Editor's Note: On Sunday, January 28, 20 readers took the stage at Valley Bar to perform true stories written, workshopped, and rehearsed during Bar Flies Boot Camp, a collaboration among Phoenix New Times, Changing Hands Bookstore, and Valley Bar. The theme was "Cheater Cheater." Topics ranged from weight loss to adultery. Jennifer Longdon — profiled in a New Times cover story in 2013 — told this story, which we thought particularly newsworthy.
I don't know her name. I've never met her before, but I've thought about her almost nonstop since the Phoenix women’s march on January 21. Despite the myth, wheelchair users don't all know each other. I never learned a secret handshake, but there is the knowing look, and the smile. The shared amusement, or perhaps bemusement when we hear, "There's just one stair! "We'll lift you!" It doesn't work like that.
I've decided her name was Crystal, or Tiffany. It seems all women in their 30s are named Tiffany. She had long, blonde hair that curled beautifully, and she held her body in a way I assumed meant that she'd been born with cerebral palsy. We passed during the march. She was half-reclined in a silver wheelchair, being pushed by a woman I'd guessed to be her mom. Mom wore a pink pussy hat over her silver hair, and chanted loudly along with the crowd, and my sister on wheels wore an "I'm With Her" T-shirt, and over the Hillary arrow was the universal wheelchair icon, superimposed.
Tiffany chanted and waved, surrounded by 20,000 of our closest friends, celebrating unity and solidarity and woman power. Even though this crowd went out of their way to smile and connect as they threaded through the streets, people didn't make eye contact with her. There was always a bubble of space around her. I know that bubble; it's wheelchair cooties. We're not actually contagious, but one can never be too sure, right?
It was clear from the beginning, that the diversity that we were celebrating didn't include ability — from the food-trucks blocking all of the wheelchair-accessible parking spaces, to the lack of access to the stage for my wheelchair. Even though I was a scheduled speaker, I learned 48 hours before the event that there would be no lift to get me to the podium. I spoke from the ground, behind the equipment. People with disabilities were reminded in subtle ways, and maybe not so subtle to us, that we were those people.
As the day wore on, I passed Tiffany and her mom once or twice in the crowd. They told me they liked my speech. They acknowledged the lack of accessibility. The mom asked if I knew where the wheelchair-accessible toilet might be. There were none on the Capitol lawn.
Tiffany had to go.
About 20 minutes later, I heard them coming before I saw them. Mom was moving through the crowd, moving the crowd off the sidewalk with just her voice. "Excuse me, coming through! Wheelchair passing!"
I heard the edge in her voice. The slightly panicked urgency. Fat tears rolled down Tiffany's cheeks.
She'd soiled herself because there was no bathroom for her to use.
They pushed quickly through this oblivious crowd drunk on chants and progressive solidarity. In this moment where the nation was headed home full of hope and self-congratulations, pumped up for the coming year, Tiffany left broken. Hurt, and humiliated.
Who would have known that toilets were a civil rights issue?
The hats were fabulous.