Building an Accessible World with the YMCA Community
Last updated: October 13, 2023, at 7:09 a.m. PT
Originally published: October 12, 2023, at 2:27 p.m. PT
By Steven Hatting
Chief Experience & Philanthropy Officer, YMCA of Greater Seattle
The further I get into my life and career, and since joining the YMCA community earlier this year, the greater my appreciation grows for the learning opportunities that have been afforded to me. And as we mark October as Disability Justice Month, it strikes me that the foundations of true disability justice and equity start way outside the workplace.
For me, growing up in a very small town, my earliest recollections of what it meant to be disabled involved my cousin Darin. Darin lived in another rural community about 20 miles away from me—practically another time zone for grade schoolers back then. Our families and a few others got together on all the major holidays. Darin was partially paralyzed. Back then, his wheelchair and braces really never registered with me because that was the way I always knew him to be. Kids being kids, my main memories of Darin include him sitting among the fallen leaves (or the snow in his red and blue snowmobile suit after Thanksgiving) and playing the role of our all-time snapper in our backyard football games. I also remember how funny Darin could be when we feasted at the holiday dinner table, ensuring that our parents would insist we go back outside to “burn off our energy” the moment we set down our forks.
It was just normal kid stuff when I was growing up. Playing and being together. All of us.
Looking back as an adult, I understand now how much harder everything must have been for Darin, but I also think that treating him differently or any overprotectiveness probably would have made him feel like he didn’t belong.
Of course, my ignorance (or was it innocence?) gave way to more social awareness and perhaps too much sensitivity to allow myself to fully see beyond people’s disabilities at times. Fortunately, some of the simple wisdom of my youth was rekindled as a parent. My own children reminded me that curiosity is a totally natural, honest thing. They weren’t shy about asking direct questions with genuine interest, even when their words made me cringe. That said, I found that most times, answers were provided with smiles and similarly blunt questions back. I probably learned as much as my curious kids and even unlearned some unintended, but still unfair, assumptions I may have made about others’ comforts and capabilities. Knowing better than to ask wasn’t really knowing much of anything at all.
Now, at the Y, I am grateful for our commitment to keep learning and growing. We are truly focused on engaging with ALL people to build a stronger, more inclusive community. To this end, disability justice is vital to our mission. That starts with leaders who ask important questions, like my colleague, April Snow. April is the Y’s director of donor services and brings a lot to the table. She is outgoing and understanding. April regularly challenges those around her to care about those around them. It's that caring nature that drew her to becoming a nurse in an earlier phase of her career.
Unfortunately, April’s plans and her life changed suddenly when she was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Being new to what it meant to be physically disabled, April initially struggled to find answers and resources. Fortunately for all of us, she found needed connections at the Y. April soon came to realize that "disability is a part of us, and we're just as capable of doing things with appropriate accommodations." Yet those accommodations that should be so simple are too often an afterthought because everyday tasks typically are designed for fully able-bodied and neurotypical people. "Even at the laundromat...the folding counters are standing height. Everything is harder," April shared.
Her caring nature, combined with a growing grasp of the nuances and complexities of disability justice, moved April to action. In 2020, April was named as the chair of the Seattle Disability Commission. She wanted to bring what she learned back to the YMCA of Greater Seattle and started our Intersectional Disability Employee Resource Group. Shortly after, she became involved with the YUSA Committee for Disability Justice.
"We need education. We need more groups. We need them across the nation to learn and let people know it's a safe space and that it's OK to say that you're disabled or that you have a disability," April explained. "When you do universal design, you are allowing us space for everyone you're bringing in employee-wise."
Creating a more inclusive space is great for everyone, which is exceptionally beneficial for morale, productivity, and retention in the workplace.
This approach translates to everyday life as well. Just think of the crosswalk ramps at so many corners in Seattle. While these gentle slopes were originally designed for those in wheelchairs, they also help support health and safety for people who are blind or using canes, caregivers pushing strollers...even runners and bike riders. What started as a wheelchair solution became a universal tool.
April encourages all organizations and businesses to think about how to provide their services to disabled people and to problem-solve from multiple angles. Do your class hours support disabled parents or workers? Are you considering different disabilities (whether physical or mental) or different cultures when coming up with your designs? Are you creating spaces at events that allow people to remove themselves from overstimulating sound or visuals? Asking these kinds of questions is a great place to start.
If you want to learn more about disability justice, think about getting involved with organizations like the Seattle Disability Commission and begin by listening, understanding, and prioritizing space for disabled voices.
This October, the YMCA of Greater Seattle is honoring Disability Justice Month. Year-round, our members tell us stories about their experiences and wellness journeys. They tell us about the programs that have fostered connections during difficult fights with depression. They share how our aquatics classes allow them to move their bodies or how our chronic disease prevention and management classes altered their lives for the better. They share their stories of finding themselves through counseling services. The services we offer become a part of a treatment plan as an opportunity to promote holistic health. More importantly, they become a place for community that gives everyone a chance to find the life they want to live. That doesn't happen unless we continue making the Y a more welcoming and accessible place for all. We encourage other leaders like April who see what needs to be done and encourage others to start viewing the world from multiple lenses. Their vision and voices will benefit us all.