This past Friday night, local disability organizations and the Self Advocacy Alliance gathered for a celebration and concert in honor of the 25th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I was honored to be invited to attend the event and speak about the ADA prior to the band taking the stage. If you have ever been invited to speak before the entertainment at an event, you know the audience is really just being polite as they wait to listen to the music.
Friday night’s audience was wonderful. They were attentive, engaged and even applauded some key points! Someone asked if I would share my remarks on my blog. I usually don’t write out my speeches word for word, so the version I present is always a bit different than my notes. I’m not sure I said everything I wanted to say on Friday, but this is my best attempt to write down what I intended to say on Friday.
Communities across the United States are having ADA celebrations this month. Today is the first ever Disability Pride Parade in New York City. I wish I could be there with my friends who are traveling down the Hudson right now, but my recent wheelchair repairs made the trip impractical. I urge you to find out what is happening in your area, and learn more about what you can do to help further the vision of civil rights for people of all abilities.
The organizers of today’s event asked me to say a few words in recognition of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA. This important civil rights legislation, which was signed into law in 1990 by former President George Bush, changed life for people with disabilities in many ways. Improvements in everyday life are all around us.
This park we are in has accessible parking, curb cuts, and accessible rest rooms. There is a ramp on the back of this stage which made it possible for me to wheel up here.
Many of us used public transportation to get here today – buses with lifts or paratransit. If you travel to another metropolitan area in the United States, their buses will be accessible too. Within the past decade, I have visited Little Rock, Arkansas; Salt Lake City,Utah; Ames, Iowa; Long Beach, California; and Tampa, Florida. I was able to ride public buses in each location.
When I was in those cities, I stayed in hotels. All of the hotels were relatively new construction, built within the past 15 years or so. My hotel rooms had elevated toilets, grab bars, hand held showers, and strobe lights which flashed if someone rang the doorbell.
Access to technology has improved life for many of us who live with disabilities. Closed captioning for television programs, and live captioning Internet broadcasts or webinars mean the Deaf or hearing impaired can participate. Cell phones and texting put communication with others right in our own hands. Braille elevator key pads and ATMs with audible signals increase independence for the Blind and visually impaired.
I first came to Albany in 1991 when I started college at The College of St. Rose. I learned how to be an advocate while I was in college. The ADA was new – and it was widely thought this law would change the world for people with disabilities. We would have protections and legal recourse if we faced discrimination! Reasonable accommodation became the new buzz phrase for us.
I studied Communication Sciences and Disorders because I had decided I wanted to be a speech-language pathologist when I grew up. When I started college, the school had four residence halls which were accessible. The only buildings with automatic doors were the Campus Center and Albertus Hall, the main classroom building. We used the service elevator in the kitchen to get to and from the main dining hall. And the elevator in St. Joseph’s Hall, where the majority of professor offices were, had a gate you had to close before the elevator would move. Many times I found myself stranded on the third floor because someone had taken the elevator down to the first floor and not closed the gate. When my friends and I walked downtown, either down Madison or Western Avenue, we weren’t able to stay on the same side of the street because not every intersection had curb cuts on all four corners. So, we would zig zag downtown, crossing at certain streets so we would have access to the sidewalk. I never took a public bus until I started using STAR paratransit services in 1993.
I was fortunate. As a child, I had parents and siblings who told me time and time again I was capable, I was smart, I was competent – I could do anything I wanted to. I grew up knowing I would go to college and get a job. It was what was expected of me.
Sadly, that is not the expectation often held by others when it comes to people with disabilities. When President Bush signed the ADA, he said the walls of inequity for people with disabilities would come down. Many have – but there are many more which need to fall.
Just look at employment. In New York State, the percentage of people with disabilities who are working age (21-64 years old) who have full time employment lasting at least a year or more is 20%. Compare that to the percentage of their non-disabled peers – which is 56%.¹
Full time employment is not attainable for everyone for a variety of reasons. If we look at employment – full or part time – for working age people with disabilities in New York, the percentage increases to 32%. One third of working age adults with disabilities in New York have some employment. That may sound good until you hear that 76%, or three quarters, of working age non-disabled adults in New York are employed either full or part time.
Employment affects everything. And I’m glad the federal and state governments are trying to create policies which increase employment for people with disabilities. Without jobs, many of us wouldn’t be able to live where we live, or drive our own vehicles. We wouldn’t be taxpayers with discretionary income. We wouldn’t have the sense of self-esteem and purpose many of us have gained by engaging in activities which provide value to ourselves and others.
The ADA has made it possible for musicians, like the ones you’re about to hear in Flame, to tour and pursue their passion. The ADA, through the Olmstead decision, has made it possible for people with disabilities to live in their communities where they belong instead of in nursing homes or institutions. Community based supports and services, like the Consumer Directed Personal Assistance I use every day, make it possible for people like me and you to live in their own homes.
But no law can ever legislate attitude change. It is up to all of us to continue to educate and advocate for our rights – to show others our potential so they realize everyone has value, everyone deserves respect. Whether or not we want to be, we are examples of what is possible. The adaptations and accommodations we demand improve not just our lives, but the lives of those who will come after us. I promise to continue speaking up for all of us, and I hope you will do the same.
Congratulations to all of you for being ambassadors for people with disabilities here in the Capital Region. Keep up the good work and enjoy the concert!
¹Statistics related to employment in other states may be found at http://www.disabilitystatistics.org. For this speech, I searched using results from the American Community Survey.