On Tuesday, June 12, more than 700 advocates for disability rights marched in the rain down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, chanting "ADA is here to stay!" and "What do we want? Access! When do we want it? Now!" Chants and posters drew onlookers. Speakers fired up the crowd.
The event was part of the 30th anniversary of the National Council on Independent Living. The theme of the 2012 annual conference, "30 years of advocacy: and miles to go before we sleep," acknowledges that while a lot has been accomplished since the inception of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, we still have a long way to go. NCIL and local Centers for Independent Living work to create a world where 54 Million Americans living with disabilities are valued equally, participate fully, and live independently.
Senator Tom Harkin (Iowa) spoke about how he was inspired to work for the rights of individuals with disabilities by his brother Frank Harkin, who lost his hearing at age 5 and was taken from home to institutional care at the 'School for the Deaf and Dumb". Frank broke the mold -- doing what he wanted to do, rather than being limited by what he was told he could do. Today, deaf children are no longer sent away. Instead, accommodations like sign language and captioning enable them to communicate at school and work.
During the recent recession, people with disabilities lost jobs at a rate 5 times higher than people without disabilities. "We want jobs in the new recovery," Senator Harkin said, commenting about the need for economic self sufficiency among individuals with disabilities. Secretary Kathleen Sebelius of the Dept. of Health and Human Services said, "America is strongest when ALL of our citizens have an equal chance to participate and be included."
After the rally, participants headed to the Hill to speak with legislators about key issues like: the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Affordable Care Act, the National Rehab Act, the Independent Living Administration, the Administration for Community Living, the Fairness in Medicare Bidding Act, reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act and Rehabilitation Act and other legislation that will empower and increase the independence of Americans living with disabilities.
On Thursday, a smaller lunchtime rally was held in front of the American Hotel & Lodging Association's (AH&LA) offices, demanding the trade group stop their lobbying efforts to block equal access to swimming pools. As summer vacation gets underway, over 3 million Americans with mobility impairments -- including veterans and senior citizens -- won't be able to swim because pools remain inaccessible. Several pending bills would, if passed, prevent the Department of Justice from enforcing regulations to make swimming pools accessible. Access delayed is justice denied: 22 years after the passage of the ADA, we're still working to guarantee equal access.
Disability rights have come a long way since the ADA was signed into law on July 26, 1990 by George H. W. Bush, but we still have a long way to go. 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 individuals with disabilities are still forced to live in nursing homes, rather than in their communities. Threats to Medicaid are threats to independence and stability for millions of Americans with disabilities.
People with disabilities need access -- whether it's accessible buildings and bathrooms for those using wheelchairs, or access to spoken words through interpreters and captioning technology for the deaf, or access for the blind through verbal descriptions of films and pictures. Modern technology helps a lot -- but is not always used as it should be. For example, e-readers like the Amazon Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook do not have text-to-speech software, and cannot be used by the visually impaired or those with reading difficulties. There's a lot more work to be done.
Centers for Independent Living are committed to removing barriers that keep people with disabilities from integrating fully into community life. There are more than 2,000 Centers for Independence nationwide that advocate for access, choice, and self-determination for individuals with disabilities.
To have so many people with disabilities show pride and integrity on the long journey to the Capitol to advocate for disability rights and reform was exhilarating. It was inspiring to see the large national movement helping establish civil rights for one of the last groups oppressed in America.
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. 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 is an author, freelance writer, food columnist, editor, photographer, researcher and speaker. Her weekly food column, North Country Kitchen, has been running in local newspapers for more than 5 years. Yvona has had articles and photos in various magazines, and co-wrote a memoir with her mother. Her first book, a career guide for individuals with Asperger Syndrome or Non-Verbal Learning disability, was published in 2004. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com, has more information.