The words 'Disability Rights are Civil Rights" appear in red, white and blue lettering on a black background.

What the ADA Means to Me

When I was a participant in the 2002 Ms. Wheelchair America Pageant, I was selected as one of the five finalists. As a finalist, I had to answer two extemporaneous questions on stage during the crowning ceremony for the final judging session – a serious question and a light-hearted question. Like most of my peers, I chose to answer the serious question first.

In one single sentence, explain what the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) means to you.

I don’t remember my exact answer. I do remember thinking, “One sentence?! Do they know me?! How am I supposed to answer this in one sentence?!” I could hear my sister Sandy laughing in the audience, and knew she was probably thinking the same thing.

I said something about the ADA being crucial civil rights legislation which gives protection and access to millions of Americans with disabilities. I kept it to one single sentence as requested, at least I think I did.

Today is the 27th anniversary of the signing of the ADA. As I write a draft of this post while riding the paratransit bus to work, I am thinking of the many ways this civil rights law has changed my life and the lives of those around me.

This bus, every public bus that is accessible – all thanks to the ADA and the ADAPT activists who literally put their bodies on the street to force change.

I am going to work today, along with my good friend Bill who happens to be on the same bus this morning. Bill acquired his disability just a few years ago, but thanks to the ADA has been able to remain employed with reasonable accommodations from his employer.

I got out of bed this morning, went to the bathroom, took a shower, got dressed and styled my hair with the help of the Personal Assistant who came to work for me today. My personal care needs can be met in the community rather than an institution because of the ADA (and because I live in a state like New York which offers a Medicaid Buy-In Program for Working People with Disabilities.)

Think the ADA only helps those with disabilities? There are many examples of how ADA regulations have helped more than the disabled population, but here is one that is prevalent. Have you ever pushed a baby stroller down the street and used the curb cut to gain access to the crosswalk? What legislation do you think required those curb cuts? On behalf of all disabled people who fought for access, you’re welcome.

The ADA is about more than just physical access though. For me, the ADA creates a sense of entitlement because it tells me I am worthy of equality. Because of the ADA, it is illegal to discriminate against me and other disabled people. I have expectations of access now that I did not have twenty five years ago. When I travel in the United States, I expect to find curb cuts, accessible toilets, wider doors in hotel rooms, accessible public transportation, and accessible parking.

Does that mean I always find these things? Of course not. But thanks to the ADA, I have the ability to pursue legal action if I feel I am being discriminated against because of my disability.

Equality – that’s what the ADA is all about to me. It is not a guarantee I will succeed, but it is an important guarantee that at least I will be afforded the same opportunity for success as my nondisabled peers.

Of course that is not the way it really works. For many reasons, disabled people still face significant barriers to education, employment, housing and transportation. And of course, like the rest of the United States, we are waiting to see what our legislators will do to healthcare and Medicaid. For many, today is not a day of celebration, but a day of anxiety and fear.

That may sound extreme for those of you who do not rely on Medicaid for your daily needs. I have had friends tell me, “Oh, don’t worry. They won’t take away your personal care.”

Here’s the thing – we don’t know what will happen. And it is far too easy for someone who is able to get out of bed, pee, poop, shower, eat and live without the assistance of another person to dismiss our concerns.

My needs are not “special.” They are the same basic needs every human has. I have the right to expect that I can meet my needs in my community, just like everyone else. The ADA guarantees me that right, and when you need that level of assistance (if you live long enough, you will!) hopefully you will have that right too.

Freedom. Life. Liberty. The pursuit of my career, hobbies and other things that bring me happiness.

That’s what the ADA means to me.

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Telling My Medicaid Story

For several months, my disabled peers have been sharing their personal stories about Medicaid. I read Vilissa Thompson’s story and Jensen Caraballo’s story, both published on the Center for Disability Rights blog. I watched the videos published on the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund website. I cheered for my friend Alice Wong when her OpEd “My Medicaid, My Life was published in the New York Times.

I have written about Medicaid on this blog before. When I was participating in the Redefining Disability blog challenge, I wrote about it here, and I also wrote about how my need for personal assistants impacts my life here, and I wrote about it again here.

