Minnesota’s annual celebration of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and its focus on combating discrimination drew a large and enthusiastic crowd to Hamline University in St. Paul July 26.
Event emcee Jeff Bangsberg said that while the celebration of 29 years of the ADA means looking back on many changes for the better, there is still much to be done. “We must keep moving forward,” he said. Achievements must be celebrated, but strides must be made toward a more equitable society.
That’s especially true in claims of discrimination based upon disability. Rebecca Lucero, Minnesota’s Commissioner of Human Rights, and a panel of speakers discussed issues of discrimination and ways that people with disabilities can fight back. The crowd also enjoyed an inspirational talk and music by composer and musician Gaelynn Lea.
Lea and others at the event used the gathering as a call to action and to cite the power the disability community could have. “We’re not living in a world where we’re treated as equals,” she said. Lea spoke of how she found hope in advocacy and work on disability rights issues.
Panelists, in a discussion led by Minnesota Department of Human Services Deputy Commissioner Claire Wilson, also talked about battling discrimination.
Panelists urged those present to speak up against discrimination and top use available laws to protect their rights. “Don’t let them pacify you,” said activist Noah McCourt. He has successfully challenged municipal social media policies and has used litigation as a tool.
“The only way of enforcing the ADA is through litigation,” he said.
Sue Abderholden of NAMI Minnesota pointed that litigation isn’t for everyone. People need to find their own comfort level in advocating for themselves.
In her talk, Lucero spoke of her vision for everyone to live lives full of dignity and joy. She explained how her department handles complaints of discrimination. People with disabilities are in a protected class, so claims on unfair or unequal treatment need to be considered carefully.
“Systems of oppression persist,” Lucero said. While some situations have improved for people with disabilities, others such as employment have not. Employers may think they are doing a good job but that is not always the case.
But Lucero also cautioned that Human Rights has a very small staff. Complaints can take a year or longer to resolve. She is a strong advocate of mediation process prior to a complaint going through the state investigation process.
Some cities have their own human rights departments, so complaints can be directed to those agencies.
As an attorney, Lucero has worked as an administrative law judge for the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, at the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis, and in private practice as a plaintiff-side employment lawyer. She draws on those experiences when leading the Human Rights department.
Another highlight was recognition of VSA Minnesota staff, Craig Dunn and Jon Skaalen, and a thank you for their years of work, VSA Minnesota will close its doors in September, and the two arts community leaders will retire.
The event had many sponsors. They included Access Press, ADA Minnesota, City of Duluth Commission on Disabilities, City of Minneapolis, Hamline University Office of Disability Resources, Hennepin County, Metropolitan Center for Independent Living, Minnesota Council on Disability, Minnesota Department of Human Rights, Minnesota Department of Human Services, Minnesota Department of Transportation, Minnesota Disability Law Center and VSA Minnesota.