Accessible Platforms: How a Newsy Event Gave Disabled Women a Voice

Candace Coleman is here to set the record straight.

“Society does not know,” Coleman says with a shake of her head. “I don’t know why but people’s perception of disability is like ‘oh it’s done.’”

So Coleman, the Community Development Organizer for Racial Justice at Access Living, joined a panel of advocates at an event last night presented by Newsy and Access Living that dove into issues seldom discussed in society: dating and parenting as a disabled woman.

The event, “Sex, Love and Life: Navigating Womanhood with Disabilities” was the culmination of a months long investigation by Newsy into issues that affect women living with disabilities in Chicago. For Coleman, the opportunity to tell these stories is part and parcel with her activist mission.

“Stories give people a space to relate, feel, understand and see that we have a common humanity,” Coleman muses. “The intersectionality of Chicago’s issues literally come to our table. And it usually starts with stories of bullying.”

Paying attention to the stories of students with disabilities being treated punitively in schools was the cornerstone of Coleman’s early organizing work, exposing the school to prison pipeline that funneled black men with disabilities into penitentiaries. This experience—tethering stories to advocacy—gave her tools for accomplishing tactile changes while fighting against myriad misconceptions.

These misunderstandings are the consequence of inaccurate representations in the media. More than 95 percent of portrayals of disabled people are performed by people without disabilities. For the panelists last night, this was a problem. And social media was a powerful solution.

“It gives people access to the world for people with disabilities,” Coleman said. “My work has been expanded beyond Chicago—we set trends here—and social media plays a role in that. It gives us the opportunity to build platforms.

“And hold people accountable.”

The power of sharing experiences was emblematic of the Newsy program last night. Through the experiences and words of women living with disabilities, members of the audience learned about how they navigated dating, pregnancy, adoption, parenting, and dealing with abuse. Coleman thinks this is important, particularly in addressing society’s pervasive misconceptions of living as a disabled woman. People need to listen to disabled people tell their own stories, and Coleman needs people to hear what they have to say.

“Coming to spaces like this gives a human nature and quality to the conversation, and to hear what we have to say,” Coleman said. “We’re humans. We live in a society where having a disability is not the norm. Events like this give people exposure. It’s infuriating to feel like an alien all the time. Sometimes it feels like a broken record.”

While listening to the stories is a good place to start, there remains a litany of priorities on Coleman’s action list. First up is a direct action in Springfield on May 16th to advocate for higher pay for personal assistants, the people who form the backbone of care in the disability community. Follow Access Living on Twitter for more information on how to get involved.

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