Champions of Change Honored at White House

WHChaps 1This week, staff from UCP National, along with several participants in our summer intern program, attended the Champions of Change ceremony at the White House in Washington, D.C. The program, “Disability Advocacy Across Generations” recognized the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and nine “Champions of Change” selected by the Obama administration. Each champion has been very influential in the disability community and has brought about major changes, while facing obstacles of their own.

Champion Dilshad Ali, a mother of a son with autism, spoke about how disability is something that is hidden and never spoken of in her Muslim community. Ali discussed the importance of being able to access the support of one’s religious or cultural institutions as part of a panel on Effective Disability Advocacy. There was also Dior Vargas, a Latina woman who suffers with depression and anxiety. Vargas emphasized how many times disabilities are ‘invisible’, and therefore go unnoticed. She brought an interesting aspect to the table, and channeled people’s focus on another kind of disability, mental illnesses, which are often left out of the conversation on disability advocacy.

The day’s speakers included Jim Abbott, a former MLB pitcher and Olympian born without a right hand. Abbott has faced physical obstacles his whole life – especially in sports. He spoke about how he had to do things a little bit differently, but that is what got him to where he is today. He showed the audience how he adapted to pitching a baseball with one hand, and told stories about how former teachers and coaches who were open to “doing things differently,” giving him the opportunity to excel.

Another panel on Owning the Future: Disability, Diversity and Leadership included some Champions, who faced more communication barriers than others. Mike Ellis, who is deaf, explained more about his role at AT &T and working to ensure communication technology was accessible to all. Another champion, Catherine Hutchinson, experienced a severe brain injury and is now quadriplegic used a speech synthesizer to communicate.

At the end of the second panel, Derrick Coleman from the SuperBowl champion Seattle Seahawks worked to motivate the crowd to follow their dreams. He lost his hearing at the age of 3 and is the first deaf player in the NFL. Coleman told the audience to be themselves and love themselves.

U.S Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez closed out the event with information about current initiatives to improve upon worker rights, such as raising the federal minimum wage for all workers and echoed some of the panelist’s comments about the importance of participation in the workforce to true inclusion and independence.

Facing the Day with Dignity

Today is the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This landmark legislation guaranteed increased access for people with disabilities in almost every facet of community life. The doors to full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for persons with disabilities opened metaphorically and literally in many cases.

11JE04GDAs an organization which serves and supports people with a broad range of disabilities and their families, UCP is keenly aware of the profound difference this singular act made in the lives of so many people – whether they realize it or not.

 

At the 25 year mark, there now exists an entire generation of people with disabilities who have matured into adulthood under the legal protections of the ADA. They expect accessible entrances to public building, wheelchair ramps and curb cuts, closed-captioning and sign language interpreters, and accessible public transportation options. And, for 20-somethings without disabilities, these accommodations have become a part of their consciousness as well. Even if they don’t experience disability personally, many people benefit from the changes brought about by the ADA. Just think of the young mother with a stroller who no longer has to deal with high curbs at each crosswalk.

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However, there are still physical and attitudinal challenges to overcome and advocates are still needed. Every year, investigations are open and lawsuits are filed over issues of ADA compliance. And, every year, government officials, disability experts, lawyers and judges debate the meaning and application of various provisions in the law. Are the drivers for companies like Uber and Lyft independent contractors, not necessarily bound by the ADA? Are service animals always allowed in public school classrooms no matter the circumstances? What, exactly, do the words “reasonable accommodations” mean?

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Like any other law, we will continue to debate the details and try to adapt interpretation of the now decades-old language to a rapidly changing landscape. However, we think that the true accomplishment of the ADA will not ultimately be judged by changes to transportation, education, or access to a local public library. The real victory to be claimed by the disability advocates and allies who worked for the law is the opportunity it provides for people with disabilities to face each new day with dignity that comes with full equality.

 

Regardless of the tactics it employs, the law explicitly states that:

 

“Physical or mental disabilities in no way diminish a person’s right to fully participate in all aspects of society…

 

It makes the unequivocal statement that in the eyes of Congress, representatives of “We the People,” people with disabilities are people, first and foremost, as well as full citizens of the United States. It is a recognition that the aspects of our society which prevent a person with a disability from being fully able to participate need to be addressed and Congress intends to provide a “…national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities.” It is the law of the land and confirmation that people with disabilities should never again have to accept anything less than opportunities provided to their peers.