Room for All
October is National Disability Awareness Month and I want to focus my column on an often-overlooked segment of the LGBTQ+ community.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports one in four adults in the United States have some type of disability. LGBTQ people are significantly more likely to self-report having at least one disability (36 percent) than are non-LGBTQ+ adults (24 percent), according to the 2020 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, a nationally representative survey of adults across the United States.
Earlier in my career, I served as a communications consultant to many disability nonprofits and became well-acquainted with the ways living with a disability impacts a person’s very existence. Fully participating in life’s activities for those living with some form of a disability requires intentional planning.
Among my own circle of friends, I know many people with mobility impairments. Others rely on hearing aids to fully comprehend speech when conversing in social situations; yet others wear corrective lenses to read and see clearly.
I personally avoid dining in very noisy places because of constant ringing in my ears due to tinnitus. When I needed to travel following recent foot surgery, reaching the gate required use of a wheelchair. And was possible only because mobility support was provided by the airport and airline.
Being wheeled through the airport was like an obstacle course with some people walking directly into me—oblivious to their surroundings. Others stared, apparently wondering why someone who looked fit needed this special treatment. Being subjected to people’s stares and curiosity was not a pleasant experience.
Since becoming Board President, I have met community members far beyond my personal network. Some say they moved here because of CAMP Rehoboth’s efforts to create an inclusive environment where they have a sense of belonging. Others, like community member Hope Vella, have at times not felt welcomed.
I first met Hope during Women’s FEST 2022 when she was serving on the committee providing accessibility support for people with disabilities attending the various events. Her story is a perfect example of why creating inclusive spaces does not happen by chance but instead results from intentional steps.
Hope moved to the area in 2017 with her former partner because the community was accepting/affirming of the LGBTQ+ community. Soon, she signed up to be a volunteer on the Women’s FEST committee and was looking forward to getting involved with CAMP Rehoboth. However, three weeks later Hope sustained significant injuries to her knees and legs when a piece of gym equipment malfunctioned. She initially required use of a wheelchair.
For anyone who knows Hope, this was not going to stop her from volunteering. But now she was looking for a role that allowed her to participate safely while in a wheelchair, and she needed assistance with finding a place to park and getting into the venue. Unfortunately, CAMP Rehoboth was not equipped at the time, at a largely volunteer-led and executed event, to accommodate this request.
Let me be clear that this is not an acceptable excuse. But it did serve as a wake-up call for CAMP Rehoboth leadership. To truly achieve our mission of building a safer community with room for all, we clearly have to include people with disabilities.
Hope believes in being a bridge and collaborating with others to find solutions. Instead of getting angry, a dream became a reality when Hope launched the Phoenix Accessibility Team to serve as a resource for organizations like CAMP Rehoboth to create inclusive spaces for people with disabilities.
Hope is exactly the right person to lead such a team, noting that “Disability has always been a part of my life because my mother is deaf, and I have fought lupus since childhood.” Prior to moving to Delaware, she had worked in Virginia for over 30 years, advocating for people with disabilities. Currently, she is pursuing her master’s degree in human services administration at Wilmington University. The Phoenix Accessibility Team has a powerhouse at its helm.
Thanks to Hope and her team, CAMP Rehoboth is taking positive steps forward. We are offering accessible beach wheelchairs for participants of the Women’s FEST Broadwalk, sign language interpreters for more events, and concierge services at SUNFESTIVAL.
Further, a portion of the Community Reinvestment Grant funds recently awarded to CAMP Rehoboth are being used to install electronic door openers on our main campus to improve accessibility at the facility.
CAMP Rehoboth Executive Director Kim Leisey, hired partly for her expertise in creating an environment at UMBC where people can thrive, notes that “When it comes to learning about others, especially those who are marginalized and oppressed, the responsibility is ours to educate ourselves.” ▼
Wesley Combs is CAMP Rehoboth Board President.
Pictured above: Hope, with three of her team members (l-r): Page Denise, Hope Vella, Barb Clipper, Graeme Davis