Image Description: a burgundy background with white text and an image of a white cis gendered woman to the left. Text reads: Pandora mix tape; Yoga and Disability Justice; join us for a fireside chat on disability Justice with Jess Dene Schlesinger a white/Jewish queer, disabled femme teacher, healer, and social activist.
Click HERE to access the interview!
Jess Dene Schlesinger and Mushim Ikeda talk Access-Centered Movement and Meditation on KPFA’s Talk It Out Radio. [LISTEN]
By incorporating a Disability Justice framework (a movement founded and led by disabled, queer People of Color), trauma-informed language, and my lived experience as a disabled queer with chronic illness, I created a framework for teaching somatic-movement called Access–Centered Movement . The term “access-centered” was given to me by a Disability Justice activist in response to so many non-disabled movement teachers using the phrases “accessible” and “for all bodies” for their classes without doing the work necessary to be available for people with disabilities (I recognize the movement teachers using the phrase “all bodies” that are doing great work). Although well-intended, the impact has been harmful for those of us who are disabled, show up to a class, and quickly realize that it is not accessible for our bodies. Unfortunately, within capitalism and with limited resources, most environments are not accessible for all bodies. Using the phrase Access-Centered means that we are describing a process instead of a state of being, that we are radically prioritizing intersectional access, constantly striving to be more accessible, and using a Disability Justice framework.
When I center access for my classes, the first thing I think about is the tangible accessibility of a space: a.k.a. are people able to get through the door or participate in some way? I specifically search for buildings that are already accessible for many different types of disabilities: a space that is fragrance free, wheelchair accessible, has non-fluorescent lighting, near wheelchair accessible public transportation, has a parking lot, and provides a multitude of props and mats for people to use (important for financial and physical accessibility). I do not offer childcare and I do not have an ASL interpreter for every class. I am a low-income teacher; my classes are donation-based with no one turned away for lack of funds (financial access for a community that often does not have funds or assets) and so I cannot afford this out-of-pocket. I am transparent about this (which prevents people from showing up to my classes only to realize their access needs will not be met) and I do not offer excuses because it is not helpful. I am not a bad person because I do not have the resources to make my classes universally accessible and it is awful that certain communities do not have access to my classes. Part of centering access means that I am constantly trying to do better. I offer trade to ASL interpreters in exchange for coming to my classes (this does require advanced notice from the deaf student) and I am researching how to offer live streaming for folks who are not able to leave their homes. Soon I hope to have grant money so that I can offer Access-Centered Movement in as accessible of an environment as possible without putting that cost on my students.
The next thing that I think about is the movements that I offer. Am I offering a variety of movement that can be accessible for many different bodyminds? I have 17+ years in a disabled bodymind and have had the privilege to be able to go to physical and psychotherapy —I may have knowledge that not all teachers have. Still, there are many different free online videos that show variations of poses and movements for different bodies (they are often marketed for teaching to seniors). I do my research to make sure that I have seated, standing, and lying down variations for every sequence. I think about variations for limitations in arms, legs, the spine, hands, feet, etc. I understand that different variations may be needed for different sized bodies and different amounts of flesh. I offer detailed verbal instructions for anyone who cannot see my example poses, for people who do not learn visually, and for when I am not able to physically demonstrate a pose. When thinking about the developmental and emotional needs of my students, I make sure that I speak slowly and clearly and repeat instructions. I am aware that people with anxiety, trauma, and/or asthma can have a hard time accessing the breath and so I offer different ways to approach mindful movement and meditation. Principally, I assume nothing about my students and am prepared to offer different movements depending on their diverse needs. With so many variations, I make sure to offer space and silence in between instructions so that my students do not feel overwhelmed.
Though I have had to use physical therapy for every part of my body, I am one bodymind in a sea of billions. There are times when I do not have a variation for a student in my class because I do not know one off the top of my head. Access and disability are inherently linked: no one is too sick or too disabled to participate in my classes. So, rather than making this the student’s problem or gaslighting by suggesting that they are not able to participate, I offer cultural humility, empathy, and my commitment that I will continue to try to offer variations that work for as many people’s needs as possible.
As a teacher with disabilities, there are times when I may not be able to offer teachings that meet students’ needs because of my own limitations. When I am transparent about these things, when I explain that a Disability Justice framework means that there are times when things are not efficient, when students see my own vulnerabilities; it only gives more validation to their lived experience that having a bodymind is incredibly hard, that we are all doing the best that we can, and that whatever we are bringing to class is perfect and whole.
