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ADA Legacy Project Now Off and Running

By Janine Bertram Kemp

When Roland Sykes, DIMENET Internet guru and organizer par excellence, passed away in March 2008, his sister threw out all his papers and sold “The Big White Cloud,” the accessible bus that was his home

The late Evan Kemp -- who introduced President George H.W. Bush at the signing of the ADA, succeeded Deborah Kaplan at the Disability Rights Center and was the first person with a disability to chair the EEOC -- had his papers thrown into a trash bin on the street

The newly created ADA Legacy Project hopes to prevent scenes like those from occurring again. The project’s goal is to ensure that the tangible history of the disability rights movement is collected and remembered.

From Aug. 2nd to Aug. 4th, a diverse group of people with disabilities gathered at Shepherd Center in Atlanta to plan the twenty-fifth anniversary of the ADA, which was enacted in 1990. The mission evolved into the ADA Legacy Project.

The meeting was hosted by Shepherd Center, a private, not-for profit hospital, and sponsored by the Amerigroup Foundation, a managed care company. It was attended by 22 people; 25 more were involved in planning calls. Carol Jones and Mark Johnson convened the meeting, and Kristen Vincent coordinated it.

“I was impressed by how we as a community set the tone of our first association with the NCCHR,” Tom Olin, social documentarian, said of a meeting with officials of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights, scheduled to open in May 2014 in Atlanta. “Everyone was able to work in concert to show the complexity of the disability rights movement to these people from the center.

“The CEO (Doug Shipman) came in with his mind made up: no permanent disability exhibit. He changed his view as he realized the importance of what we were saying as a group. It was to his credit as an individual that he had the strength to change. The mechanics of our disability process comprised history, culture and inclusion in a way that the rest of our community would be proud of.”

Eleanor Smith, executive director of Concrete Change, said she would rather have two square feet of a permanent disability rights exhibit than 400 square feet of an annual or “now and then” exhibit. Dan Wilkins, communications director of the Ability Center of Toledo, Ohio, recalled his experience at the ADA’s 10th anniversary celebration at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. He had viewed the disability history exhibit positioned next to the famous Woolworth’s lunch counter from the civil rights movement and, when he returned, noticed that the disability exhibit was gone. Then he remembered that the Smithsonian had labeled it a temporary display.

Members of the ADA Legacy Project/ Photo by Tim Wheat

“It was a joy to see us working in concert,” Smith said. “In the end, the CEO suggested a permanent exhibit with changing content, and we all assented to that.” At the suggestion of Laurie Block, executive director of the Disability History Museum, a committee of Georgia-based advocates was formed to provide content to the NCCHR.

“I see the ADA Legacy Project as a way for many, many more people, both disabled and non-disabled, who don’t even know that there is a disability rights movement, to realize there is a disability rights movement that is equal in importance to the other extremely impactful movements that started in the 1950s,” Smith said. “The black civil rights movement, the second wave of the women’s movement, and also the very vivid gay and lesbian movement, were enormous, and they are well known. I see the ADA Legacy Project as a way to make people realize there is an unrecognized movement that is as deep as the other movements for social justice.

“Our historical content is a delicate thing because, unlike other groups of oppressed people, pity is forced upon us. We tend not to tell humiliating personal experiences because we do not want pity. But we must find a way to tell our stories and tell them from a powerful place. And if we cannot tell them from a powerful place, tell them anyway because this movement has a power vanguard, and they have our backs.”

Kelly Buckland, executive director of the National Council on Independent Living, played an active role at the meeting. “I think the importance of the meeting at Shepherd was kicking it off in the way that we did,” he said. “We are now talking about the ADA Legacy Project. This is different because it is an ongoing project to celebrate the ADA and our disability rights movement history. This includes all the people and activities that led to the passage of the ADA and built our disability rights movement. This project is being as inclusive as possible because it must encompass the entire movement. “

Smith sees the battle for disability rights being told in three strands, or braids, for which templates could be developed and sent to centers for independent living. The first braid would be about pre-ADA discrimination that would include, for example, stories about education, transit and institutionalization before those involved had any rights at all. A story about a person who missed the wedding of his sister or the christening of her niece because of a paratransit ride that never came would fall into this category.

A second braid would be people who benefited from the enactment of the ADA and recognized moments when things were different, such as their first ride on a lift-equipped bus or the first time they used a curb cut. The third braid would speak to how some rights have not yet been achieved, and how some people are still locked away in institutions against their will; cannot find accessible, affordable, integrated housing; and remain unemployed.

“Go for the gut,” Smith urged. “Do not be afraid to tell how happy you were on the second braid, and how you felt intense pain and exclusion in strand one. Show that gut-level pain, anger and fear. People in institutions still cannot speak their minds without fear of serious reprisal.”

Johnson urged people to be patient with the process. “You can be doing great work by yourselves, but by coming together, the 25th anniversary and the ADA Legacy Project results will be far greater.”

To join the ADA Legacy Project, go to http://www.facebook. com/ADALegacy.

Janine Bertram Kemp is a writer, advocate and president of the Disability Rights Center. A former communications director for AAPD, she left Washington, D.C., to take refuge in the forests of Zig Zag, Oregon. She also is a member of ADAPT.

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