On March 25th of 2017, there will be a new festival rolling into town. It is the NOLA Disability Pride Festival, which is a one-day festival for the disability community of Greater New Orleans. I met with Jane Rhea Vernier, founder of The Quirky Citizens Alliance, and Pamela Fisher, Director of Development & External Relations for the Advocacy Center of Louisiana, to learn more about this first-time festival.
Q: Let’s start off with some back history. Give us a history about how the New Orleans Disability Pride Festival came to be and the roles that both of your organizations play in this festival.
JRV: This is something that I have wanted for a really long time. Six years ago when I was working as a DSP for an agency I thought of it more as like a resource festival. Then about three years ago when I was a social work intern I thought of it more as party. Then last year when somebody was complaining on the internet about how hard it is to get people in our community to rally in Baton Rouge, I realized that we have to come together in celebration before we go anywhere else.
I started putting together a team, that was maybe in last May. I started looking for people and getting people excited. I sort of spoke out of turn and was talking about this thing, and Pam and some others got on board, and we’ve been going really strong since then.
PF: The Advocacy Center of Louisiana is a legal services organization for people with disabilities, adults, children you know any kind of disability, and also for seniors. One of our projects is a new project that we started last summer. It’s called an Empowerment Academy and we designed it for adults with disabilities. It helps teach them self advocacy skills. It helps them to tell their story, find their own voice, and become an advocate for themselves. Like Jane said, she said, ‘Oh, we’ve been trying to get a disability pride festival off the ground.’ My ears perked up and I said, ‘We would love to be part of that.’ That’s how it came about.
Q: Tell us about what the members of the community are excited for. What do you have in store for the festival?
JRV: This is our first time doing this so for the most part people are just really excited that it’s happening. We’ve got people who are really excited to play music, and really excited to sell what they make, and really excited to talk about what they do. We’ve got people who are really excited to go to an event where it’s really fun, and it’s a party but there’s also a really safe quiet place for them to go when they need a break or to sit down. I just feel like we as a community are really excited to come together for the day and be who we are–to not be sort of the sore thumb in somebody’s else’s festival, and not be needy somewhere else. This is about us and what we want, and what we need, and taking care of each and having fun.
Q: Tell us what activities and programs are organizations like the Advocacy Center and the Quirky Citizens Alliance working on that the public may not know about.
JRV: The Quirky Citizens Alliance is a social club promoting equality without sameness for people with disability and neurodiversity. We welcome everyone to join us, we welcome everyone who has physical disabilities, mental illness, psychiatric disability, neurodiversity, whatever you want to call it. Anyone who is an ally, anyone who’s not sure what their identify falls under with the banner of disability. Everyone’s welcome and we meet up and have coffee a couple of times a month.
We post our events on Facebook so people can know when we’re actually going to be out there. We’re a group of people that sometimes have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning, so it’s really important to make sure on Facebook that we actually got out of bed in the morning. We’re about meeting up and just being with each, and talking to each other, and some times we share stories, sometimes we share resources. Mostly we just do coloring pages, and play banana grams.
PF: Like I said before, The Advocacy Center is legal services for people with disabilities and we have a whole slew of issues and priorities that we work in–employment, housing, health care, special education. Two things that we are focusing on, in particular this spring, are the health care issues for people with disabilities. Particularly, the Affordable Care Act and the possible repeal of it. We’re watching that very closely and staying active for people who need Medicaid and for whom it might be taken away.
The other thing that we’re watching closely, it hit the news last month, is that the Department of Justice did an investigation into Louisiana’s nursing homes and how they are housing individuals with mental illness. They’re not equipped to give mental health services to those individuals. There’s an investigation where we’re going to working closely with the Department of Justice to try to make sure that people who need home and community based services get it.
Q: Tell about us the different needs and challenges that members of the disability community face living here in New Orleans.
JRV: I really think that’s a great question, but I don’t really think that’s what our festival is about. Public education is really important, but our festival is about us not being a teaching tool for somebody else. Personally, I think that’s like a really great segment for another time, especially because the disability community is so big. I’m a part of it, but an in no way qualified to speak for what the deaf community in New Orleans needs, or the what blind community in New Orleans needs. That’s not really what our festivals about.
PF: This is also about collaboration. The first I had heard or anybody on the advocacies inner staff had heard of the Quirky Citizen Alliance was in our Empowerment Academy session. That opened our eyes. I mean there’s so many great organizations in New Orleans in particular, every day there’s new groups coming together. You have to make an effort to keep your ears and eyes open for everything that’s going on. I found it really beneficial for the Advocacy Center to come to know all of these different organizations. One thing that we’re looking to do in the new year is really reach out to other community organizations and non profits. This is a good entry into doing that.
Q: If there was one statement you could make about the New Orleans Disability Pride Festival, your organizations or the disability community, what would you like to say?
JRV: Now more than ever is what I want to say. This is a really big deal, and we will see everybody there.
PF: On behalf of the Advocacy Center we’re celebrating our 40th anniversary in October–40 years of providing legal and advocacy services to people with disabilities. We’re so proud and excited to be part of this first disability pride festival; it’s something that we wouldn’t have done on our own and we’re so glad that Jane and the Quirky Citizens Alliance brought it to us. We’re just so proud and excited to be the location, to be a sponsor and to see what comes of it. We’ve seen over the past couple of years just bringing people together so much can come of that, and there’s just no telling what will happen.
The New Orleans Disability Pride Festival is coming to New Orleans on March 25, 2017. It will be held at the Advocacy Center of Louisiana at 8325 Oak Street in New Orleans.