We need a new civil rights movement in America. The Trayvon Martin case and the debates over immigration reform show racism still exists. But civil rights are more than racism.
Since the Equal Rights Act in 1972, there has been progress in women’s rights – but not enough. Women still earn less for the same work – with salaries just 77.0% of men’s. This disparity remains both among high school graduates and those with college degrees.
But those who are most left out of the American Dream are Americans with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990, mandating equal treatment for people with disabilities in all areas of public affairs. Since then, we have come a long way in accommodating citizens with disabilities – and this is worth celebrating!
What has changed is how we look at disability. According to the Census Bureau, 1 in 5 Americans has a disability. Many disabilities, like diabetes, heart disease, cancer, psychiatric disabilities, brain injury, epilepsy, HIV/AIDS, learning disabilities, aren’t obvious.
We now have a society that’s much more accessible for people with disabilities. Most urban areas have accessible transportation, allowing people with mobility impairments to get to a doctor’s office or go to the movies. Most public buildings, hotels and restaurants are wheelchair accessible. Many streets have curb cuts, making travel easier not only for wheelchairs but for baby strollers and bicycles. Closed captioning and video relay services make television and telephones accessible to the deaf.
Before the ADA, folks with disabilities were isolated because they had special needs that were not being accommodated. Then, people with disabilities rose up saying: We don’t want to be isolated. We want opportunities; we want to lead the same kinds of lives that everyone else leads. Our problems are not medical – they’re societal. They’re issues of attitude, access, rights, and the barriers society puts in front of us.
Bernard Carabello was one of the people who led this change. Bernard was born with cerebral palsy, but was misdiagnosed with mental retardation and inappropriately institutionalized for eighteen years in Willowbrook, a horrible institution in New York. His efforts, along with those of millions of other folks with disabilities, started the movement of people with disabilities speaking up for their own rights – self-advocacy. He’s known as the “father of Self-Advocacy.”
Self-advocacy works to change public policies and remove barriers people with disabilities face daily . By speaking up for their needs, individuals with disabilities can stand up for their personal rights and learn to live as independently as possible. We can work together to affect change in government policies about things like accessibility, accommodation, health care, transportation, and housing.
Since the movement began, thousands of self-advocacy groups have formed across the country where folks with developmental and other disabilities meet regularly to learn how to advocate for what they need and want, and have a blast in the process. In Saranac Lake, The Adirondack Advocators meet on the second Thursday of every month at the Saranac Lake Adult Center meeting room. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or Facebook Adirondack Advocators.
The self-advocacy movement has empowered folks with disabilities to shape their own destinies. The movement is led by people with disabilities, because they’re the ones who know best what they need to lead independent lives. We have come a long way!
But we must continue to forge ahead. The ADA was passed 23 years ago, but unemployment and underemployment of those with disabilities persists. The intent of the legislation was to prohibit discrimination based on disability by employers, government institutions and commercial businesses like hotels or restaurants. But hotel swimming pools and taxicabs are still largely inaccessible to people with mobility impairments. Many restaurants don’t have Braille menus. Many individuals with disabilities are still forced to live in nursing homes, rather than in their communities. Many disabled individuals still experience social exclusion and poverty.
The US Senate has yet to ratify the CRPD, the international Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, in spite of that fact that this does not require any changes in law or create costs. Ratification by the Senate would show we are committed to support the civil rights of individuals with disabilities both at home and abroad.
We must continue to work to promote social change, eliminate discrimination based on disability, and create opportunities for people with disabilities to affect change through the legislative process. This civil rights movement was started by people with disabilities because they think of their issues as civil rights issues. We must continue to fight for a better America, to free our nation from a way of thinking that has led to stereotypes. The revolution of empowerment will go on!
Yvona Fast, author of Employment for Individuals with Asperger Syndrome or Non-verbal Learning Disability, has lived her whole life with neurological impairments. Michael Northrop, author of The Padded Cell and Escape from a Padded Cell, has a traumatic brain injury.