Advocacy in Disability Rights
By William G. Stothers
Looking around the landscape as 1998 draws to a close, it would not be difficult to despair. While people with disabilities have made some headway in society, we have had to engage in constant struggle to fight off attempts to weaken laws protecting our rights. We have been disappointed that our community has not grown as much as we had hoped. In the media, crippling stereotypes continue to flourish.
And yet, I find myself anticipating the new year, popularly viewed as the last of the millennium, with feelings of hope and pride. Partly, I admit, the beginning of a new year always seems to raise hopes. Not to be pollyanna-ish, it is more than that this time.
Not long ago, I received a letter from the past. A woman named Dorothy wrote to me, wondering if I was that Bill Stothers she had known in the early 1950s at a so-called rehabilitation facility near Toronto. She had stumbled across an old copy of MAINSTREAM in the waiting room of a post-polio clinic.
I had made reference in that magazine to "tortuous rehab programs." Dorothy wondered, "Could it be anywhere else but Thistletown where the sadists delighted in stretching us and sternly telling us daily that we would NEVER walk! Ah, yes those were the days."
That was me, Dorothy. But we're not in Thistletown anymore.
I never saw Dorothy after our days in Thistletown. She tackled the world. "I have had a successful career in teaching with a great accomplishment, which I'm sure you will appreciate," she wrote. "For a number of years I was the only `wheelchair teacher' in ... the largest Board of Education in Ontario. Maybe in my own way, I was a symbol for disability, helping others see `disability is everywhere and touched almost everyone's life. It is a normal expression of life, a natural part of life.'"
I believe Dorothy was a symbol. And she was not alone. Across Canada and the United States (and elsewhere, I am sure), people with disabilities took places in society, living and working like non-disabled people. We were all symbols, helping others see that disability is natural.
Larry McIver is doing that, too. Larry is a real estate specialist with the U.S. Navy. I got to know him a few years ago while he was working in San Diego. Larry was not an activist. We met because he disagreed with us about Jerry Lewis and the MDA Telethon. Larry has a form of Muscular Dystrophy. But we became friends, agreeing to disagree about MDA. And Larry got involved in advocacy; in fact, he loved it.
Then he moved to a new job in South Carolina. He was appalled at the lack of access and advocacy. So he became a catalyst. He started filing complaints and lawsuits against inaccessible businesses in Charleston, from Saks Fifth Avenue to Ben & Jerry's and Haagen Daz ice cream parlors. And he began to win compliance.
Most recently, Larry sued Walt Disney, alleging ADA violations at Disney's new Animal Kingdom theme park in Orlando.
Larry says he is using the legal system to enforce the ADA because it is not costing businesses anything to ignore the law. He plans to file more lawsuits. And he is winning adherents in Charleston. He told me recently that he's had the first meeting for an advocacy group called South Eastern Advocates for the Disabled (SEAD).
Larry also said that the advocates in San Diego "had a great deal to do with leading me to be the hell raiser for accessibility that I have become."
Larry and Dorothy make me feel proud as well as hopeful. They have gone beyond being symbols for disability. Their lives are rich and fulfilling. They are active members of their communities, citizens of whom we can all be proud.
In the long run, that's what we all should be, active citizens. Someday, perhaps, we will reach a place where we won't need individuals with disabilities to be symbols. Because as long as we remain symbols we stand for the unrealized possibilities and potential of far too many others who happen to have a disability.
So here's to the new year. Here's to the coming millennium. Here's to Dorothy and to Larry. Here's to all the advocates. Here's to you.
William G. Stothers is editor of MAINSTREAM.
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