On the last Friday of every month hundreds of Chicagoans gather in Daley Plaza for Critical Mass. While most noted as being a sort of controlled chaos for avid bicyclists, Critical Mass has developed as a spontaneous community. Friends that you see once a month and share an unforgettable ride with. In theory the Mass is apolitical, but many people are driven to become part of it for their own reasons such as sharing the road, advocating that motorists be more aware and alert of riders and pedestrians, and advocating alternative modes of transportation. In the past, Critical Mass has been supportive of many causes. As long as you have wheels you have been welcome; they are the common uniting theme. Yet there is one group that has been underrepresented in Critical Mass – wheelchair users. However, this September a small contingent of wheelchair users and supporters with and without disabilities could be found amidst the estimated 1,700 cyclists comprising Critical Mass.
I finally made it to the end !!! I was torn between stopping with the crips & going on. So glad I did cuz I've never been able to keep up to finish. It was so liberating. -Rachel Siler
The idea had begun simply enough: I wanted to do Critical Mass with my friends, many of which have disabilities. While before beginning to organize this I thought I understood integration, it was through working with everyone who helped to make this happen that I really gained an appreciation for how difficult a thing it is to put into action. It takes interest, planning, open-mindedness, acceptance, and resources. The cycling community was really accepting and open to the idea of involving wheelchair users. Many came to our planning meeting and helped to brainstorm solutions to potential problems. On the whole, people thought it was cool even though some had reservations about whether wheelchair users would get left behind or out-paced. For that reason we had implored various organizations in the city to donate handcycles that manual wheelchair users could use during the Mass. Schwabb Rehabilitation Hospital had actually volunteered to let us use five handcycles and a recumbent bike for the event, but decided to pull their support that morning and stated that they decided it was “not in keeping with the mission of their program.” Unfortunately, this put us at a distinct disadvantage as we were unable to find suitable alternate accommodations for people on such short notice. Further, we had unanimously agreed months before that the idea of using “tow bikes” to pull wheelchair users defeated the purpose of full and equal participation. So in the end one manual wheelchair user participated by hanging onto the back of a powerchair. It was not ideal, but it worked and presents quite a different statement.
There is a certain amount of futility in trying to plan for anarchy. That said, organizers in the cycling community really pulled together to make a final route map that incorporated Crip the Mass, the T-Shirt Art Harvest Festival, and the Pedicab Fundraiser. We began by heading down Clark St. as intended, but for some reason the turn was never made at Madison St. Instead we hit a steep incline at Roosevelt & Clark. We had been worried that inclines would cause wheelchair users to separate from the rest of the Mass, but this one broke the mass entirely. It was so steep and narrow that cyclists were at a standstill while trying to “cork” and intercept traffic. Unable to gain momentum, bikes had to be walked uphill to continue. Cars got between the front and the back halves of the mass and the Chicago Police Department’s support was focused at the front. As a result, many people were dropped from the Mass. To be quite honest, wheelchair users had the best option available as they could simply enter Target and take the elevator to the next level to rejoin the others! That is, if you can enter Target without being distracted by their bargain bins and pretty wares. I will admit that I cannot.
It also happened that one of the pedicabs had space to carry a couple of friends who had neither bike nor wheelchair…
I had always heard Critical Mass described as a whirlwind of speeding bikes, stopped cars, and shouts of “Happy Friday!” Nevertheless, I showed up with my white cane and wheelchair-using friends to be a part of it all. When I arrived Daley Plaza was just another downtown square but soon it was fairly crowded with cyclists, skaters, and pedicab drivers…was this really the place for us? As it turns out, this question need not be asked. The wind and rain made it slightly unpleasant but the crowd made us feel welcome. A deaf friend and I clambered into a hastily grabbed pedicab (thanks Matt!) and were off! Very quickly we lost sight of our friends and were in the stream of motion and excitement. It was all bikes, lights, songs, and road…for about a mile. The mass took an unexpected route and we’d totally lost our friends. One of them raced to catch up to us so we’d know to meet up with them. We did, we drank, and we talked about the mass. Not all of our plans worked out that day but, I believe the point of the mass is to let go of expectations and just go with it. As people with disabilities, some of us were nervous and so wanted to plan (perhaps too much) but we learned. As a friend from San Francisco once told me, “trust the mass and it will (usually) take care of you…if not get you lost.” - Ryan Parrey
The Chicago Tribune wrote an article about the September Critical Mass. It bears noting that the author knowingly left out the inclusion of wheelchair users in the event. Rather than simply tell you how I feel about that… I’d like to know what you think. Please take a couple seconds and fill out the poll at the right of your browser, or if you would prefer you can link to the poll by clicking here.
Critical Mass is held in over 300 cities throughout the world – does yours? Have you leant your voice to building a Critical Mass? Tell us your story.
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