By April D. Meredith, Independent Living Specialist, Empower Tennessee
On July 26, 2020 we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). We are truly grateful for the rights and protections the ADA affords people with disabilities. However, another aspect of the ADA that is sometimes overlooked is the responsibility it charges us with – to ensure the legislation is enforced, kept relevant, and improved when necessary – which sometimes requires action.
The ADA is powerful, and so is the population it protects. That said, people with disabilities are not superhuman. We are strong but we have limitations, just like any other group. Much of our wisdom and progress have come from a place of vulnerability. Our strength often comes from trauma that we endure, like the COVID-19 pandemic we are living through right now. That’s why it’s important that we reach out, offer, and accept appropriate support. We must uplift each other. We must also be sensitive to the struggles our peers in other marginalized groups are experiencing.
Many “-isms” such as racism, ageism, and sexism plague our country, and disability-related issues often overlap with all the other ones. This means the disability community is in the unique position to utilize the foundation the ADA provides us to expand on our human rights. It is vital that we pull together, acknowledging the intersection of disabilities and race, culture, socioeconomics, gender, and sexuality. Every marginalized group has experienced a long history of discrimination. However, when you are a person who is both disabled and a member of one or more marginalized populations, you are forced to face multiple barriers to equality. That is why we must combine our resources and our voices through collaboration.
This process begins with respecting each other’s perspectives. Even in areas where we may be able to relate, we should strive to avoid discounting the personal experiences of those in different communities from our own. Being open to having uncomfortable conversations and listening without defensiveness is challenging but essential. We can utilize any privileges we do have to help raise up others. We must be careful not to view the actions of historically-oppressed populations seeking systemic change as threats. When we empower those who are hurting the most, everyone benefits. This is in alignment with the heart and purpose of the ADA.
Despite the confidence shown in speeches, music, protests, social media posts, and other public outlets, these efforts are oftentimes coupled with fear, frustration, and cries for help. When you add the additional stress of a pandemic, emotions are heightened. But this is the perfect opportunity to transform our trauma into positive, lasting change. Let’s take advantage of this crucial state of unrest to show our solidarity for all people with disabling conditions – especially for our black, brown, Asian, economically-disadvantaged, female, and LGBTQ+ loved ones, colleagues, and neighbors who have multi-layered laws, attitudes, and systems working against them. We can work to create inclusive policies, programs, artistic endeavors, communities, and support networks. We can show up and speak out. As a unified voice of disabled advocates highlighting the beauty, challenges, and successes of our diverse situations, we will be able to make a more equitable, welcoming, and accessible society. Through our collective actions, we can raise up the Americans with Disabilities Act, and how it is applied, to the standards we expect and deserve.