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ADA Watch 2000 - Protecting Your Rights

by Jim Ward

The paths toward inclusion and equality — for people of color, women, gays and lesbians, or for people with disabilities- include common obstacles, as well as shared strengths. While society teaches us that where there is an oppressor there must be a victim, civil rights movements have shown us the power of those who refuse to live as victims and who are empowered in the face of hardship. As many of us worked toward strengthening the power of our community last year- by building coalitions, sharpening our use of the media, speaking out in protest, and lobbying Congress and the White House- the events of September 11th made us even more aware of our need for unity and purpose.


As we begin 2002, the ADA Watch Coalition- more than 400 national, state, and local disability organizations united to protect the civil rights of people with disabilities- will be launching a national tour to promote disability rights and to organize at the state and local levels. We will face both familiar and new challenges. Age-old factors such as indifference, ignorance, fear, greed, and prejudice remain, while the necessity of the new war on terrorism will likely add to the redirection of attention and funding away from people with disabilities. Our work will be harder and speaking up in support of civil liberties will face even harsher opposition and criticism than in times past.


In our efforts to fight judicial nominees whose ideology pose threats to disability rights- including Jeffrey Sutton, President Bush’s pick for the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals- we have already seen our opponents attempt to tie the pace of judicial confirmation hearings to our nation’s war on terrorism. Critics even include those with prominent standing such as Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. He was chastised in a recent Washington Post editorial for making the “dubious” link between judicial vacancies and national security.


The fact that the issuance of high priority bench warrants and other security functions are unaffected by such vacancies seems irrelevant to those intent on exploiting a national crisis and questioning the patriotism of those who do not subscribe to their ideology. As we plot our course for 2002, we must not be swayed by this rhetoric and recognize that the courts have become ideological battlegrounds leading to the erosion of our rights, e.g. Sutton, Garrett, Buckhannon, etc. In the year ahead, many ADA Watch members will continue to forcefully speak out against judicial nominees, both individually and in partnership with such organizations as People For the American Way, Alliance For Justice, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.


The paths toward inclusion and equality — for people of color, women, gays and lesbians, or for people with disabilities- include common obstacles, as well as shared strengths. While society teaches us that where there is an oppressor there must be a victim, civil rights movements have shown us the power of those who refuse to live as victims and who are empowered in the face of hardship. As many of us worked toward strengthening the power of our community last year- by building coalitions, sharpening our use of the media, speaking out in protest, and lobbying Congress and the White House- the events of September 11th made us even more aware of our need for unity and purpose.


As we begin 2002, the ADA Watch Coalition- more than 400 national, state, and local disability organizations united to protect the civil rights of people with disabilities- will be launching a national tour to promote disability rights and to organize at the state and local levels. We will face both familiar and new challenges. Age-old factors such as indifference, ignorance, fear, greed, and prejudice remain, while the necessity of the new war on terrorism will likely add to the redirection of attention and funding away from people with disabilities. Our work will be harder and speaking up in support of civil liberties will face even harsher opposition and criticism than in times past.


In our efforts to fight judicial nominees whose ideology pose threats to disability rights- including Jeffrey Sutton, President Bush’s pick for the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals- we have already seen our opponents attempt to tie the pace of judicial confirmation hearings to our nation’s war on terrorism. Critics even include those with prominent standing such as Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist. He was chastised in a recent Washington Post editorial for making the “dubious” link between judicial vacancies and national security.


The fact that the issuance of high priority bench warrants and other security functions are unaffected by such vacancies seems irrelevant to those intent on exploiting a national crisis and questioning the patriotism of those who do not subscribe to their ideology. As we plot our course for 2002, we must not be swayed by this rhetoric and recognize that the courts have become ideological battlegrounds leading to the erosion of our rights, e.g. Sutton, Garrett, Buckhannon, etc. In the year ahead, many ADA Watch members will continue to forcefully speak out against judicial nominees, both individually and in partnership with such organizations as People For the American Way, Alliance For Justice, and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.
 
