Last month, two major Supreme Court decisions opened a new chapter of civil rights for some Americans.
Civil rights do not regulate people’s opinions. They protect people from oppression and discriminatory acts by governments and groups and protect personal freedoms. Well-known examples of civil-rights movements include the women’s liberation movement and the American civil-rights movement, which focused on extending equal civil liberties to black Americans. These movements spurred other groups to seek equality under law, including Americans with disabilities.
The disability-rights movement has a rich history all of its own, with citizens representing a variety of different interest and disabilities learning to work together for common goals over decades. The disability-rights movement has borrowed methods from earlier movements, including civil disobedience and sit-ins, to accomplish its goals.
The disability-rights movement has also learned to act cross-disability (representing the interests of people with different disabilities), the success of the movement has been higher for some groups than others. Early efforts addressed equal access to education and government programs (the Rehabilitation Act of 1973) and physical accessibility to buildings and public places (codified in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990). Even today, when most people think about the ADA, they think accessible parking spaces, elevators and ramps.
Although physical barriers still exist (walk through downtown Durango, for example, and see how many establishments have barriers such as steps at their entry), much awareness has been raised in the 23 years since the ADA.
For some groups, though, there is still a long way to go.
Advocates for people with intellectual disabilities and people with mental illness have some specific civil-rights goals. More than physical access, these groups tend to seek access to equal work opportunities, independent living (as opposed to institutionalization) and self-advocacy.
Many disability-rights groups are lacking in representation of people with intellectual or mental disabilities, so their interests are often overlooked or are represented by people without disabilities, such as caregivers or professionals. Even more rare is an elected official with an intellectual or mental disability.
How, then, do people with intellectual or mental disabilities enter public discourse and lay claim to their civil rights? Their needs and presence are rarely in the public eye, except when national tragedies bring negative attention to the lack of mental-health resources in our nation. People with intellectual disabilities, in particular, are mostly ignored, patronized and seen as noncontributing members of society.
What other civil-rights movements learned early on was that true change could not occur without representation and inclusion in all parts of society. When the people with power are making connections and decisions behind closed doors, people without the power lose.
Do people with disabilities belong to the groups in your life: social, religious, recreational or service? If not, would you be willing to actively recruit them?
For more information about civil rights for people with disabilities, call Community Connections at 259-2464 or Southwest Center for Independence at 259-1672.
Tara Kiene is director of case management with Community Connections Inc.