A few days ago, a friend of mine sent me a video. (Thanks, Beth!) It profiled Kevan Chandler, a young man who is a wheelchair user because he is affected by Spinal Muscular Atrophy. Kevan loves to travel, but because of his disability, he was limited to only going to places that were wheelchair friendly. That is until recently.
Some of Kevan’s rather ingenious friends put together a makeshift backpack that Kevan can sit in. His friends take turns carrying him wherever he wants to go on their backs. Recently the group traveled through Europe, to England, Ireland, and France. Kevan was included in everything. He saw the same sights his friends did, without the limits of inaccessibility. The same group will soon travel to China.
A few days after I saw the video, in a 225 to 192 vote, the United States House of Representatives passed H. R. 620, the ADA Education and Reform Act. According to an article in Newsweek, the bill would effectively gut the Americans with Disabilities Act that was passed in 1990, by giving businesses 60 days to devise a plan to fix the problem and another 120 days to implement what it would take to get up to ADA standards. More succinctly it gives businesses that violate the ADA in terms of access a six-month “notice and cure” period before they can be sued for ADA noncompliance. Proponents of this bill say that it will stop the random drive-by lawsuits that some unethical lawyers file when they see a business that is not accessible. Disability advocates like myself cry “foul” and fear that this bill will give business owners an excuse not to make their places of businesses as accessible as they should be. There is less of a fear that businesses will be sued at all. The Americans with Disabilities Act has been a federal law for almost 28 years.
Representative Jim Langevin, the first member of the House of Representatives who is a quadriplegic, vehemently gave testimony opposing this legislation. He was injured by a stray bullet in 1980 when he was just 16 years old, a full 10 years before the ADA was passed. In his testimony, he says he remembers the days before the ADA when he was excluded from restaurants, movie theaters, and sporting events when the venue was not accessible. He went on to say that this bill “unravels the core promise of the ADA, that a disability, visible or invisible, can never be grounds to justify or tolerate discrimination.” He reminded his fellow representatives that the ADA “brought hope, dignity, and opportunity to people with disabilities.” He concluded by saying that people with disabilities, including himself, are tired of defending ourselves against efforts to weaken our rights and that this legislation turns back the clock on disability rights in America. And I unfortunately agree. A watered-down version of the ADA feels like the House is telling people with disabilities that they need to sit at the back of the bus or that there should be separate water fountains for us to drink from.
As always, people from ADAPT, the grassroots disability rights organization were there right before this vote was taken. People who are blind and deaf and use wheelchairs and have a whole host of other disabilities were up in the gallery of the House of Representatives literally shouting “Don’t take our rights away!” They were all arrested for their efforts.
According to Rachel Maddow, the reason that most Americans are totally unaware of this bill is that there are no politicians that campaign and say “Send me to Washington, I am going to stick it to people with disabilities. They don’t want to brag about this to the people back home. They like to do these things quietly.”
Maybe that explains why there was not much media coverage of this issue.
Of his travels in a makeshift backpack, Kevan Chandler says “We redefined accessibility. Everything became accessible because we did things differently.” I think it is interesting that I had that same thought in the summer of 1990, in the weeks following the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Many times I have said that disability has an open enrollment policy. Anyone is a slip on the ice or a stroke away from being in the same position that I am in. Life can change forever in a split second.
Mr. Chandler goes on to say, “We can’t do this alone. Whether it is a trip or it is life, we need each other.” Kevan had his good friends carry him on their backs through several European countries. Their efforts enabled him to go places that he could not have gone on his own. And he is right. We need each other.
Please, friends, when the time comes, call your senators and urge them to leave the Americans with Disabilities Act intact. In my opinion, inclusion and empowerment are essential for people with disabilities to thrive.
We can’t do this alone.