Special to the Enterprise
SARANAC LAKE - On June 12, more than 700 advocates for disability rights marched in the rain down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, chanting "ADA is here to stay!" and "What do we want? Access! When do we want it? Now!"
Chants and posters drew onlookers. Speakers fired up the crowd. Among the demonstrators were five area residents.
Pictured in Washington, D.C., are local disability advocates, from left, Virginia Mills, Nathan Cox, Amy Branch and Patricia Fregoe-Meehan.
(Photo — Yvona Fast)
The event was part of the 30th anniversary of the National Council on Independent Living. The theme of the 2012 annual conference, "30 years of advocacy and miles to go before we sleep," acknowledges that while a lot has been accomplished since the inception of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, the country still have a long way to go.
NCIL and local centers for independent living work to create a world where 54 million Americans living with disabilities are valued equally, participate fully, and live independently.
Sen. Tom Harkin, of Iowa, spoke about how he was inspired to work for the rights of individuals with disabilities by his brother Frank Harkin, who lost his hearing at age 5 and was taken from home to institutional care at the 'School for the Deaf and Dumb." Harkin broke the mold, doing what he wanted to do, rather than being limited by what he was told he could do. Today, deaf children are no longer sent away. Instead, accommodations like sign language and captioning enable them to communicate at school and work.
During the recent recession, people with disabilities lost jobs at a rate five times higher than people without disabilities.
"We want jobs in the new recovery," Harkin said, commenting about the need for economic self sufficiency among individuals with disabilities.
"America is strongest when ALL of our citizens have an equal chance to participate and be included," Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services said.
After the rally, participants headed to the Hill to speak with legislators about key issues like the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the Affordable Care Act, the National Rehab Act, the Independent Living Administration, the Administration for Community Living, the Fairness in Medicare Bidding Act, reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act and Rehabilitation Act and other legislation that will empower and increase the independence of Americans living with disabilities.
On June 14, a smaller lunchtime rally was held in front of the American Hotel and Lodging Association's offices, demanding the trade group stop their lobbying efforts to block equal access to swimming pools. As summer vacation gets underway, more than 3 million Americans with mobility impairments -?including veterans and senior citizens - won't be able to swim because pools remain inaccessible.
Several pending bills would, if passed, prevent the Department of Justice from enforcing regulations to make swimming pools accessible.
"The NCIL conference and march to the capital was an invaluable experience for those of us from the Tri-Lakes Center for Independent Living who were able to attend. Because of the rural location of our Center, it is somewhat easy for us to forget that the independent Living Movement is something that spans our nation and is spreading to other countries," said Nathan Cox, executive director of the Tri-Lakes Center for Independent Living. "This experience allowed us to reconnect with the larger Independent Living Community, and provided staff with an idea of just how big this movement is, which I believe to be very important. Everyone who attended came back with renewed energy and ideas for new programs to implement at our Center."
Virginia Mills, independent living specialist and consolidated supports and services broker, agreed.
"It was inspiring to see that we're a part of a larger movement - part of something really big, helping establish civil rights for one of the last groups oppressed in America. Working for the Tri-Lakes Center for Independent Living here in the mountains we often feel isolated. I've come back with some really great concepts to implement," Mills said.
"It was a very educational experience," Amy Branch, independent living specialist and architectural barrier consultant said. "I made a lot of friends and connections."
Disability rights have come a long way since the ADA was signed into law on July 26, 1990 by George H. W. Bush, but there's still have a long way to go. The intent of the legislation was to prohibit discrimination based on disability by employers, government institutions and commercial businesses like hotels or restaurants. But hotel swimming pools and taxicabs are still largely inaccessible to people with mobility impairments. Many individuals with disabilities are still forced to live in nursing homes, rather than in their communities.
People with disabilities need access - whether it's accessible buildings and bathrooms for those using wheelchairs, or access to spoken words through interpreters and captioning technology for the deaf, or access for the blind through verbal descriptions of films and pictures. Modern technology helps a lot, but is not always used as it could be. For example, e-readers like the Amazon Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook do not have text-to-speech software, and cannot be used by the visually impaired or those with reading difficulties.
The Tri-Lakes Center for Independent Living is committed to removing barriers that keep people with disabilities from integrating fully into community life. The center advocates for access, choice, and self-determination for individuals with disabilities.
"To have so many people with disabilities show pride and integrity on the long journey to the Capitol to advocate for disability rights and reform was exhilarating," Patricia Fregoe-Meehan, independent living specialist and ADA trainer, said. "It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life."
The Tri-Lake Center for Independent Living continues to work to promote social change, eliminate discrimination based on disability, and create opportunities for people with disabilities to affect change through the legislative process.
Based on an interview with Nathan Cox, executive director of the Tri-Lakes Center for Independent Living; Virginia Mills, Independent Living Specialist and Consolidated Supports and Services Broker; Amy Branch, IL specialist and Architectural Barrier Consultant; and Patricia Fregoe-Meehan, IL Specialist & ADA Trainer. Yvona Fast can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com.