Expanding the Circle of Inclusion for African Americans with Disabilities

Article excerpt

National Opportunity for Black Colleges

As an African American who was born with cerebral palsy, who is blind in one eye, and who grew up in segregated surroundings, in my mind, there is no difference between being segregated into so-called separate but equal schools or confined to inferior housing because you are African-American and being segregated because you have mental retardation and society believes you will be better off with your own kind. There is no difference between being denied the right to vote because you are African-American and being denied because of an inaccessible polling place. There is no difference between being denied jobs and promotions because you are African-American and being denied because you are sight or hearing impaired. All are discrimination. And discrimination against people with disabilities is perhaps the most egregious form of discrimination in America. There is no such thing as separate but equal. There is only separate and inferior. Therefore we must struggle always to establish and to sustain the basic human rights and civil rights of all Americans, and specifically Americans with disabilities.

The insidious assumption that people with disabilities are less than full human beings is more severe for African Americans with disabilities because they suffer from the "double-whammy" based upon race and disability. Throughout history, we have been treated as sub-humans, outcasts cared for by subsistent welfare and kept out of sight and mind in institutions and backrooms.

Only 20 years ago, many advocates in the disabilities' community concluded that if you had a disability you would never be treated as a full citizen economically, politically, or socially unless liberation was advanced under the rule of law. Thanks to countless dedicated men and women of all races, persons with disabilities and "Temporarily Abled Bodied" (TAB) persons have been able to succeed and achieve. Our nation has come a long way in the struggle to improve the quality of life for all Americans with disabilities since the World War I era when ultra-extreme geneticists suggested mercy killings for people with epilepsy and mental retardation.

Let's review briefly our progress.

Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, as amended, a companion law to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in federally assisted or conducted programs or activities. This legislation was hailed as an important milestone because it set a precedent and gave movement to disability rights and equality.

The 1975 Education for All Children with Disabilities Act (PL 94-142) was another important step toward improving the quality of life for people with disabilities. This "mainstreaming" law put children in public schools alongside their non-disabled counterparts. Now that the first "mainstreamed" generation is pursuing careers and starting families, we will soon have first-hand evidence of the wisdom of that legislation mandated in 1975.

What is particularly significant is that 127 years after the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation, 70 years after ratification of the 19th Amendment making voting for women a matter of right, our nation has passed into law the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). This landmark legislation is intended to empower and to provide access, transportation, jobs, and justice for 43 million Americans, too many of whom for far too long have been locked out and shut out.

Yet, despite tremendous progress, America must continue to fight the good fight, finish the course, and keep the faith. We must resist being caught up in the "illusion of inclusion," which is a condition contracted when you rest on past laurels. To meet the global economic challenges ahead, we need the talents and energy of the 72 percent of all women, the 63 percent of all men, and the more than 80 percent of all African-Americans with disabilities who are jobless. …