Monday, January 19, 2009

"Sitting Down, Not Sitting In ... "



I watched through a 21-inch window illuminating a world in black-and-white as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the civil rights movement.

I watched sitting down, not "sitting in."

I watched from a wheelchair, newly crippled by polio, mesmerized as our nation took a few tentative steps along Freedom Road after being paralyzed by racial discrimination for centuries.

It was a time when the n-word was not uncommon, when I was termed a "shut-in" and "an invalid confined to a wheelchair." And I too yearned not to be separate and unequal.

And then Dr. King stood at the Lincoln Memorial and said, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."

Rotten segregation began to crumble. But not for me or other people with disabilities. Most of us remained isolated by inaccessible architecture, minimal higher education and employment opportunities and a patronizing preference for segregation through custodial care.

"You know, being in a wheelchair is almost like being black," I sometimes thought. I was right. And I was wrong.

A person of color and a person with a visible disability are both identifiable by appearance, of course. And I felt excluded, discriminated against not only because of lack of accessible opportunities but also because of perceptions based entirely on appearance: "Don't hire people in wheelchairs. They're sick all the time."

Even after I ventured out into the world and confronted prejudices generated by a visible disability, I understood no one would beat me, kick me out of a restaurant or deny me the right to vote. I had no understanding of the black experience. No one turned fire hoses on people with disabilities. Nor lynched us.

But when African-Americans rose up and demanded to be heard, people with disabilities remained invisible. The lucky were supported by families. Others were warehoused in nursing homes or state institutions.

King voiced his dream in 1963, and ten years later The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 provided the first step toward integration for people with disabilities. Things became better with the passage of Americans with Disabilities Act in 1991, and we began to integrate ourselves into the educational sector, into businesses and professions, and even into the entertainment industry. And as more of us became visible, words and phrases like "confined to a wheelchair," "invalid" or "shut-in" began to disappear from the language.

Today we remember Jim Crow, the lynchings, the riots, the bombs and the assassinations, and we celebrate the courage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I will join in, but I will also remember heroes whose names should be written in every history book -- advocates like Justin Dart, who worked tirelessly for the Americans with Disabilities Act; Wade Blank, who had been with King at Selma and moved on to found ADAPT; Ed Roberts, the father of the disability rights movement who fought hard for everything from curb cuts to access to higher education.

There's work left, of course. And to paraphrase Dr. King, I say, "I have a dream that people with disabilities will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by what they can or cannot do but rather by the content of their character."
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