I wasn’t feeling the urge to write about Medicaid again but then last week happened. On Thursday, United States Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell (R – KY) released the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017 (BCRA), the Senate’s version of legislation to repeal the Affordable Care Act. The majority of the bill is focused on changes to Medicaid. There are several websites that provide summaries of these proposed changes, such as HealthAffairs.org, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and NPR.

Did you catch the other big news story in US media on Thursday? Did you notice the story that appeared on CNN, MSNBC, ABC and many local affiliates across the country? The story that was later featured in Rolling Stone, TheHill.com, USNews, and Pacific-Standard among others?

For a few days this week, disability made the headlines thanks to advocates who literally put their bodies on the line. Thursday morning, in anticipation of the release of the Senate bill containing cuts to Medicaid, a group of about sixty disability rights activists gathered outside Senator McConnell’s office to stage a “die-in.”

Those gathered are members of ADAPT, a grassroots disability organization that has been fighting for disability rights since the 1970’s. What – you’ve never heard of ADAPT? Maybe you missed the 20 minutes Rachel Maddow spent on her show Thursday explaining ADAPT history and providing perspective on the disability rights movement. In case you didn’t catch it, you can watch it now. It doesn’t matter if you’re not a fan of Rachel (I’m not a fan either), just watch the video.

I am young enough to remember life before the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). I remember being carried on and off buses by my friends on school trips because we did not have an accessible bus. I remember taking walks and zig-zagging across the street every few blocks because not every corner had a curb cut ramp. I remember the sense of relief when I learned I could not be fired because of my need for a reasonable accommodation from my employer. I remember telling my parents about a new program called Consumer Directed Personal Assistance – a program that would allow me to hire home care workers who would assist me with my basic care needs when I was no longer able to perform these tasks independently. I remember my mother tearing up as she realized I would be able to manage my care in the community.

I live in the community because Medicaid, the program threatened by the BCRA, pays for the Personal Assistants (PAs) who serve as my arms and legs. I often tell people that my PAs allow me to be independent, but what does that really mean? Indulge me as I get to the nitty-gritty.

It means my PAs come into my house every morning and start by uncovering me when I am ready to get out of bed, and then sit me up. They move my wheelchair next to the bed then transfer me from the bed to my wheelchair using a slide board. Then they transfer me from my wheelchair to the bedside commode so I can go to the bathroom. When I am finished, they take the bucket to the bathroom where they empty it and clean it.

If you can no longer independently use a toilet, who is going to dump your bucket? Who’s going to wipe your butt if you have to use a bedpan? Who is going to try not to gag when you have diarrhea or when your period comes on heavy and unexpectedly?

When you become disabled, injured or old, your need to relieve your bowels and bladder will not magically disappear. You will still need to pee and poop. When you do go, who will help you?

Are you going to depend on your spouse? That may work if you are married to someone willing to assume the role of caregiver. Maybe you’ll depend on your children, assuming you have them and assuming they live close enough to come help you every time you need to go to the bathroom.

How many times each day do you like to use the toilet? Would that number change if you needed the assistance of another person? On good days, I use the toilet four times. Most days, it is only three. With planning, I can get by with two.

This choice – the choice to determine how many times per day I wish to urinate – is a choice I have because I do not live in an institution. I am not forced to live in a nursing home where someone is tracking the number of times I use the toilet, or how much fluid I drink and void each day. I am not viewed as a patient in need of medical care, but a person with dignity and liberty.

But without Medicaid, the funding source for long-term services and supports for millions of disabled Americans, this choice is gone. To better understand how Medicaid works to make freedom and liberty possible, read this great summary by Rohmteen Mokhtari.

Take away Medicaid and you take away our liberty. Take away Medicaid and thousands of us will face no alternative but to turn to institutional care just to meet our basic needs. I am not the only one predicting this. Read this article from The Guardian to learn how others have been impacted by Medicaid and why they are fearful of the BCRA.

I am fortunate. I have friends and family who have rallied to my side in the past when I have needed short term assistance. I have friends and peers who are willing to protest for our civil rights, who are willing to be lifted out of their wheelchairs and carted off by police. I have a platform that allows me to tell my story.

And as the late disability rights activist Harriet McBryde Johnson wrote, “Storytelling is a survival tool.”