Another important component of the Access-Centered Movement that I teach is the language that I use. During my teacher training, I learned to use trauma-informed language. As someone who struggles with complex PTSD, I appreciated learning invitational language, how to offer consensual touch, and other approaches for helping those of us who have experienced trauma feel safe. I have applied an intersectional, Disability Justice approach to this. I am conscientious about how I, a cis, white/Jewish, queer femme yoga teacher with less flesh, can traumatize Students of Color, self-identified fat students, and gender queer/trans students (and the way these intersect). My classes have gender-neutral bathrooms and we check in with our gender pronouns and access needs before each class. In my daily life, I challenge colonial white supremacy and am mindful of appropriation (an issue as a white yoga teacher). After each class I offer deep reverence to the ancestors of the practice, the ancestors of the stolen Ohlone land that I teach on, and to the founders of Disability Justice. When discussing bodies, I never associate muscle with physical appearance and remind my students that we all have different bodies, they look and move differently, and they are perfect and whole exactly as is. In the end, I attempt to dismantle the hierarchy between different bodyminds and variations of movement that is present in most body movement spaces, even with teachers who use a trauma-informed framework.
When “accessible” movements and poses have been offered to me, it has been done with the rhetoric that these “modifications” are less skilled options of a “full expression,” “normal,” or “traditional,” sequence. This does not have to be overtly communicated: “you can raise your arms over your head or even just move your fingers” is enough of a statement to get the message across. Additionally, classes or movements that are characterized by “level of difficulty,” inevitably mean that many of us with disabilities will be “beginner students,” no matter how long we have been practicing. When “beginner, intermediate, and advanced” refer to physical/mental ability level and not how long we have been practicing with the tradition or the amount of effort we put in regardless of the produced results, it will always perpetuate ableism.
Instead of the typical “full expression” and “modified” formula, I describe all “variations” of poses and of movement as equal. My instruction for movement does not assume that it is easy or available for any of the bodyminds in the room. Someone who is lying on the floor and managing an extreme level of pain is perhaps “working” harder than a person who is doing a handstand with ease. To create a more validating language I might say (this is a detailed example, not a formula), “one variation would be to move your arms or fingers in any small range of motion that is available for your body, another would be bringing your hands to your hips, and, another would be raise your hands over your head. Choosing whichever variation feels accessible for you and knowing that you can come out of a pose or do anything that feels supportive for your body any time. Please take care of yourselves.” In this example, I center the poses and movements that are typically valued less on the hierarchy. If these variations are always described as an afterthought, it sends the same message that they are less valued regardless of if I am describing them as “variations” or “modifications.” I also, throughout a class, offer gentle reminders for folks to take care of their bodyminds (as teachers, we often do know more about alignment and what is safe) and I encourage their agency by stating that “these are suggestions, it is your body.”
When thinking about the language and movement that I offer, I am mindful about how I offer connection to the breath, sensations, and emotions. There are many people that have a hard time with observing the breath because of asthma, anxiety, PTSD, or other reasons. Instead of saying, “just come to your breath,” I will say “if it is available for you today, I invite you to observe your breath, if this does not feel available for you, you might observe sounds, the way that your body is connected to the earth, sensations in the body, or any tool you might have to try to bring a sense of ease.” When I discuss sensations or emotions, I never express that there is a way that the student is supposed to be feeling. I might offer some suggestions and I will always include that every person is different and may have a different experience.
When offering my instruction, I try to do so in a way that is skillful so that I am not spending the entire class talking. Being Access–Centered means taking up space to prioritize access. What this might mean is that I offer less movements so that there is less stimulating time where students can focus in silence. I cannot control the access needs that enter a space. What I can do, as a teacher, is prepare for each class so that I can hold as many needs as possible. The reality is that having a bodymind is messy and trying to have fast-paced/efficient classes makes no sense within an anti-capitalist anti-white supremacist Disability Justice framework. We take our time to make sure that no body is left behind. And if this brings anxiety for folks, we work with that. As I said earlier, having a bodymind is incredibly hard. Every human can relate to this. Not all my students are disabled, and every single one tells me how incredible it is to be in a space where we are witnessed and valued for exactly what we are able to bring. Where we are not shamed for our bodies. Where we are not expected to be able to produce with them. Where we are held in kindness and safety.
I want to be clear, without the Disability Justice framework I would not be teaching what I teach. Furthermore, I am not the only disabled teacher offering movement within Disability Justice. Yet we are the vast minority: most teachers claiming to offer accessible classes or classes for “all bodies” are, despite their best intentions, are using jargon words. Offering Access–Centered Movement takes a lot more work than putting clipart of a wheelchair user on your flyer (abled teachers, please do not use disabled bodies for your marketing) or adding a tagline to your class. This work is important, rewarding, and beautiful. Holding space for people in a way that allows us to feel, even for a brief while, safe and held is more incredible than anything I could have imagined.
This is Disability Justice, by Nomy Lamm (The Body is Not an Apology)
Disability Justice: A Working Draft by Patty Berne (Sins Invalid)