July 26, 2020
Recognizing that dignity is non-partisan, thirty years ago today President George H. W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The promise of the ADA was to end segregation and discrimination toward those with disabilities in all aspects of life: employment, transportation, and public facilities. This milestone, one of the more important social justice laws in our nation, was precluded by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Me and my brother, Allen, circa 1970
I think back to my older brother, Allen, who sixty plus years ago, was born cognitively and physically impaired and never had the opportunities we have today. He was institutionalized and spent most of his short life tucked away in the country somewhere in Ohio, where we visited. My early exposure to my brother and his severe differences imprinted in me an early understanding that differences can be loved. This is what drives me to advocate for differently-abled children in public education.
Both laws — the ADA and IDEA — forced us as a society to include those who are differently-abled in our workplaces, public schools, and our communities in ways never seen before. I've seen these two laws at work within my own community. Aaron, a young man I know, went through Rochester Community Schools and their Adult Transition Program (ATP) until he aged out of the public-school system at 26. Aaron is on the Autism Spectrum and will never be able to live independently; but I like to talk about what he can do. Through both his schooling and the ATP, he learned valuable, employable skills that led him to a part-time job at a local Physical Therapist's office. Not only is he is a member of their team, he also volunteers in the kitchen of a local elementary cafeteria.
This is where the intersectionality of the ADA and the IDEA are important: the public promise of a free and appropriate education through IDEA helped Aaron find and cultivate his purpose and, the ADA paved a way for him to earn a salary, pay taxes and be a productive member of our community.
Success is when public policy and the laws combine to fulfill a need in our society. But, has it really given individuals with disabilities the equality they deserve? Inclusion doesn't automatically mean equality and tolerance.
Aaron and I at an annual Paint A Miracle event. He's also a talented artist and this piece is hanging in my home. (Photo used with permission)
Do we have more work to do in the space of the ADA and IDEA within our society, our country, our state, and even our community? Absolutely. Here is where we fall short:
There is a 70% unemployment and under-employment rate within the disability community.
Michigan is lacking in quality public transportation that individuals with disabilities cound use to increase their independence.
Housing options for developmentally disabled adults tend to be more institutional than community-based.
We underfund special education needs by $700 million.
The remote and online education for children with disabilities during the current pandemic is presenting a whole new set of challenges in meeting the spirit and intent of IDEA.
In thinking of these challenges, I see opportunity for that same bi-partisanship that pushed us as a society to change for the better and improve the lives of all citizens. That's why I'm choosing this path — as a state representative, working hard to win a seat at the decision making table in Michigan's Capitol — to ensure that all voices are heard, acknowledged, and accounted for as we move forward as a state.
Onward toward inclusion for All,