(The morning of the march I double checked our place in the parade, D80, and we headed out. We were anxious. Would everyone find it? Would we be welcome? Would we all have fun? Would the weather hold? I worred about things I shouldn't have to worry about. Would the crowd accept us? Would we be laughed at? Would someone, of the thousands watching, yell out a hurtful word? I worried.)
Sitting eating a hot dog, fresh grilled from a street vendor, listening to a Phillipine marching band slip effortlessly from Danny Boy to Waltzing Matilda while a group of people with disabilities and their staff from Vita donned green bow ties and leis to march in the Saint Patricks Day parade, my worries began to lessen. Simply looking around at those getting ready to march, there was a sense of something quite unique. Absolute, unquestioning, inclusivity. We were placed to march behind Shriners driving around in motorized outhouses and bathtubs and in front of a fleet of Delorean cars. We marched carrying two banners. One from Vita. One from Down Syndrome Ireland. We marched as an example of our theme. Diversity, Difference, Disability. We were of many colours, many faiths, many types of ability and disability. We walked, we rolled, we danced.
(Last year I had watched the parade, on a shivering cold day, and noticed that everyone seemed to be there. Everyone but people with disabilities. This day seemed like the perfect example of 'come one, come all'. The organizers of the parade at a cellular level seemed to understand inclusivity. Many, if not most, in the parade were not Irish. People came to celebrate a sense of Irish welcome. A sense that 'today we are all one, today we are all Irish'. There wasn't even a whiff of the xenophobia which grips nations with such ferocity that their hearts can bearly beat. No, this was a place that would welcome, I believed the participation of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities would be unquestionably included if we but asked. A few days later, after chatting with Manuela, it was decided that Vita would participate in next years parade.)
Joe, a man with Down Syndrome, came to the march with a sense of anticipation. As soon as the music started, his feet started moving. He danced in place with a smile that went from sole to soul. Then we began. We headed up Saint George street and, clutching to the Vita banner with one hand he raised the other and began to wave. He never brought the hand down. He waved and smiled at everyone. He was out. He was proud. He was there to celebrate. Crowds of people lined the street and if he noticed them simply sitting watching he'd catch their eye and wave. They, to a one, waved back. Many applauded. Joe was not alone in his enthusiasm all those members there marched with pleasure. Staff, some celebrating Saint Patrick's for the first time, were completely in the spirit of the parade.
(I found their website and sent in an application for us to march. I made it clear who we were. I mentioned that we would carry our own banner and the banner from Down Syndrome Ireland. They had agreed to send us their banner and May and Pat from DSI were excited to join with us in this venture. We'd shared resources back and forth as individuals and agencies, this seemed a natural extension of Internatiional partnership. I waited in breathless hope for a message to let us know that we'd been accepted to march. I called one of the people on the exectuive committee, and got a 'of course you are, the more the merrier' ... all said with an Irish lilt.)
One woman in a power wheelchair was riding south, with a dispirited look on her face. She saw our group and stopped. Her jaw fell open. There we were. One scooter. One power chair. Several people with other disabilities walking. She began to wave with such vigor that our banner flapped in the breeze. Several times older people would notice us. Notice particularly Joe, and their faces would change from shock, to disbelief ... then ... amazingly ... to joy. It's like they had always known that something was missing from these celebrations, and today those cast away in their generation, were here, home.
(The people working the parade where all about smiles and greeting. There were none of the sort that become officious when holding a clipboard. No, people causally gave instructions and assured that everyone was in their place. It was all done without muss or fuss or even much confusion. I asked a couple of people from the organizing commitee and got plesant answers and a 'thanks for being here' attitude. Joe and I waited for the group to arrive and then from all directions came staff, came members, came spouses, came grandchildren, came neighbours. We were here in the cold and we were ready.)
Several of those who walked with us had lived lives in institutions. What a walk they've had. From shame to pride. From isolation to inclusion. From shadow to sunlight. I can't imagine what that parade must have meant to them. Hands raised to wave, wishing well, wishing celebration, to all. It is one thing to watch a parade, it is another to be the parade. And we were. For much of the parade our two banners were carried side by side. A demonstation of the international fellowship of the disability community. A remarkable collaboration between two agencies founded in two countries but with one heart and one mind - a better and brighter future for all.
(I sent an email to all staff when we were home. Joe and I couldn't finish the march because we had a long drive to the Maritimes ahead of us. We waved them on and watched them march down the street. Strong and proud. Here's what I said, in part in that email:)
We did something good today.
By being in the streets we took hold of the imagination of the community. We were where we belonged, as part of it all.
That's always what we've wanted.
For all to finally and completely and absolutely mean actually ALL
Cathy, one of the supervisors marching that day wrote an email back. In it she said that on the last leg of the march, Joe couldn't contain himself. He jumped out in front of the banner and did an Irish jig down the street. Now when people waved he called back, 'I love you all.'
I don't know how St. Patrick's day became inclusive but it did. And it's become a model for how the world could be.
It is said that St. Patrick drove the snakes out of Ireland ... may he also drive the hate out of hearts so that the welcome with which we celebrate his day become the welcome we experience every day.
Happy St. Patricks.