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The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Future of Disability Rights and Civil Rights

Mark Perriello
Commentary

Civil rights is a study in the urgency of now. Right now, nearly 28 percent of Americans with disabilities live in poverty. Right now, 16.1 percent of those people are unemployed and many more underemployed. Somewhere right now, a child is being born with a disability, and he or she has the same potential as other children and should have the same human rights.

Every day of my life is measured by how well and how usefully my organization, the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), addresses these issues. But before looking ahead to the future of our civil rights movement, it’s important to recall our past, our foundation, and the source of our goals.

America itself is a civil rights movement. Our nation is the oldest, most enduring civil and human rights movement in human history. America was born out of the belief that the existing form of government was not worthy of the governed, who could do better by themselves if given the chance to make the rules. Our founders didn’t request this change—they declared it necessary. The civil rights movement now known as the United States of America began with an unapologetic declaration of self-determination.

It was not a fully inclusive declaration—they demanded a new government for and by White, male, property owners alone. However, full civil rights for every human being was the logical outgrowth—though in practice, winning these rights continues to be a monumental struggle. Our modern civil rights movement addresses what many among us call the great unfinished business of securing for every person what our founders demanded for the privileged few. It is work that never can be finished: each generation must realize its promise for every new human being who joins our civil rights movement, our America.

More than 50 million Americans with disabilities, along with our families and supporters, are continuing to work on the unfinished business of full access to American opportunity: access to education and health care; employment opportunity; economic power; and political participation.

We have a solid track record already, but there is much to be done. Our disability rights movement is grounded in the same principles that resulted in the Declaration of Independence—that people with disabilities would speak for ourselves, and that we would petition our government directly and unapologetically. One memorable example was in 1990, when members of our community hauled themselves up the steps of the U.S. Capitol to demonstrate the tangible, inexcusable barriers that stood in the way of our right to petition our government for redress. That declaration was a crucial moment in passing the Americans with Disabilities Act, a bipartisan law that would change our landscape.

Twenty-one years after the ADA was enacted, the ADA generation is graduating from college. Public buildings erected within this generation’s lifetime are accessible. The ADA generation has not been blocked on their way to school by the curbs that AAPD Co-Founder Fred Fay compared to “a Berlin Wall telling me I was not welcome to travel farther than a block.” This generation of Americans with disabilities is already demonstrating the value of the ADA and other civil rights laws.

Each summer, AAPD’s summer internship program places talented students and recent graduates with disabilities in congressional offices, executive branch agencies, nonprofits, and corporate offices. This year’s interns, drawn from all over our country, have impressive academic records that would make them top-tier candidates for any internship. By connecting them with employers and providing support, accommodations, and mentoring, we affect many people beyond those chosen to participate. We leave an impression on hundreds of professionals who work with them, causing a ripple effect that will open doors for future applicants with disabilities.

This program makes me feel hopeful about the future, but make no mistake: Though these students are a credit to our civil rights progress, they are not the whole picture. All of our interns—who are a racially, ethnically, and geographically diverse group with a wide variety of disabilities—share one common trait: They all received an education. A high-quality education is a prerequisite to the vast majority of good jobs in our 21st century economy. For nondiscrimination laws and corporate diversity practices to be meaningful, we have to produce a pool of qualified applicants, regardless of disability.

Education is the right upon which equal opportunity depends. And yet, students with disabilities still face barriers to receiving the education that is their civil right. Bullying is rampant; more than 50 percent of students with disabilities report being bullied. Many in the education field believe that these incidents are vastly underreported, and put the figure closer to 85 percent. A child who is terrorized at school is not learning up to his or her ability – nor motivated to stay. Ending bullying is a civil rights priority.

At AAPD, we are working to eliminate bullying at its root by promoting greater inclusion, which leads to mutual understanding. This year, we are taking that work a step further and developing educational tools directly targeted at ending bullying. We’re also sharing a message with our civil rights allies: Children with disabilities have to be a part of any conversation about the environment in our schools.

Access to education requires thoughtful, robust engage-ment in policymaking as well. AAPD is proud of our long association with The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which occupies a unique position in the education advocacy field. The Leadership Conference brings together a wide spectrum of people who are working on access to education: experts, reformers, educators, traditional civil rights groups. Though this field is often seen as contentious, the fact is that every member of this coalition shares a common goal: to serve America’s students. The genius of The Leadership Conference is that it consistently fights to keep that common ground in the forefront, not letting anyone exploit divisions to thwart progress for our nation’s children. Education is not a partisan issue; it’s not a left- or right-wing issue. It’s the logical continuation of the bipartisan effort to enact the ADA, and an important part of our work ahead.

Even those people with disabilities who receive a high-quality education face unacceptable barriers to employment—barriers that directly contribute to the abysmal employment numbers that the Census Bureau released this fall. Programs like Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Medicaid, which are lifelines to millions of Americans with disabilities, also prevent many of us from realizing our potential. The system shows a bias toward institutionalization over life in the community. There are waiting lists for cost-effective services that enable people to be active, contributing members of society. The system also forces many people to prove that they cannot work in order to be eligible for necessary medical and personal care services. I personally know several ambitious, talented college graduates with disabilities who cannot accept offers of employment because if they did so, they would lose the services they need to live and remain mobile. We must fight for a safety net that allows people to move upward in society—not one that keeps them down.

To make an impact on policymaking, our community has to show our power. Voting is the most significant way that Americans of all backgrounds exercise their power and affect change. All voting places and technologies must be fully accessible to people with disabilities. AAPD’s voting project, in coalition with state and local organizations and a nationwide grassroots network, is committed to ensuring accessibility. The recent rash of voter identification laws have a disproportionate impact on Americans with disabilities, many of whom lack driver’s licenses or require assistance with registration. We stand with the greater civil rights community in our commitment to ensure that every eligible voter is able to cast his or her ballot in 2012.

Improving education, securing employment opportunity, and protecting the right to vote are massive underta-kings in themselves, and we have many other things to do. Some might doubt that we could take all of this on in today’s economic climate, with confidence in our government quite low and people with disabilities disproportionately affected by these tough times. I disagree.

AAPD already has a strong position in Washington, D.C. policy-making circles. We are heard in Congress, in the executive branch, and among our civil rights allies. The ADA Amendments Act, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act are three examples of what we and this coalition can accomplish. AAPD’s position in Washington is a testament to the genius of AAPD’s past president, Andy Imparato, to whom I owe an enormous debt of gratitude.

As the other great civil rights movements have shown us, our community’s true power lies beyond Washington, with real people who are making a difference in their workplaces, PTAs, places of worship, schools, and neighborhoods. Our challenge is to build a platform from which all people with disabilities can exercise our political power as a community. AAPD’s job is to build a vehicle for people to participate together, and a conduit for swift, decisive, unapologetic demands for justice.

We are building the tools to do this. They include an increased focus on state-level work in concert with our allies on the ground; online resources to learn about and act on the critical issues; networks of people with disabilities and our supporters in colleges and universities; a media presence that puts real human stories front and center in national policy discussions; and finally, our participation in The Leadership Conference, which has played a key role in our past accomplishments and which I see as crucial to what we have yet to do.

Mark Perriello is the president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, the country’s largest cross-disability membership organization.

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