I saw the coolest picture online last week. It was of a picnic table at a park. As is typical, it had benches all the way around it, but what grabbed my attention is that one of the benches was cut out leaving room for a wheelchair user to sit next to others who were sitting at the table as well. I love things like that because to me they exemplify inclusion. There was not a separate table for people with disabilities in this design. Instead, the table that was used by everyone else was modified so that people with disabilities could have fun as well. That kind of stuff warms my heart.
Today is a special day. At least for some people. It’s an anniversary. Thirty-one years ago today, the Americans with Disabilities Act became law. I remember well that summer night so long ago. It was 1990, and I was sitting in my parents’ living room, alone in the house. They had gone out of town for a few days. When I turned on the news that evening, I heard about the new law for the first time. Back then I didn’t know what it meant, but over the next few years, as I learned more advocacy skills, I came to understand how important this law is in my life.
When George H.W. Bush was signing the Americans with Disabilities Act more than three decades ago, he said “Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”
I don’t think there was ever a time when I thought that the ADA was a totally bad idea. I guess I was simply young and naive at the time. As I was watching the news that night, I remember having doubts that it was necessary, because by and large, when it came to people with disabilities, society would usually do the decent thing. Right? If only it were that easy.
It was only a few months ago that four employees at the hospital in my hometown each told me that they would not schedule a sleep study that I needed because they said: “their technicians were not nurses, and if I needed help in and out of bed for the test because of my disability, they would not accommodate my needs.” It was straight-up no-doubt-about-it discrimination and the hospital only considered changing the policy when a friend of mine who happens to be a lawyer got involved. It was at that point I was able to schedule the test.
The whole experience got me thinking. I know that June was Gay Pride Month and that these days all kinds of people from all walks of life support movements like Black Lives Matter. Given those things, coupled with the fact that people with disabilities make up the largest minority group in the country, my question to various disability groups on Facebook in the weeks that followed was this: Why aren’t there similar movements supporting people with disabilities? The more I thought about it, I speculated that the whole situation at the hospital would have been much easier for me to take if people with disabilities had some kind of platform where they, along with some supporters without disabilities, could stand together to say collectively that discrimination is wrong, plain and simple. As I talked to more people about this idea, I discovered something that surprised me.
It turns out that there is a Disability Pride Movement, and July, in addition to being the month in which we celebrate the anniversary of the ADA, happens to be Disability Pride Month. There have even been some Disability Pride parades in major cities in recent years. No worries if you were not aware. I would bet that most people don’t have a clue. I was one of them until a few months ago.
There are probably a few reasons that more people don’t know about Disability Pride Month. The one that makes the most sense to me is that most people do not put the words “disability” and “pride” in the same sentence. Disability is seen as a weakness and something that needs to be fixed in our society instead of a diversity to be proud of. I can see that logic. But I would counter that it wasn’t that many years ago that people in society would not put the words “gay” and “pride” in the same sentence either. And look at where we are now. I lost count of the number of gay pride flags that I saw in my community this past month. And many more people said that they were allies on Facebook.
People with disabilities have a long way to go when it comes to public perception. I think that is very sad because decades longer than thirty-one years is a long time for someone to feel like they are not always part of a community.
But progress has been made, These days at least we have a seat at the table.