Justice for the disabled is justice for all

This week marks the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Last year’s 30th anniversary went largely unrecognized during the pandemic. The ADA is a landmark piece of Civil Rights legislation, providing rights, access, and accommodation to an often invisible, yet numerous, marginalized group. More than 1 in 4 Americans have a condition affecting their ability to interact with the world. At some point in time, through injury or age, a majority of people will experience disability – even if just temporarily. We have come a long way to include our disabled siblings, parents, and children in society – but there remains much to do. Things like access ramps, larger bathroom stalls, and kneeling buses are normal now, but did not exist before 1990. However, we cannot forget that attitudes that treat the disabled with fear, scorn, or (the worst) pity, still persist. 

My own work for the members of our community who walk through the world differently than the “rest” of us – because their bodies or minds work differently – is rooted in my respect for their experiences and their gifts. In just the past few weeks, I have seen a young girl with an intellectual disability overcome a hateful act – turning the tables by responding with openness and compassion and creating joy in the process. A young man who in past times would have been a perpetual “burden” on his loving mother came to my office asking for the basic right to access to his own place to live. Advocates for my Inclusive Disability Curriculum bill for K-12 schools insist on their rightful seat at the table in crafting that legislation. The way I look at it, I have something to learn from everyone I meet, and the combination of strength with vulnerability makes my fellow disabled citizens excellent teachers.

The phrase “nothing about us, without us,” is a mantra of the current movement and it is based on an insistence for respect and inclusion and the assertion of the rights to determine the paths of their own lives. That attitude of self-reliance – breaking free from the constraints of misunderstanding and discrimination – has been present from the beginning. It was and still is a radical movement. Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins was an 8 year-old in 1990 when she participated in the Capitol Crawl – climbing out of her wheelchair and up the 78 marble steps of the US Capitol. At that time, she had already been protesting for two years and was even arrested at the age of 7. Judy Heumann and other advocates occupied federal buildings to protest the lack of access to places and services the fully abled take for granted. Her work and those of other early activists is memorialized in the award-winning film Crip Camp. The basic demands of justice and fair treatment were seen as impossible, until folks like these taught us otherwise.

As we continue the work towards treating all of our neighbors with more respect and dignity, let’s take a moment to recognize the proper place in history the early pioneers of the disabled community who insisted on getting what they deserve and changed us all for the better. The measure of justice they achieved is something that benefits us all.