When I go out in public, either to work, watch my friends perform, or just run errands, there’s always one thought that runs through my head: Be small. Don’t take up space. I have such a paranoia of intruding on other people that my focus turns to how I might be in the way for everyone else, and I wind up getting in the way of myself. I’ve left events even after reassurance that no one was being bothered by my presence. I’ve even taken apart my wheelchair in the middle of an event before, just to insure that I wasn’t too big, too demanding, simply by existing.
Women have recently been encouraged to “Take up space! Speak up! Be visible! Be proud!” But having a disability adds another layer to that call to action. My friend, who is also disabled, posted a question to Facebook today: “Am I, as a woman, intimidating?” And you know what? As a successful, prominent, disabled woman...maybe she is. Because disabled women aren’t expected to be strong and assertive.
Recently at a show I was covering, I experienced for the first time (what at least felt like) a photographer intentionally blocking my shot. I had arrived to the stage early, to be sure I had a good view of the performers. When you’re stuck in one place for an entire set, while other photographers are able to move throughout the pit, it’s good to find a good location early on. Another photographer arrived a bit later, and planted himself right in front of me, between my wheelchair and the stage. For nearly the entire set, I had to work around a man who had the whole stage to choose from, and instead chose to shoot standing in front of me, occasionally even backing into me. I left the set in tears. An entire summer learning how to advocate for myself, and it ended by being blocked by another photographer, and helpless to do anything about it.
My partner asked me afterwards why I hadn’t said anything. I tried to explain, but with different life experiences, it was hard for him to understand. Speaking up would have made me visible. Speaking up would have made me less small.
But not speaking up left me angry, frustrated, and unable to do the best job I could. Not speaking up leaves me wishing weeks later that I would have said something, done something. I don’t need to be small. My inner voice tells me I should be grateful for these accommodations, and in return make myself smaller. It’s time to tell that voice that it’s wrong. There is no reason I need to make myself smaller to make others feel bigger. As disabled women, we too are allowed to take up space, speak up, be visible, be proud. We are valuable, valid, and it’s time to be seen.
Speak up, all women. Take up the space you deserve. Make people listen, and share your amazing ideas. The world is better when you are a part of it.