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On 20th anniversary of ADA

Struggle of people with disabilities continues

Published Aug 8, 2010 11:41 PM

Although the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act was celebrated across the U.S. on July 26 with much publicity, in a corner of Detroit the practical struggle to implement it was quietly playing out in the struggle spirit that originally won the ADA.

A corporate-funded upgrade in a lovely, wooded, neighborhood park included a new entrance with five steps and no accessible ramp. When this violation and insensitivity were pointed out to the corporate representative, he callously replied that there was something wrong with the law if steps couldn’t be constructed for people who can use them. Then he pointed out that grass and mud along the side street was nearly level so wheelchair users could enter there. As a concession, he offered to construct an asphalt path to the side street.

People with disabilities and their allies called the mayor, the corporate head and the Detroit Law and Human Rights departments pointing out the violation and the public hazard created by this corporation’s “generosity.” People with disabilities noted they would attend the planned media event lauding this “gift” to the city. Their message and the choice were clear: Wheelchair users could be smiling for the cameras or they could have signs pointing out the unfriendly steps. Nonetheless, the concrete for the steps was placed that day. But by 10 a.m. on July 27 the steps were gone!

The ADA, accessibility and universal design benefit everyone, making life easier for parents with strollers or toddlers, seniors and the 20 percent of U.S. residents who have a permanent or temporary disability. Persistent, militant and often dramatic actions led by people with disabilities overcame enormous social and institutional barriers and demanded the right to develop their fullest potential. Often these struggles came forward most forcefully during eras of U.S. political and class conflict. Today, the battle is not over.

Long history of struggle

In 1935 disabled workers, some who were survivors of polio, signed up for employment with the Works Progress Administration’s massive public jobs program, but weren’t referred for jobs. The letters PH printed on their work cards singled them out as disabled. The League of the Physically Handicapped staged a sit-in at the office of the Emergency Relief Bureau in New York City when the director refused to meet with them. The League is recognized as the first organized group of people with different types of disabilities led by people with disabilities. Through picket lines, demonstrations and addressing unions and other groups, LPH organized for economic and social justice.

In 1970 during another historical time of mass movements for liberation, equality and social justice as well as to end the U.S. imperialist war against Vietnam, Disabled in Action organized demonstrations against unfair hiring practices and used litigation to fight for disability rights. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 followed. This is the first law prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities.

Although laws often look good on paper, when implementation falls short, organizations of people with disabilities have responded to the challenges. On April 5, 1977, the takeover of the San Francisco Health, Education and Welfare offices forced then HEW Secretary Joseph Califano to sign needed regulations to implement Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act providing for reasonable accommodation. The sit-in lasted nearly a month and is claimed as the longest lasting sit-in at a federal building.

In October 1983 Americans Disabled for Access in Public Transit protested Denver’s failure to provide wheelchair lifts on new city buses by blocking several Denver Regional Transit Authority buses with sit-ins. With low-floor buses now the standard, ADAPT has shifted its fight so people with disabilities can live in the community with real supports instead of being locked away in nursing homes and other institutions — a struggle now in direct conflict with state and federal budget cuts.

In 1988, deaf students at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., put their fight on the front pages when they blocked the school entranceways with signs, closing the school from March 6 to 13 demanding, “Deaf President Now!” Out of three final candidates for university president, the board of trustees had chosen the only one who was hearing and had little knowledge of the deaf or even sign language.

It was the last straw at this internationally renowned university for the deaf that had not had even one deaf president since 1864. For a week they protested, some camping on the university president’s lawn. A sit-in was held at the Mayflower hotel where the board was meeting to discuss the presidency, and others held a protest march to Capitol Hill. They won all demands including no reprisals! (http://www.aslinfo.com/gallaudet.cfm)

On the eve of the passage of the ADA in 1990, ADAPT occupied the U.S. Capitol rotunda and many were arrested. These are only a few highlights of a battle still waged every day when people with disabilities, including those who use assistance dogs, are harassed at the ever more present security checkpoints, and denied use of public facilities, transportation and even neighborhood parks.

This broad and rich movement intersected with the early struggles of people with HIV/AIDS and impacted the political movement as well. Workers World Party’s members with disabilities formed a caucus inside the Party, helping to educate as well as mobilize on disability issues. Wherever Workers World had influence, long before it was a usual occurrence at mainstream events, large rallies and meetings had an American Sign Language translator conveying the songs and speeches. Vans or buses for people with disabilities ensured everyone could make their statement on the issues at demonstrations in Washington, D.C., and express the unique and important demands of people with disabilities.