Earlier this month, I was privileged to attend the Association for Women’s Rights in Development’s annual forum in Bahia, Brazil. Centered on the theme Feminist Futures: Building Collective Power for Rights and Justice, it was a truly inspiring trip.

While I was there, I spent time with feminist activists from around the globe who are living with disabilities. Some of them I had known from my days at the Global Fund for Women; others introduced themselves as graduates of the Ford Foundation’s International Fellowships Program. All of them were clear about their commitment to feminism, and to disability rights.

I was moved to write a poem, for the first time in many years.

These women with magic abilities astound
the confidence with which the blind cross busy streets,
climb stairs and mountains
conquer airplane gangways and conference venues
the precise sense of touch that distinguishes a face from all others,
that traces fine down on the lip of a lover
that caresses the heavy beads from Sudan, lingers over the lighter ones from Bahia.

And those we call deaf listen more deeply
than our best friends
looking deep into our eyes,
paying attention to our mouths and the tremors between our breaths
noticing the places where care has worn grooves in our skin 
where worry has etched lines on our brows

Rare is the gift of being listened to, precious
perfect the response
fingers elbows hands
sea anemones flowing weaving fluttering a story back
you focus, you pause, you listen differently to
a new language of ability.

It is you who are disabled here
Your awkward efforts to look away from the stub of an arm,
the tiny crooked torso sitting proudly in her chair,
the grey eyes rolled back in a face so beautiful but remote
one you cannot read
for your fingers don’t see, can’t gently reach out
cannot say help…
help me know better the fullness of who you are, 
open my ears, gentle my hands, steady my heart, 
breathe, breathe, breathe.

Mia steps forward artist from Lebanon
you feel trapped as you watch her large body move unsteadily to its feet
your ears unable to hear the grace of her speaking in a foreign tongue – English
Mushkil for the speakers of luscious Arabi
you cringe, her mouth twists and stammers over consonants
your miss the courage, the humour, the joke about fashion and makeup
It is you who cannot see or hear
in the room of abilities.

Did you notice Jenny?
the one who moves like a hummingbird
infectious energy barely contained
she reels off a list of plans, strategies, recommendations
NothingForUsWithoutUs she reminds you
we do not wait for your pity, we have no time for your guilt, we cannot assuage your creeping doubts about whether we are
Done, she spins her wheelchair across the room.

You are the one tired and slow, although you are the one with legs.