The Promise of The ADA

The ADA in its promise for access in Titles 2, 3, and 4 changed the footprint of America. For many who never knew or have forgotten what America was like before wheelchair access signs, accessible buses, metro access systems, curb cuts, braille signage, captioned tv shows and movies and sign language for televised emergency announcements; disabled people did not have the opportunity to move freely in daily life and America did not see disabled people moving freely in everyday life.  For this I say, Thanks be to God for the countless disabled people and legislators who came together to work, to advocate, to push and yes to fight for the ADA.

However, there is still critical work for a more just America for all disabled people.   Legislation needs constant attention, revision and reimaging to move forward to meet the ideals that called for it in the first place.  In this case the ADA was a beginning of providing equity and civil rights for disabled people.

It is in this year of the 30th Anniversary of the ADA that we should examine what legislation is still needed to cover what the ADA did not address in order to move forward the ideal of a just life for all disabled people.  It is the least of us who we have not included.

Disability does not exist in a vacuum; it sits in bodies that are also impacted by social class, economic status and race.  One way this difference shows up in the ADA is in Title I which covers employment.  Black disabled people are the demographic who have had the least employment opportunities.

Although education does not come under the ADA and IDEA covers the civil rights to education, there needs to be more work to identify “the why” as to the education disparities for Black disabled people. The knowledge that education is the portal to employment and upward mobility should not be any different for the disabled community. The non-disabled Black community have understood this and has worked at it for many years.  We now have more professional Black people than in any other time in history.  So what messages are our Black disabled students receiving?

My work over the past 30 years has been in the Black community on the intersection of race and disability.  When I began my work, with other small groups from across the country, we explained we could not leave our race identity and issues at the door in disability discussions.  We argued that all of who we are needed to be at the table and we could not separate racism when it came to disability discussions. It is only now after 30 years of work that race is at the disability table, however, there has not been much improvement in Black disabled lives.  Change takes time and legislation. How long must we wait?

What I have learned is that institutional racism against Black and Brown disabled people is also demonstrated in systems the same way as nondisabled Black and Brown people.

I have travelled many roads and have seen many examples of disabled Black people whose lives are considerably impacted by injustice.

So today, I am here to tell the stories of Black and Brown disabled people. They are many and they are difficult to hear but we need our consciousness awaken to the sheer numbers of disabled people whose quality of life is less than standard.  Although they are my stories, they are not individual.

Until there is real research and reporting of Black disabled people we can only guess at the numbers these stories represent.  What we know is that institutionalized racism manifests itself both in material conditions and in access to power. It is especially dangerous because there is no identifiable perpetrator; in fact, its effects are evident as inaction in the face of need and silence in the face of inequity. Inaction in the face of need and silence in the face of inequity are common threads in my stories.

Today I am here to talk about how jails and prisons are dangerous places for anybody, especially children and teens. Yet on any given day, approximately 4,500 juveniles, most of which are disabled, and are under the age of 18 are locked up in adult penal systems. Children as young as 15 can be prosecuted as adults in many states without review by a judge or court hearing.  How is it that at 14 years old a child can be sentenced to 100 years of incarceration and it not be mentioned one time in any report or testimony that the child has lead poisoning which caused neurological impairment in behavior and impulsivity?

Today I am here to talk about the time I received a call from a physician who wanted a list of Provider agencies for a male, 24 years, who was being released after 3 years of incarceration. She explained the young man had no evidence of family and that cognitively was incapable of providing or preparing food for himself.

Today I am her to talk about the brother and sister who were in a video store at the mall while their mom shopped elsewhere. The teenage brother shoplifted a CD and upon reaching the door the young man was restrained by the store manager and police. His younger sister who has a developmental disability only understood that the police was doing something to her brother. She began to hit the policeman.  The child was convicted of assaulting a policeman, while her brother was only reprimanded for shoplifting. At the end of the day the 13 years old sister had to report to probation in the same office as adult men who are released from prison to probation.

Today I am here to talk about the family whose adult son who has Autism ran out of the house in fun as a chase game with his direct support staff running behind him. He ran to the neighbor’s home who is a policeman. The policeman shot both the son and his staff. It was not until the mother arrived at the crime scene was it detected that her son was shot. Her son could not communicate that he was shot and was left in a police car until his mother arrived. There was never an investigation as to why a policeman shot through his front door rather than answer the door.

