Between 3 million and 5 million people took to the streets as part of the Women's March the day after Donald Trump's inauguration. And on January 28 and 29, thousands of people descended on airports throughout the nation to protest Trump's “Muslim ban.”
I was not one of the protesters. I have myalgic encephalomyelitis (or chronic fatigue syndrome), a disease that has left me bedridden and unable to speak full sentences for the past two years, more than a year of which I was unable to eat, tolerate light, elevate my head, or laterally move my limbs. I am one of the disabled who cannot march. I can't even attend a demonstration in a wheelchair.
It is incredibly frustrating to oppose so many of the actions taken by a presidential administration still very much in its infancy and to not have a way to protest. A prime example is my contempt for President Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who was narrowly confirmed for the position after Vice President Mike Pence made the deciding vote. DeVos is at the very least ignorant to the legislative provisions set for special education and disability rights in our schools, which in many cases have been in place for decades.
Then there’s Neil Gorsuch, the federal appellate judge whom Trump just nominated to the Supreme Court. The American Civil Liberties Union has pointed out that Gorsuch has a disconcerting record when hearing cases on disability rights. And finally there is Trump himself, who has taken countless actions I want to protest, including the way he has treated disabled people.
But as much as I care about these issues and how our country's fate is hanging in the balance, any call to protest is an afterthought to my ailing health.
The recent demonstrations are an inspiring display of civic awareness and unity across many different groups, but there is one group consistently left out: people who suffer from disabling chronic illnesses, as well as physical and mental impairments.
By a 2015 estimate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 53 million Americans belong to this group of disabled people. This is a group that has long been cast aside, discriminated against, even disparaged. Donald Trump infamously mocked someone from this group — Serge Kovaleski, a New York Times reporter who has joint contracture in his right arm. And not to forget, Trump has begun the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which, if successful, is likely to be very troublesome for people with disabilities.
The unfortunate truth is people with disabilities are often left out of even the most inclusive protests. For instance, the Women's March — widely considered the largest protest in US history — did not, at least initially, include disabled women in its "guiding vision." It eventually evolved to briefly mention disabled women, but with only one direct reference to them and another oblique reference to the women who bear "the burden of care" for people with disabilities.
Even if they wanted to attend a demonstration, many disabled people are unable to transport themselves to public places. These individuals face challenges that make protesting not just cumbersome but nearly impossible. For others, like me, protesting in a public place is impossible. Ultimately I am, as are all disabled people, at the mercy of my body.
Despite those challenges, disabled people attended the Women's March. In fact, Ted Jackson, who was in charge of the march's accessibility logistics, told Vox that at least 45,000 people with disabilities were expected at the event, more than any other gathering of people with disabilities in US history. Those unable to attend took to the internet to protest, as part of an organized Disability March. Virtual protesters sent in personal statements and photos to be featured on the Disability March’s website on January 21.
I had every intention of participating in the Disability March, but because my condition worsened that week, I wasn't able to submit my photo and statement in time. I have since learned that the organizers were unable to upload the massive number of submissions before the protest. This is merely one example of how incredibly difficult it is to protest on the internet from home. It's like sending a letter without a mailing address and hoping it somehow finds the right person.
Nevertheless, virtual protest is still possible and can even be successful. Now Disability March organizers are urging people to start their own marches and include a “disability contingent,” allowing people with disabilities to participate virtually through an organizer’s self-hosted website, and by proxy as more capable people march on the streets. As disheartening as it was to not be able to participate in the recent protests, the thought of joining a contingent of disabled people online gives me hope for future demonstrations.
I also gain hope from marches in the past. On September 27, 2016, a day on which my health allowed me to interact online, I joined thousands of other people with myalgic encephalomyelitis in the Millions Missing protests, a global day of demonstrations for the multi-system disease that severely impairs the body's metabolic processes. Like many others, I protested virtually by asking politicians to raise awareness for the disease and by proxy by sending my shoes to be displayed at one of the protest sites.
The world’s first virtual protest by hologram took place in 2015 as thousands of people marched virtually outside the parliament building in Madrid, and a similar “ghost protest” took place in Seoul, South Korea, last year. And virtual protesters have participated in the Standing Rock anti-pipeline demonstrations as thousands of people used Facebook to “check in” at the site.
Now as anti-Trump demonstrations continue — with science-related protests, work stoppages, calls for the president’s tax forms to be released, and boycotts of consumer spending all in the works — I urge organizers to be more inclusive with their demonstrations. Adopt virtual and proxy formats. Doing so will only increase the protest’s impact — more people will participate, and more people will take notice. That is, after all, what every good protest is about.