My Family's Fight for Educational Equality Has Driven My Commitment to Human Rights Advocacy and Public Service: Prepared for the London School of Economics
On December 10th 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt's tireless efforts to propel human rights into our consciousness, culminated in the United Nations adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Ten years later on March 27th 1958, in her remarks before the United Nations she asked: "Where, after all, do universal human rights begin?" Though I look forward to delving deeper into this question as a Human Rights scholar at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), I am no stranger to the groups and movements from which Eleanor's inquiry was born. Very much like the experiences of women, and African Americans, millions of people with disabilities have been subjected to intense discrimination.
At six years of age I realized that my twin sister Alba and I were different because we could not walk and she was nonverbal. Raising us alongside our non-disabled siblings, my parents made it their mission to teach all of us that despite Alba and I being born with cerebral palsy, we were all equal. Their desire to instill in us the reality of the challenges that lay ahead never overshadowed their tireless effort to remind us that we were deserving of the same opportunities as everyone else. The family dynamic that my parents had carefully constructed within our home fell apart the moment my sister and I rolled out of our front door. Twenty years later, society continues to perpetuate the idea that people with diabilities are less capable, less intelligent, and even less than human, thus allowing people to comfortably deny us civil rights and equal opportunity in all aspects of our lives.
Prior to the start of the disability rights movement, our community was marginalized, and our needs were not addressed at all. We were often dealt with separately from the rest of society. One of the most significant obstacles to our fully integrating into, and enjoying the benefits of mainstream society, is accessibility. The inaccessibility of public places to people in wheelchairs, the blind, deaf, non-verbal, and others is so common, that people with disabilities are rarely seen in public. Every outing has to be carefully planned ahead of time to ensure that once we get to our destination, we can actually get in the door. As a child I remember having to call movie theaters and stores in New York City to see if they were accessible before going to visit with my friends.
Transportation is always an issue. Unlike non-disabled individuals, I can never just hop in a cab and go. Accessible taxis are few and far between, and the buses that are accessible often refuse to take us. To avoid having to inconvenience other passengers, the driver will often claim that the wheelchair lift is broken, and will drive away giving us no choice but to wait for the next bus. Many facilities are equipped with elevators and lifts, but they are often broken, and the staff do not know how to operate them. People with disabilities face not only the challenges of getting into a facility, but also accessing the services therein provided to the general public. The school system is one of the worst offenders.
In 1992 I attended a private school funded by New York State on Long Island, only for children with disabilities. When they refused to accept Alba, my mother took me out of the school. When questioned by the principal as to why she was removing me, my mother said she could not allow me to go to a school that discriminated against my twin. While she is more physically disabled than I, Alba had an IQ of 132, just like me. They insinuated that she was cognitively impaired.
Returning to the local district in New York City, my mother placed me in a mainstream elementary school classroom at PS 234 where Alba had been in a segregated classroom for several years. Her teachers struggled to educate a group of students with disabilities from different age groups and presenting huge disparities in levels and types of disability. …