The Scholarship I Almost Won Might Help Me Change The World

Tell us about a situation where you’d hoped against all hope, where the odds were completely stacked against you, yet you triumphed.

In 2013, I was granted a partial scholarship to attend the Netroots Nation Conference in San Jose, California. However, I needed more because I have to bring Ledcat with me – traveling by myself to  a new place for a large conference is a bit of a challenge with anxiety. So I figured out a way to earn another scholarship and offset the additional expenses. To be fair, Ledcat does blog with me and she does a lot of the background research with me as well. So she’s coming as an accommodation to my disability – this is something that is very difficult to explain to people making decisions. Although technically, they aren’t supposed to ask – that’s how the ADA works.

So I found out that Democracy for America was having a scholarship competition based on popular vote. They were going to award 5 scholarships to people who actually accrued the most votes and distribute another 10 or so based on merit/need. I assumed I had no chance to win on volume so I wrote a great essay and figured I would do my best to garner votes and show initiative.

So I began the arduous process of crowdpolitiking – I posted daily pleas for votes and I contacted every single person that I knew on Facebook (over 2,000) individually to ask for their vote. Most people were very receptive and took a moment to cast a vote. dfa_nn_logo-58aa5d4b7cc6e4cfd6c5e22a084d88bf

I finished in 12th place out of more than 100. I was astounded!  The top 8 vote getters had more than 1500 votes each, some upwards of 6000. I could see early on that they had platforms and reach I couldn’t touch – producers of radio programs, affiliates with major news outlets, etc. But another solid group of us were in the 500-700 range (and all received merit scholarships) including folks who again I could tell had bigger pools of social connections than me.

I really wanted to go. I wanted to attend the conference and I wanted to see the Pacific Ocean. I had felt so awful about things after being disabled and feeling like I lost my intellectual capacity. And I wanted it to be okay – better than okay – that I needed accommodations.

With DFA, it was. I received the scholarship which was astounding. I immediately asked for an accommodation for a hotel room and they didn’t blink or ask any questions – they were so respectful and reasonable. I even had a few local printing shops ready to outfit me with Pittsburgh gear so I could bump into the other Pgh people at the conference.

So I persevered – I asked everyone I could think of to vote for me. I reconnected with all sorts of people and made no apologies for asking for their vote. I had a strong case – I was the only candidate from Pgh and one of the few LGBTQ persons in the entire contest. It was an exhausting but exhilarating experience to pour that much energy into crowdvoting.

Sadly, my first scholarship fell through. Negotiating accommodations becomes tricky when other people impose their “perceptions” on what you need or  worry how it will look to other people. That was a bitter lesson but we ended up being invited to the beach (Atlantic but still awesome) by a friend and so we had a nice getaway on our own.

A session at NN12 with Zach Wahls (far left), Ian Awesome (center) and Todd Heywood (right)
A session at NN12 with Zach Wahls (far left), Ian Awesome (center) and Todd Heywood (right)

And I learned a valuable lesson about what it takes to make a crowdsourced project work. I’m very careful nowadays when people ask me to support their project (beyond my own vote) because I know how valuable that capital can be.

I also learned how allies can support persons with disabilities and how they cannot. It speaks volumes when someone follows the spirit and letter of the ADA by simply saying “Of course we can accommodate that request” with no wavering about the extra cost or how it might look or if people will care. I felt valued, I felt visible and I felt victorious.

You may or may not be surprised at how little thought it put into accessibility here in Pittsburgh, even among the most elite progressives. The PR for events rarely mentions accessibility so you have to ask. A lot of “cool” or interesting spaces in our region are not fully accessible because they were built over 150 years ago. Accessibility is not cheap – so I am often told there is “just one step” which isn’t a real barrier for me personally, but wow – it sends a message. I’ve been told that persons who need accommodations can use backdoors, alleys, even be carried to the bathroom. I’ve been asked to provide training, training that I am not qualified to offer because I suppose the organization can’t figure out whom to ask. I’ve asked concert venues about access to water – yes, water – and been told “too bad” or just ignored. I can’t bring my own water in, I can’t bring my own empty cup in, I have to buy their bottled water and sometimes refill it in the bathroom. That’s classy.

The larger LGBTQ community is better only when it comes to certain elements. I’ve been invited to numerous events, but the scholarships won’t cover bringing “a companion” because I’m not physically disabled. I’ve struggled with events not having enough water, not taking into consideration so many small things. I don’t think it is any worse than the general left community, just perhaps more disappointing because you’d hope there would be a sense of empathy. Even things like scheduling dinners for 9 PM in the evening are a challenge – it would just be nice if each event was willing to at least talk with folks like me to help me navigate – I don’t want you to reschedule dinner, but is it too much to ask if other options are available. Oh, that’s an entirely different post.

Believe me – this isn’t fun. I’ve had people question my intellectual capacity (Does Laura write your blog posts?) because I need a companion. I’ve had people compare her to a support pet. I’ve had to explain in far too much detail over and over again that she’s not out to get a freebie – she gives up her vacation time from work, her actual time and sometimes her money to support me. Because that’s what partners do. And even when someone equates her to a support dog, she smiles and continues to encourage me. Not because she wants to attend meetings and dinners and so forth.

The responsibility for accessibility lies squarely on the shoulders of the disabled and our advocates. Sometimes, we win and sometimes we don’t. When we do? I felt valued, I felt visible and I felt victorious.

That’s how people change the world.

Image: Allegheny Co DHS
Image: Allegheny Co DHS

PS: I did not apply this year to attend Netroots even though it was much closer to home (Detroit) simply because I am not emotionally up for another round of all the explaining. I am up for another round of being invited to the beach!

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