Promoting disability rights not only improves the lives of the 54 million Americans with disabilities, it improves all of our lives. As President Franklin Roosevelt (FDR) recognized more than 60 years ago, in words now inscribed on the FDR Memorial in our nation’s capital: ‘No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources.’
“NOW, THEREFORE, I, William J. Clinton, President of the United States of America …do hereby proclaim July 2000 as Spirit of the ADA Month, 2000. I urge… all people to celebrate the contributions people with disabilities have made, and continue to make, to the progress and prosperity of our nation, and to renew our commitment to upholding the nondiscrimination principles of the ADA and IDEA.”
Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura also proclaimed July 2000 to be ‘ADA AND IDEA MONTH’ in the State of Minnesota.
On July 26, 2000, hundreds of people gathered at the Anne Sullivan Center to CELEBRATE the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and celebrate we did! The feel, the sound, even the smell reminded me of the annual hometown celebrations that take place during the summer all across the country with young and old and everyone in-between. There was music, dance, sports, theater, hotdogs, popcorn, my personal favorite, mini-donuts, and booths and more booths. No celebration can be complete without big star attractions. Yes, we had those, too. Commissioner Dr. Christine Jax and Lieutenant Gov. Mae Schunk were there, and the keynote address was delivered by Ted Kennedy, Jr.
Everyone who gathered on that day had their own personal reasons to celebrate. All of us have been touched by the changes and challenges that the ADA and IDEA has brought into our lives. This reporter decided to be a roving reporter and ask anyone who would stop, “Why are you here? What are you celebrating today?” Here are a few of the responses.
“There is more physical accessibility. Employers are more aware of employees with disabilities. There are still problems with Social Security. If a persons retires, he/she can work as much as he/she wants and still keep medical insurance. What about people with disabilities? Employer insurance does not cover all my insurance needs. I have to pay out of pocket.” Kari
“ADA and IDEA are the two most important pieces of legislation in recent history. They protect our civil rights. I came here today to pause, reflect, and look to the future. I feel the disability community will soon have an international conscience. We need to support and mentor one another globally. I believe aging will be a key issue for the future.” Margot Imdieke
“The ADA has helped us to form non-profit organizations so that we can develop teams for wheelchair sports. We travel nationally and internationally. The ADA insures us that the facilities we play in and our transportation are accessible.” Kurt Greniger, member of the Minnesota Blaze Wheelchair basketball team, a softball player, and a marathoner.
“The ADA and IDEA have given persons with disabilities dignity and pride.” Sibling of a person with a disability.
No celebration would be complete without an awards ceremony. We had ours; Very Special Arts/ Minnesota (VSA/MN) gave out three very special awards (see page XXX). Thank you VSA/MN for promoting disability culture in all its diversity.
The biggest thrill of the day was, of course, the speakers: Commissioner Jax and Ted Kennedy, Jr., who gave messages inspiring us all.
Commissioner Jax gave out some very hopeful statistics on special education: 65% of students in special education are in regular classrooms and less than 8% are in a separate setting. This is the best percentage in the nation. Minnesota is doing something right! The one thing that needs to be addressed is the fact that the federal government gives out unfunded mandates and only provides 1/6th of the 40% funding that it legally must provide for special education. This takes away from the general funding for education. If the federal government would live up to its 40% obligation, the State of Minnesota would have $250 million a year to benefit special education. We all need to be working on this and asking our government to live up to its obligation.
The speech by Ted Kennedy, Jr., was an inspiring message that will not be soon forgotten. The following are key points Mr. Kennedy touched on.
“Persons with disabilities deserve and are entitled to the same respect, access, and opportunities as any other citizen of this country. We must remember that we have political power. We are a majority at 54 million strong. Today as we gather at this celebration, President Clinton is making a speech at the FDR memorial. We are outraged that the commission was trying to cover up FDR’s disability when it planned this memorial. In doing so, it ignored the impact disability had on FDR’s life. Disability is to be celebrated as those things which make us unique.
The newest Harris poll reveals that there is still a 70% unemployment rate among persons with disabilities. 40% of students with disabilities drop out of high school. Persons with disabilities are 3 times more likely to live below the poverty line. My message to you is to use your political power. Register to vote. We need to establish the same voting block as our seniors have so effectively done.
When I first lost my leg at the age of 12, I was ashamed and embarrassed about the way I looked especially when it came to removing my leg for swimming. I was told ‘You shouldn’t let it bother you.’ I will never say those words to anyone. I felt the impact of isolation. I had no one to talk to and I suffered loss of self-esteem. We must be mentors and role models for the next generation.
Subtle discrimination is as powerful as overt discrimination. We must develop strategies to combat discrimination found in the legal system, in the media, and politically. Our most powerful weapon is for us to be self-advocates and tell our stories. Discrimination is society’s problem. Due to our status as a minority with special constitutional protections, we must make society preserve these protections. Persons with physical and hidden disabilities need to stand together. One challenge we face is that legally a lot of discrimination is settled out of court. We can’t build common law on this. Another challenge is the two images the media still portrays. Disability is either a poster child image of misery and something is wrong, or it is an inspirational “Super Hero” image of overcoming. Neither image depicts what life with disability is truly about.
ADAPT has shown us what we can do if we all stand together to ensure access to public transportation. ACT UP and the Christian Coalition stood together to ensure the value and dignity in each human being. (Baby Jane Doe. A doctor was found to be in violation of section 504 when he withheld esophageal surgery to Baby Jane Doe based on her disability.)
There has been tremendous progress and also much frustration. Physical access is good. Employment has not worked, although the Work Incentives Program will help. We still need more affordable, accessible housing. With better community-based care and a good housing stock, the future for persons with disabilities and for our country looks brighter.”
Mr. Kennedy’s speech ended with a standing ovation. We have much to celebrate. We’ve accomplished a lot. Celebrating has helped to renew us. Now the work continues. Thank you to the collaboration of disability organizations and all the volunteers who planned this day. This reporter especially extends a thank you for all who took time out to recognize the anniversaries of the two most historic pieces of legislation that have been passed in recent history.