Congress, Take Note: Disabled Rights are Civil Rights

This may not be the sexiest thing to write about these days, but I'd like to talk, for just a minute, about civil rights for those with disabilities, and why this issue matters so much to me.

In 1981 I was a college intern for our local newspaper. That was the year the U.N. declared "The International Year of Disabled Persons." IYDP, as it came to be called, was my "beat."

A number of local advocacy groups had been forming—many around specific conditions. That year, they decided there was strength in numbers and formed an Alliance of Disabled Persons. They organized strategically, lobbying for change. It was slow going.

I met with the group week in and week out for most of the year. And what an education it was. I got to know many of the folks who volunteered. Heard their stories, their hopes, their dreams, and their heartbreak. One man told me of how his wife had left him when he was diagnosed with a rapidly progressing form of arthritis that took the use of his legs when he was only 30.

At the time, I was young, healthy, and running 10Ks nearly every weekend. My mom had lived with crippling arthritis and a secondary degenerative disease since her youth--something I later discovered was hereditary. What struck me most about my newfound IYDP friends was their joie de vivre. When I reflected on this, it occurred to me that they'd wisely figured out something most of us never get: the worse your lot in life, the more important it is to find joy where you can, and avoid toxic emotions as they only add to your pain. So, they focused on the good things, reveling in every victory, however small. A single parking space. A new building with a ramp (nearly a decade before accessibility became a legal requirement) or an older one that installed an elevator.

It took until 1990 for The Americans with Disabilities Act to become law. With it came a host of federally mandated changes that would be phased in over time. Now, nearly three decades later, the ACLU is being forced to fight Congress over a proposed change to the law that effectively removes ADA compliance requirements and shifts to disabled persons the burden of identifying businesses out of compliance and explaining—with great specificity—exactly how non-compliance has affected them personally. To say this is nuts is an understatement. It's like saying we shouldn't enforce clean air regulations until citizens come forward to prove they've gotten emphysema.

Speaking as one who now lives with a painful degenerative disease, I can say that I don't know what I'd do on some days without a handicapped parking space. And though I am able to walk unassisted, I sometimes choose a ramp over steps—because it's just easier to navigate. But…it's for our neighbors who have NO options that I argue here. They deserve to attend concerts, go to restaurants, travel, shop—whatever—the same as everyone else. Equal access to anything open to the public is a basic civil right—and one that we acknowledged as a nation more than half a century ago, when we agreed that nobody should be forced to ride in the back of the bus, go to a different school, or eat at a separate lunch counter. It took another quarter of a century after passage of the Civil Rights Act, for the disabled to claim their own right to equal public access.

Civil Rights has been expanded in recent years to mean equal access for the LGBTQ community, from the right to marry to the right to choose restrooms based on how one personally gender-identifies—not how someone else thinks they should. But full equality for everyone is a long way off, and discrimination in any form is still discrimination. For the disabled (who are seldom viewed in the mainstream as an under served minority) discrimination is insidious. Unless we proactively enforce the ADA in fact—not just in principle—we cannot, as a nation, claim to respect civil rights.

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