Today I am here to talk about Casper who was shot and killed at his local police station when he went for help because he believed his home was being robbed. Casper was a frail senior citizen who had epilepsy and was recuperating from heart surgery.  His heart medication disoriented him. Upon entering the police station he waved a toy gun which he had to protect himself from burglars. The police found him to be a threat and shot to kill.

Today I am here to talk about the Paterson mother who asked many and often for assistance to move to a safe neighborhood. Her neighborhood is riddled with gun wars. She explains that although she could teach her other children how to protect themselves during gunfire, she cannot teach her adult daughter with significant disabilities who attends a day program how to protect her. Her daughter does not understand to lie on the floor or to immediately go to the back of the home when gunfire begins.

Today I am here to talk about the young man with developmental disabilities who for years sold drugs on a corner where I waited for a bus to return home from work. He knew I worked at the Council on Developmental Disabilities. There has always been much talk about young men with developmental disabilities being taken advantage of by drug dealers. It was clear this young man’s support was from drug dealers and not provider agencies.

Today I am here to talk about Kathy who was hit and killed by a city bus.  Kathy was a young woman who had developmental delays and was a wheelchair user who was supported by a provider agency. She liked to go across the street at night where there was no cross walk or streetlight to a convenience store.  There were many near misses with Kathy until one day she was hit and killed by a bus.  Kathy did not have family in her life. She was a ward of the state.  The provider agency said that there was no need to move her to a place where she could access a convenience store in safety if she did not want to move because providing her choice in her life was most important.

Today I am here to talk about the 10 year old child who has cp whose therapist explained to him that she was going to have people talk to him about the marks on his back because he was being beaten.  He replied yes, but I am bad sometimes.  After the case was filed the determination was that it was a culture difference in how children were reprimanded and that the state did not become involved in cultural differences.

Today I am here to talk about giving a ride home to a man who has mental illness.  When we reached his boarding house the door was locked. We had been at a disability meeting together and it was past 9pm.  I assisted him in having the owner unlock the door so he could get in.  He explained that often when he did not meet the curfew he slept in the streets.  He had a room which was dirty and smelled terribly.  When I asked about the bathroom he explained it was hard to get into because so many people used it.  This man’s rent was paid by a provider agency.

Today I am here to talk about giving a ride home to a young woman who is a wheelchair user who pulls her wheelchair up 2 flights of steps while sitting and bouncing one step at a time to gain access to her apartment.

Today I am here to talk about why a man with cp must park his chair and bicycle in the lobby of his building because neither will fit in his accessible apartment.

Today I am here to talk about two apartment buildings in two different states that were funded and managed by provider agencies.  Both buildings are in urban cities.  Both buildings have security systems much like federal buildings because of gun and drug violence in the neighborhoods. These buildings were not financed by random urban developers, they were financed by provider agencies whose responsibility is to provide a safe environment for their clients. Why are new apartment buildings for disabled people being built in dangerous neighborhoods?

Today I am here to talk about why a disabled advocate who has cp and is aging must have fundraisers for mobility equipment because he has been assessed at not needing mobility equipment because he did not use them when he was younger.

I am most haunted by the numbers of adult people who live with family members, most of whom are grandmothers, who think it is ok for their loved ones to go to a day program and sit home for the remainder of the day or week because it is too hard “for them” to go out. The guardians always told me how proud they are of “taking care” of the loved ones.  This seems so small, but it was the look on the individuals faces as their guardians told me these stories that remains with me.  I feel like there are countless I let down from having the freedom they are entitled. I wonder, does the disability community really understand what is happening in poor communities?

I was once told by a White disabled man that disability does not exempt poverty, meaning he believed that being born into poverty does not impact disability equity.  I questioned what responsibility does the disability community have to the least of us? It has not been answered by disability activists.

So where do we go from here?  The great news is 30 years later there are thousands of activists who talk about race and institutional racism in disability. The challenge is to have active boots on the ground to demand legislation that will stop the injustices and provide quality of life for marginalized disabled people.  It is the best way to honor the 30th Anniversary of the ADA and its promise to all disabled people.

Jane Dunhamn, Director
National Black Disability Coalition