“My name is Imani Barbarin. I am a Black woman. I am wearing a pink sweater with red chin-length locks. This is an image description that is a form of access.”
Imani Barbarin, disability & inclusion activist and speaker, opened with these words during a fireside chat with Miya Cain, associate director at FSG, at the 2023 Collective Impact Action Summit. The conversation between Imani and Miya was moving and powerful. My reflections here capture the importance of supporting disabled people and just a snippet of Imani’s passion and brilliance in advocating for reflection and accessible spaces.
Setting the Context on Disability
There is a tendency to recognize disability as a physical difference, however, there are many forms of disability. And as Miya shared with change agents and practitioners at the beginning of the dialogue, disability touches every collective impact initiative because “disability touches all of us–whether we are disabled ourselves or we know someone who is disabled, whether we were born with a disability, or we develop one later. Whether it is visible or not.” Miya also noted that in the U.S., one in every four adults are disabled in some way (27% of adults), which means “if you are working in collaboration with 20 people, you likely have about five disabled people in your group.” Miya’s context on disability serves as a much-needed reminder to center care in all interactions with others and that disability intersects with every aspect of moving towards equitable systems change.
Reimagining Accessible Spaces
Imani defines an accessible culture or space as allowing people “to have as many options available as possible.” During the chat, Imani shared her story of having limited options available to feel supported as a Black-disabled woman. Imani noted that she struggled in college due to it being inaccessible and looked for examples of disabled adults. She came across Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, but the famous singers did not have the same experience as her. So Imani began to write on the intersections of being Black, disabled, and a woman and posted her writings online to create a representation that she wanted to see. Imani persevered, found folks with shared experiences, and received a degree in Creative Writing from Eastern University and a Master’s in Global Communications from the American University of Paris.
Imani’s story is a great testament to creating spaces of belonging and community when they are not present. Yet, her story is a reminder of the work that still needs to be done to ensure options are available to meet people where they are in any space. Imani highlights that accessibility is not a question of funding and whether tools exist. The question she asks people to consider and act on is, “Do we want tools to exist, and do we have the desire to interact with disabled people?”
Imani and Miya highlighted several calls to actions and ways to engage in creating accessible spaces for belonging:
Collaborate with disabled people in your community and ensure that those most marginalized are decision-makers and active participants.
- Imani shares that there is a deep-rooted assumption and narrative that disabled people cannot be the director or “reliable narrator” of their own stories and do not know what they are talking about regarding their livelihoods. Imani states that the best way to be inclusive of disabled people is for people in any community or organization to have humility in acknowledging others’ viewpoints and ways of understanding before their own. Imani also highlights the importance of patience and adapting your communication style to be more accessible (i.e., allocating more intentional time for explanation, collaboration, or brainstorming).
Reimagine what could be, such as reassessing who belongs and has access to spaces.
- I love Imani’s framing of reimagination. An important call-in Imani makes is that we all have different ways of what we think a space should look like, but what does it feel like to be in an accessible space? What will it feel like to be heard, understood, and affirmed? Imagination is an essential first step, and then describing the feeling of what could be to others is the next step before turning to actually creating these accessible spaces.
There is fear of saying the wrong thing, but “we have to come to the table; we don’t have to come perfectly.” Show up genuinely with humility and a growth mindset.
- Imani shared the importance of relearning what it means to show up for people because showing up for disabled people is not different from showing up for anybody else, but rather “it is listening to what somebody needs and being able to support or figure out how to support.” Imani highlights that there is no need to reinvent the wheel of “showing up for others,” and acknowledges that it takes time to build trust, genuinely know someone, and actively connect in an accessible way. An effort to engage with others is made when people are fully present, kind, and authentic.
- Rest tends to be viewed as laziness and not being productive. However, rest is just as important as eating, and not resting perpetuates a hustling (an on-the-go) culture that can be disabling and harmful to the body. Imani notes ableism shows up when rest is ignored and asks change agents and practitioners at the Summit, “What are you missing by not resting?” This question is also a form of reimagination: Imani asks “What could it mean to perform specific tasks differently,” or “What could it feel like to preserve ourselves?” Imani encouraged folks during their next busy day to write down what they did and how they did it (“Did you wash the dishes standing knowing that you’re tired? You could do them sitting. Nobody said you can’t, you know, no one is watching you.”).
I know I am worthy of rest, yet at times I am at fault for putting rest on the back burner when my personal or professional workload becomes heavy. I will be better at this. I appreciate Imani’s call-in to prioritize the needs of the most marginalized and the needs of self (i.e., resting). It is vital and possible to do both at the same time.
Reassess who belongs and has access to spaces.
Advocating for Disability Rights
Throughout the conversation, Imani and Miya discussed several ways to advocate for disability rights no matter the role in society or any organization:
- Research the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)–an act that protects disabled people from discrimination.
- Support policies around Home and Community-based Services (HCBS)–services that allow people with functional limitations to access person-centered care from their home and community.
- Ensure accessibility is in mind at the start and end of any endeavor.
- Ensure neighborhood sidewalks are not cracked, and ramps are not blocked.
- Support livable wages for everyone.
- Relearn how you view ableism and disability within self.
- When it comes to workplace disability for those who identify with a disability, create a support system amongst your peers. You can:
- Make sure people are invested in your accessibility.
- Brainstorm together, then come up with plans to present to your employer; there’s safety in numbers.
- Keep track of any conversations and have a hard copy of any paperwork.
What will it feel like to be heard, understood, and affirmed?
Additional Resources on Disability in the US
Towards the end of the conversation, Imani shared several resources for participants to stay informed and to learn more about disability in the U.S.:
- Crutches and Spice–Imani Barbarin’s website
- Disability Visibility Project–an online community dedicated to creating, sharing, and amplifying disability media and culture, founded by Alice Wong
- Autistic Self Advocacy Network–an advocacy organization run by and for people on the autism spectrum, founded by Ari Ne’eman
- Sins Invalid–a disability justice performance project co-founded by Patty Berne
- Disability Scoop–the largest news organization in the nation covering developmental disabilities, founded by Michelle Diament and Shaun Heasley
- A Disability History of the United States–a book by Kim E. Nielsen
- Black Disability Politics–a book by Dr. Sami Schalk
- Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist–a book by Judith Heumann
There are three takeaways that Imani wanted change agents and practitioners to leave the Summit with:
(1) the importance of believing in the experience of disabled people,
(2) validating the voices of disabled people, especially those close to you, and
(3) for people to be kinder to themselves around their own disabilities.
There are many insights and a-ha moments that I have gained from Imani’s wisdom and work. The questions I am left asking myself after Imani’s and Miya’s conversation are: When was the last time I allowed myself to imagine and wonder what could be? What role can I begin to play within my sphere of influence to ensure that in every space I enter or leave, in-person or virtual, there is a feeling of openness, bravery, respect, and kindness?
Listen to the full keynote conversation or read a transcript at Imani Barbarin: Creating Accessible Spaces for Belonging