Last Saturday, about 2,500 people marched in the 8th Annual Disability Pride Parade in Chicago. People came from far reaches of the country, and people from outside of the United States. In one way or another every parade participant made their way to Chicago to celebrate disability history, celebrate disability culture and draw strength from the support generated by thousands of empowered people.
Each year, I look forward to parade because of the opportunity to bring people together for the Open Mic on the eve of the parade, and the chance to march with Little People of America. For several years in a row, my wife and I have organized the Open Mic. For the Open Mic, on the evening before the parade, a group of about 60 to 80 people gather at the First United Methodist Church, which is across the street from the plaza that plays host to the program that follows the parade. Then, about 20 performers are given five minutes to recite, read, sing, dance or just talk up on stage.
This year, I tried to make the event a little better than in years past. I tried to tighten the production. Rather than introduce each performer one by one, I divided the performers into groups, setting it up so that each performer within his or her respective group would follow one after the other without individual introductions. The goal was to streamline the production and to give the transitions between performers a more polished feel.
My plan didn't work. I did not do an adequate job of prepping the performers, and I didn't assign a stage manager whose job it would have been to shepherd the performers to the wings just before their spot in the program. As a result, there were big gaps in time between performers, and I often had to retake the stage to remind a performer it was his or her turn to address the audience.
In addition to tightening the Open Mic performance, my other goal was to increase the number of people who marched with the Little People of America contingent on the day of the parade. Two years ago, either seven or eight people marched. Last year, because of the rain, we had only four or five. This year, I hoped at least ten would march. At the start of the parade, only five people lined up to march with Little People of America.
Though I didn't reach my individual goals at this year's parade, I did learn something that goes beyond any personal successes or let-downs of mine. Each previous year of the parade, I'd reflected on what the event meant to me. Afterwards, I would talk about what pride and empowerment meant to me. This year, perhaps for the first time, I understood what the parade means to the community.
At the tail end of this year's Open Mic, Catherine Odette, the 2011 Grand Marshal and an organizer of the Disability Pride March in 1992, spoke to the audience. In front of the microphone, Odette stressed the importance of the individual disability voice. She underscored the value of getting in front of a microphone, in front of scores of people who will actually listen to you and support you, and saying, singing or reciting whatever one desires. For Odette, the transition times between performers and the introductions of the performers didn't matter. What mattered was that we all had a stage from which to express ourselves. Though I hoped for a Tony worthy performance, the point of the Open Mic is not accolades. It is to give everyone several minutes of stage time.
My eyes opened again, a few times, on parade day. Little People of America started with a group of five, including my friend Joe from LPA, who was marching in the parade for the first time. By the time we finished, nine people were in our group. First, as we marched, one of Joe's friends who had come from Michigan, and a friend of hers from Chicago, joined our group. Then a local woman, who volunteers where I work, joined our group. With the additions, our LPA group was up to eight people. With just a block or so left before we reached Daley Plaza and the end of the Parade, just as we reached the building where my wife Katie and her friends were watching the parade, Tekki of LPA joined the contingent. Earlier in the day, Tekki had left a message on Katie's phone, telling us that she wouldn't be able to make the event. But there she was, with Katie and her friends. When the LPA group approached the spot where Katie and her friends were positioned, Tekki moved into the street to join us, bringing our numbers to nine. Later, I asked Tekki, “I thought you couldn't make it?” She looked me straight in the eye, with a very serious expression. “I wasn't going to,” she said, and paused. “But I just had to come.”
That evening, long after the parade and the parade celebration in Daley Plaza, a group of us hung out in Joe's hotel room. We sat there, drinking beer, eating pizza and sharing stories about everything from work, to disability, to homework assignments back in second grade. Joe's friend, who had come from Michigan and joined LPA's contingent in the parade, was also in the room. I had met her the night before after the Open Mic. From her stories on the night of the Open Mic, at the parade, and in the hotel room, it became clear that this weekend was much more than a five block walk up Dearborn Street in downtown Chicago. From her stories, it became clear that just days before the parade, she wasn't sure how she would get to Chicago. And once she was in Chicago, she wasn't really sure where she would stay. But one thing was clear, she was coming to Chicago and she was going to march with thousands of other people with disabilities. She wanted to feed off the empowerment, and, like Tekki, she 'just had to come.'
Listening to what Tekki had to say, and to what Joe’s friend from Michigan had to say, I realized how important parade weekend is to hundreds of people. It doesn’t matter how polished the transitions are between speakers at the Open Mic, and it doesn’t matter how many people march with LPA in the parade. What matters is that everyone who has something to say is given the chance to say it, and that everyone who wants to be at the parade can be a part of it.