July is Disability Pride Month, a month dedicated to promoting awareness, acceptance, and empowerment of people with disabilities. We also take this opportunity to recognize the attitudes and barriers that continue to limit our full participation in society.
This month, the Minnesota Council on Disability highlights the unique experiences and perspectives of people within our community.
A guest blog post by MCD Council member Tammy Berberi:
In 1990 as a college junior, a small grant from my college enabled me to travel to Washington D.C in order to research the Americans with Disabilities Act. This day would be something of a blur for me were it not for all the media coverage I have since watched. But there are sounds and sensations from that day that I will never forget: first, my parents and I had shopped for a fancy, navy pinstriped skirt and blazer with pumps to match – the red pocket square added a splash of patriotism, they thought. It was elegant, but the fabric was scratchy and it was awkward in every way. As I walked with my crutches, the skirt got all twisty. The pumps didn’t want to stay on, so I had to sort of drag them along under me, hoping no one would notice that one of them was nearly sideways. On that unseasonably hot and sticky day, I felt like a duck trying to clamber out of a roasting pan, and the slick marble floors in the capitol didn’t help. I recall skittering around, trying to hitch my crutch on a grain of sand, anything, really, that would keep me on my feet, fighting to stay inside my pumps. The second thing I recall is being eerily alone: don’t they do stuff here? I wondered. As I pondered the many identical doors before me, I wished for someone – anyone, really – bearing a pair of more practical sneakers who could direct me to a grippier path to an exit. Which one would take me back the way I had come? I quickly tired of the slipping and sliding and lunged towards the door closest to me.
From my dorm room in Colorado Springs, I had done lots of research in (ahem…) phone books to contact key drafters for an interview. Only Senator Dole had agreed to meet with me, however, and I arrived at his office to find that he was unavailable and had left me in the hands of a staffer. The conversation with that staffer was guarded to say the least. What I did not know is that hundreds of disabled people were gathering in protest on the west of the capitol. Although I was dressed for meetings, not rabble-rousing, my presence inside the capitol on that particular day awakened security concerns.
The third thing I recall is the swell of exuberance I heard ahead of me as I opened a door (chosen at random). As the door closed behind me and locked, I realized that the only way home was through the sea of people in front of me. I looked down as activists took the mic to speak or sign their messages; chanting, singing, dancing, and crawling up the capitol steps – this last one a gesture , none too metaphorical, highlighting the inaccessibility of government. As I began walking down the steps, people began cheering for me as though I too were making some sort of political gesture. I remember thinking, “How can I let them know I made a mistake?” But as I reached the bottom of the steps, I was of course cheering for the comrades heading up the steps in the opposite direction, and I eagerly joined the crowd. As I look back, I became overwhelmed by the integrity and magnitude of their efforts to lead on creating futures more just, more accessible, and more inclusive.
A landmark achievement in American civil rights, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 would not have been realized without the smarts, strategy, and gritty dedication of disabled activists and advocates. To mark the 33rd anniversary of its passage, I’d like to thank them and to call upon every Minnesotan to do the inner work that social change entails. Disability pride is an invitation to reflect upon our own roles as change-makers, and it shouldn’t end on August 1.
On that day in 1990, I did notice the cultural, racial, and linguistic diversity of that crowd of committed activists. I don’t remember thinking about my own cultural location as a white, middle-class woman who has always had ready access to the education, care, and mentors I need. The disabled community has always been as diverse as the rest of American society – its activism deeply coalitional – but that diversity isn’t always evident in my communities due to societal dynamics that advance some people while overlooking others. One strategy to build a more multicultural understanding of disability is to build relationships with people and partnerships with organizations that serve specific communities. These relationships take time, but they humanize us and are the foundation for a more equitable Minnesota and the future we long for.
If you are new to the idea of disability as identity and culture, find a way into the topic that interests you. Whatever your personal interests (sports, film, art, public policy, literature, gardening, gaming, etc.) there you will find a disability angle to explore and disabled people who share your interests. There you will also find access – or the opportunity to build it. Anyone who dreams of a more just society can develop the sensibility and specific skills to create accessible spaces, materials, and opportunities. With the passage of the ADA, disabled people officially gained access to public spaces and, ostensibly, a so-called seat at the table. Thirty-three years on, we are ready for the sweeping paradigm shift that will leave deficit thinking behind and recognize us as assets – for the intelligence, fun, and innovation we bring to the communities in which we belong.