, where marchers demanded sign language interpretation at protests using the phrase “Sign his name”. At a later protest in Milwaukee, ear plugs were offered, and American Sign Language interpreters taught marchers how to sign “Black Lives Matter”. The coronavirus pandemic has also made mask-wearing and social distancing important for immunocompromised protestors, and this has become a feature of many events.

The two objects we have in our collection represent stories where people have adapted traditional protest materials to get their message across, but there are also many stories where people have changed what protest looks like more broadly. As well as adaptations on an individual level, for some disabled activists there need to be changes built into the structure of protests in order for them to be accessible. People continue to find new ways to do this, and the wide use of social media has also opened up more potential routes for people who might traditionally have been excluded from marches and demonstrations. Peaceful protest can take many forms, and it’s exciting to think about what new kinds of objects we might receive over the coming years that tell those stories.

“Right now the definition of protest is very able-bodied; it’s a physical standing up in the street holding signs. There are many different ways to protest. There are disabled people who are protesting in the streets using wheelchairs or other assistive devices. There are disabled people protesting from home through social media, through calls to their representatives, so we should expand the definition of protest. We also need to make sure the physical and digital protests are accessible. Content online needs to have captions, sign language interpreters and images need to also include image descriptions.”

- Haben Girma, African American disabled activist

You can see the builder’s helmet alongside more of the key objects from our collection as part of our Defining Peace exhibition at Kala Sangam in Bradford City Centre until July 29th 2022.

Sources:

Disabled-activist-guide.pdf (scottishactivistlegalproject.co.uk)

The history of disability activism - Feature - Voice Magazine

Disabled and Ready to Protest? Here Are Some Resources You’ll Need (healthline.com)

Why People With Disabilities Are Protesting Like Hell | HuffPost UK Impact (huffingtonpost.co.uk)

When disabled people took to the streets to change the law - BBC News

'Police seize disabled activists' wheelchairs' ahead of XR protests | Metro News

Disabled people fight police violence with accessible protests – International Action Center (iacenter.org)