Sunday, July 25, 2010

Pride Revolution -- The 2010 Disability Pride Parade

Last year, I wrote about marching with Little People of America in the 2009 Disability Pride Parade as a significant experience. In a way, marching with five or six other little people was an experience that turned the tables. As little people, because of physical difference, we are often the subject of attention. Attention for which we most often don't ask. But as part of the parade, we asked for attention. We wanted the people who lined the streets along the parade route to look at us and cheer. The experience was empowering because, unlike so many other times in public, those of us who marched as part of LPA in the parade asked for the attention. We were in control.

With the memories of the 2009 Parade still fresh in mind, I looked forward to the 2010 Disability Parade. Judging from the number of people in the Chicago area who said they'd march with LPA, I thought we'd have our largest LPA contingent ever. I looked forward to an experience even more empowering than 2009.

The weather threatened to interfere with my parade hopes. The night before the parade, the skies opened up with a furry. From my bedroom, the rain pounded against my windows. Lightning flashed and thunder roared throughout the night. In some areas of Chicagoland, more than five inches of rain fell within just a few hours. So much rain that at least one Chicago expressway and two train lines shut down.

Though not as hard, the rain still fell in the morning, discouraging many people who signed up for the parade to leave their homes. Many wanted to come, but couldn't make it downtown because of the flooded highways and "el" tracks, (fortunately, I live just a few blocks from the parade step-off area).

A few minutes before the start of the parade, I walked down the street on which the floats, vehicles and groups of people lined up. I didn't see anyone from LPA. I was disappointed, but not too surprised. I knew that because of the rain the Orange Train Line was down in some spots. Tom and Laureen Lash, the organizers of the Chicago LPA contingent, take the Orange Line to get downtown.

As the parade started, I put my Access Living (a disability non-profit for which I work, with a large contingent in the parade) shirt over my LPA shirt and jumped up on the organization's float. The Chicago Disability Pride Parade has been around since 2004, but this was the first year I rode on top a float. It might not be the same as riding in the Gay Pride Parade with the Stanley Cup, but I got a thrill out of waving to the crowd along with about 30 other Access Living staff, consumers and volunteers on top of the float, especially when the driver, for reasons unbeknownst to me, periodically gunned the engine to about 20 miles per hour.

At Daley Plaza, the end of the parade, I jumped off the float and ran about a block back down the street to where my wife stood along the parade route. For the past few years, rather than march in the parade, she has organized groups of people to come cheer the parade. She stood at the corner of Dearborn and Madison with our friend Tekki, a local LPA member who cheers along with Katie. "I couldn't find anyone else from LPA," I said when I stood before Katie and Tekki.
"There they are," Katie said, pointing south down Dearborn.

Sure enough, there they were. About two blocks down the street, a good one block behind the nearest other contingent, I could see Tom and Laureen, along with Dave Partak and one other person I didn't recognize. Turns out, instead of taking the Orange Line from Midway Airport, the group took a shuttle bus farther north along the train line to a spot where the tracks weren't affected by the weather. With a bit of determination, they made it to the parade, all be it after every other group had started marching. As soon as Tom, Laureen and the others were off the train, they fell in behind the last parade group. Half way through the parade, hundreds of feet separated them from the second to last contingent.

"Let's go join them!" Tekki said. We started back down Dearborn, waving to the four members of LPA as the gap between us closed. After Tekki and I joined the group, Tom quickly explained what happened, then the six of us started marching again. Since we were the last group, several police squad cars, and a police van, which served as parade escorts, were right behind us.

Considering the number of times that I've explained how empowering the 2009 parade was (twice here and many other times to anyone who will listen to me in person), I was a bit overwhelmed when I looked up at the remaining two blocks between our group and the end of the parade. It's one thing to be surrounded by other screaming groups within a parade. But this year, we were all alone. The next to last group had nearly finished. It's not like thousands of strangers lined the street like the Saint Patrick's Day parade, but a lot of people were out and about, and everyone of them, many with cameras, was looking at us.

But I soon channeled my feelings into my memories of 2009 and of the excitement leading up to the parade. As we moved north up Dearborn, I waved and shouted out, "LPA," "LPA." When our small group reached Madison, Katie ran out from her perch on the corner, took our photo, and shouted "you gotta do a cheer." None of us knew any "LPA" cheers, so Katie suggested we do the traditional, 'gimme an L', etc. So we did. And some people along the curbsides joined us, cheering us as we passed -- cheering us for who we are. Not, as many people of short statured have experienced at times in their lives, jeering us for what we are not (average stature). It was pretty cool.

The more parades we have, the more we will distance ourselves, not just from those memories but from a culture that festers such behavior. No matter what the weather next year, and no matter what size the LPA contingent will be, I look forward to the 2011 Disability Pride Parade.

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