We will need all the strength we can gather to hold our ground, and even more to advance forward. Consistent with the vision of our Honorary Chair, Justin Dart, it is our hope that, especially during these trying times, active participation in the disability rights movement will provide us each with the sense of individual empowerment that we dream our larger society will some day provide.


Beyond the individual stamina to persevere in the battles ahead of us, we must be able to turn to each other for support and guidance. While few of us can claim to be free from the “go-it-alone” forces of separateness- ego, pride, self-righteousness, fear, distrust, and the like- we cannot deny the need for collaboration and teamwork. We also must recognize that the defenses we have developed to guard against, stigma and the limited expectations of others, often do not serve us well when trying to build teams. But clearly it is our working relationships with one another, and the resulting bonds of community, which give us the sense of belonging and belief in the worth of our role in the greater struggle.


My work began in 1980 in Upstate New York, when I was a part of the“deinstitiutionalization” movement and coached people with developmental disabilities as they reentered society. While I did not know then that I was a part of a civil rights movement, and while driving a van loaded with guys to McDonalds might not have been the most dignified outing for any of us, I knew deeply how this new life compared to their previous “homes” in abusive institutions such as Willowbrook. We needed strength then, as we do today. We face pontificators who use heavy doses of revisionist history, which neglects to acknowledge our society’s failure to appropriately fund community care. They blame society’s ills on our efforts to open the doors of those human warehouses.


Many years later in Vermont, I developed an even more personal commitment to disability rights, following my own hospitalization for a psychiatric disability. More painful than the original “sickness”, the “cure” included bars on the windows, diagnostic labels, powerful medications, and sudden limitations about what I should expect from life. Despite my advanced degrees and experience, despite winning elections and managing businesses- after earning my newfound “patient” status- I was told by well-intentioned caregivers to do something less stressful, such as working in a 7-11. The resulting stigma led to years of uncertainty and self-doubt.


So what does all this have to do with the ADA Watch in 2002? I share my story because the real cure for me was being welcomed into the disability rights community and finding a place for my skills. Any effort I put into suiting up, showing up, and lending a hand, was minimal compared to the healing power of really belonging to a mission much bigger and much more immediate than any of my personal issues. Any power that I may now have to help lead our coalition forward is proportionate to the openness and support from my friends and colleagues in Washington and throughout the nation. They have let me stand with them as if I had been beside them all along in this struggle. And, of course, miles away from Washington and in my own way, I was there all along. And so, most likely, was the next person we will welcome into our community.
Respecting the individual paths that lead people to join us in our efforts and honoring the talents that they bring will do more than build our strength as a group. It will heal and empower individuals. As we work towards inclusion and equality, we must greet each helping hand with an awareness that our victories come from participation at every level. From the grass roots activists to the Beltway lobbyists, from the parent organizations to the self advocates, from the service providers to the protesters, from corporate leaders to small business owners. There is a place for each of us in this movement.


While we have long faced opponents who sought to role back our rights, seldom has such opposition been so dramatically framed as an issue of National Security. Therefore, whether we are fighting for judges who will respect our rights or lobbying Congress to protect and strengthen the ADA, we have entered a time when we are going to absolutely need each other’s support to build and sustain the confidence necessary to be voices for change.

Justin Dart has spoken frequently of “The Dream” as articulated by the great moral leaders like Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King. He speaks of the dream of a society, which utilizes its resources equitably to empower all its members to fulfill their unique personal potential to live lives of quality and dignity.
As we in the disability rights movement work to make this dream a reality, it is up to us to welcome our coalition partners with dignity and respect so that we may each do our best. It was how I was welcomed and it has changed my life.


Jim Ward is the executive director of ADA Watch and Wired On Wheels. Visit www.ADAwatch.org or www.wiredonwheels.org for more information.

This article was first published at www.EnabledOnline.com and is reprinted with their permission.

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Copyright 2002 A& H Publishing Corporation