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Disability Pride Fast Becoming Genuine Cause for Celebration

By Kathi Wolfe

Growing up, Sarah Triano was ashamed of having a primary immune system disability. “I tried to overcome my disability, to pass (as non-disabled), until my mom made me attend a California leadership forum for youth with disabilities,” said Triano, who also has a mental health disability.

attendees at the disability pride paradeToday, Triano, 37, executive director of the Silicon Valley Independent Living Center, is glad that her mother insisted that she take part in that forum in 1992. “There, I was introduced to role models in the independent living movement,” recalled Triano in a telephone interview with Independence Today, “and developed a sense of dignity and pride about myself and my disabilities.”

During the next decade, Triano became the mother of what is now a burgeoning disability pride movement. In 2002, as a youth team leader with Access Living, a Chicago independent living center, she worked to recruit young people for a leadership program for youth with disabilities. “We found that they were ashamed of their disabilities -- that the youth tried to avoid contact with people with disabilities.”

From this experience, Triano said she realized that “one of the biggest problems that people with disabilities have is not being proud of a fundamental part of who they are.”

If you have a disability, you’re not taught in schools, in your church or the media to be proud of yourself, Triano said.

“You don’t learn that disability is a natural and beautiful part of human diversity. The African-American civil rights movement couldn’t have been what it was if black people had been ashamed to be black.”

In 2003, Triano received the Paul G. Hearne Leadership award from the American Association of People with Disabilities. She used the $10,000 that came with the prize as seed money to fund the inaugural Disability Pride Parade, which was held in Chicago in 2004. The event succeeded beyond Triano’s wildest dreams. “We were hoping 500 people would come,” she said. “We had fifteen hundred people! We celebrated who we were and our shared history.”

Janice Fialka and her son, who has a disability, were among those at the parade. In a poem titled “From Puddles to Pride,” Fialka wrote about the parade: “On this street there are wheels rolling/lovely legs limping/ clenched fists raised high/ in the cloud-studded blue sky/,Our son, Micha/ whose label is not a source of shame to him/ who says...I meet the best people in the world.’”

disability pride parade attendees 2011In addition to Chicago, where parades have occurred annually, disability pride parades and ceremonies will be held this year in Philadelphia; Trenton, N.J.; Colorado Springs, Colo.; Mountain View, Calif.; and other cities in the United States, as well as in Norway, Ireland, Canada and other countries.

Curtis Cole, who has arthritis and glaucoma, is the executive director of the National Emancipation Association Inc., a Texas group that promotes the hiring of people with physical and mental disabilities. “Every year, we have a Juneteenth freedom festival and parade,” Cole said in a telephone interview. “Disabled people said, ‘Why can’t there be a parade for us? We can enjoy it. We’ll rock in our chairs.’” Organizers hope to hold a disability pride parade in Houston in 2013, Cole said.

Most disability pride festivities are held in July in connection with the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. There are a few exceptions. The New Jersey Disability Pride Parade will take place October 5th.

The first Philadelphia Pride event will be observed on July 28th. The festivities will include ceremonies at the National Constitution Center and a march to the Liberty Bell. During a special ceremony, the wheelchair that the late disability rights leader Justin Dart Jr. used when the ADA was signed into law will be unveiled. At the signing, Dart was flanked by then- President George H.W. Bush. Yoshiko Dart, Dart’s widow, and Janine Bertram, widow of the late disability rights Evan Kemp Jr., will speak, and the photography of disability rights movement photographers Tom Olin and Harvey Finkle will be featured in an exhibition.

“Having 'Pride' in Philly, where there’s so much history, is especially significant,” Bertram, a disability advocate and writer, said in a telephone chat. “It celebrates us as part of our nation’s history."

Bertram, who noted the depressed economy and the fact that many services for people with disabilities are being cut, said, "There’s so much that we need to protest that it’s important for us to celebrate and affirm who we are.”

Everybody either has a disability or has a family member or friend with a disability, Yoshiko Dart said in a telephone conversation, “yet in our consciousness is this feeling that disability is something awful – to be ashamed of.”

Pride events help people realize what her late husband always said, “that disability is a natural characteristic of being human,” Yoshiko Dart said.

The Alliance Center for Independence decided to hold its first New Jersey Disability Pride Parade in 2011 after the organization took two members of its young adult group to a conference, said the group’s executive director Carole Tonks. “There, they saw a video of the Chicago Disability Pride Parade,” she said. “The young men said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had one?’”

There was no political agenda, Tonks said. “It was just like Italian Americans or any other group celebrating who they are. My 27-year-old son has autism. As his mom, I was proud to see him celebrate.”

Colorado Springs, Colo. held its first Disability Pride Parade in March 2012 as part of that city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Seventy people with disabilities and their supporters marched as a group, Patricia Yeager, CEO of the Independence Center in Colorado Springs, wrote in an email. “It was the most fabulous thing … people who look, walk, talk and see differently being cheered for being ourselves,” she wrote. “Talk about a kick in the pants and being a part of the community for a group who often doesn’t feel like a part of the community.”

Demonstrators at the disability pride paradeByl Adam is a member of the Disability Pride Parade Planning Committee in Chicago. In 2010, Adam, a preschool teacher, was a volunteer at the pride parade. “It was really nice! Kids with and without disabilities were there – playing, dancing, doing crafts,” he said in a phone conversation.

He noted that is "incredible to see how hard people work" to make pride parades happen. “You have to fund-raise, get permits, arrange for Porta Potties. But it means so much to so many people. I don’t have a disability yet,” said Adam, who considers himself an ally of the disability community, but “everyone has a right to have pride in themselves.”

Our disabilities are only part of who we are, said Susan Aarup, a member of the Disability Pride Parade planning committee for Chicago, which set its event for July 21st. “My disability doesn’t define who I am,” said Aarup, who has cerebral palsy. “It’s not so much pride in our disabilities as pride in who we are as whole human beings.”

Johnny Crescendo,Participating in disability pride festivities is a healing process, said Johnny Crescendo, a musician, Adapt member, and one of the upcoming Philadelphia Pride event organizers.

As Crescendo’s song “Pride” says: “Pride’s the key that unlocks the doors/ to the rooms where we belong./ Pride is our destiny and where we all came from/Turn around, embrace your pride.”

For more information, go to:, www.disabilityprideparade. org, or

Kathi Wolfe is a writer and poet. She is a contributor to the anthology "Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability."

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