July 26, 2015 marked the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This event coincided with another significant event of the disabled community: the XIV Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles. These simultaneous events empowered the disabled community to take charge of their own lives and celebrate who they are as they are.
Twenty five years ago, I didn’t think much about the ADA as a piece of civil rights legislation. I was focused on graduating high school. Over time through college acceptance and on to work life, I began to be more interested and appreciative of what the law tries to accomplish. A combination of things led me to be more actively engaged in the significance of this legislation. First was due to my alma mater’s supportive emphasis on social change/justice. Second was my own experience having a disability was changing during that time. I went from a long period trying to manage my disability to finally appreciating it.
Having a disability, I eventually surmised, is a two-way street. Growing up with the benefit of a good education (thanks to Special Education legislation) and access to high quality health care (even before the Affordable Healthcare Act), I was able to manage my disability well enough to live the life I wanted to live. I believed (naively) that once I took care of my disability from a medical and educational standpoint everything else would be smooth sailing. However, through experience I went from seeing my disability through a medical and educational lens to a social lens which necessarily takes into account other people’s perception of my disability. Despite specialized educational training which enabled me to seek higher education and become a good candidate for a specialized field, employers were, at best, dubious of my effectiveness despite evidence to the contrary. Also, after countless surgeries and other medical therapies which enabled me basic life functions, I still encountered doctors who denied me basic medical care out of fear of my “unknown” condition. What I was looking for was acceptance and a strength-based view of disability.
These, among several other scenarios, are what make the ADA important legislation to promote institutional acceptance. The Special Olympics highlights and celebrates strengths whatever they are as they are. In my own life, colleges took a closer look at my qualifications and not my disability so I was able to attend the right college for me. Enforced, the ADA provides necessary specialized accommodations to me while still maintaining the same job security available to nondisabled people in my field. Because of the ADA, I was able to contest the lack of care my doctors and health insurance provided (or didn’t provide) me because of their refusal to accommodate my special medical needs. I was able to secure needed employment so that I could work at the right job for me and maintain my independence from family or government support. The Special Olympics reinforced my growing sense of self-worth as I am with no excuses or apologies.
I came to Neighborhood because I felt the environment was ripe for action on these issues. My husband and I happened upon the high school service one year as we explored different church communities. One of the high schoolers was in a wheelchair. I don’t remember what he said. I have not seen him since. I don’t even know if his use of the wheelchair was permanent or temporary. I just remember thinking that this was a place I wanted to be. A place where people with disabilities were not just “accommodated,” but actively encouraged and supported to participate on equal footing with everyone else. In a place of equality we could address truly universal issues of healthcare, employment, reproductive rights, and a host of other issues many UUs take to heart and the role disability rights has in these issues. In order to combat them successfully, their needs also need to be acknowledged and addressed.
Action starts with talk. I invite you to this discussion. Yes, Neighborhood has already made strides in welcoming people with disabilities into its sanctuary and classrooms. But Neighborhood can do more. We can take the next step and challenge ourselves to do more and to bring it to the wider community. We can bring a broader dimension to living out the Principles we espouse into the church and community. Will you join me? We will start the discussion this Sunday, October 23rd at 10:30 in the living room of Neighborhood House. We will discuss the UUA’s Accessibility and Inclusion Ministry (AIM) and how we as a church can utilize this in addressing the inherent worth and dignity of people with disabilities in our community and widen our circle of welcome and inclusivity.