Advancing Rights for People with Disabilities: A Justice Issue

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Editor’s Note: Last week Atsuko Kuwana outlined her personal journey in coming to see her physical disability not as something wrong with her but rather as something our society is challenged to embrace and make accommodations for. This week she describes the actions taken by her and others to work for justice for those with physical disabilities, advocacy best done in alliance with those working on other social justice concerns.

I needed to be part of a community to fully come to love and accept myself as a person with a physical disability. However, acceptance was not enough. Much change was and is needed to make it possible for all people to participate equitably in a free and open society.

In Berkeley, California, the birthplace of the independent living movement, I witnessed people with different disabilities working together to fight against discrimination and prejudice. A major outcome has been the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), an anti-discrimination law created through the cooperation of people with disabilities, their families, community leaders, private organizations and grassroots organizing.

People experience prejudice and discrimination in diverse forms– racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism and ableism. Yet their basic goals for justice and equal treatment under the law are the same. It is very challenging to change society individually, but when I witnessed the process and the cooperation of diverse people with diverse social justice causes to establish the ADA, I realized that the impossible is possible if people come together and work towards the same goal.

The ADA states that schools, public transportation, public places and private buildings must be accessible for everyone. Unfortunately, not all buildings are as yet accessible to everyone. For example, the ADA does not apply to religious institutions. There was a big staircase at the entrance of the temple in which I used to attend services. The only way for me to access the temple was to receive help from other people. It was not only dangerous to have people carry me up the stairs but it was also very uncomfortable to have to rely on someone else. I felt deprived of my freedom.

My experience is a good example of how disabled and non-disabled people still must contend with unequal access. As people get older, physical movement becomes more restricted and thus they become disabled. Whether a person admits it or not, if, when it’s needed, he/she cannot use glasses, a hearing aid, a cane, a walker, or a wheelchair, he/she will have decreased functionality in his/her daily activities. In other words, ramps, elevators, spacious bathrooms and accessible public transportation are not only needed for the people with disabilities but for a big proportion of the elderly population as well.

I have had many unfortunate experiences where I was unable to access public facilities. For example, I was unable to use a bathroom because it didn’t have enough depth for my wheelchair to fit and the door to close. This silly architectural mistake happened because the designer and owner either did not listen to disabled people or did not care about people with disabilities needing to use their facilities. My hope is that architectural professionals will start to listen more to the voices and needs of people with disabilities and make buildings and facilities accessible for all.

I see discrimination and prejudice as deeply connected to fear, misunderstanding and ignorance. Many people experience some form of discrimination or prejudice at least once in their lives. Unfortunately, even though someone has experienced discrimination, many who experience discrimination and prejudice are not equally sensitive to the many different forms of discrimination encountered by others, like the discrimination people with disabilities experience.

Changing society and the perspectives of people can be a difficult and time-consuming process but when people from different backgrounds move towards the same goal it is attainable. Currently in the United States, we live in a divided society due to corruption, political agendas, the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and a further divide in people’s beliefs. I hope that as we move forward that we can recognize that unity is power and has been the driving force behind the most powerful movements this country has seen to date.