Click here to go to the photo gallery for this bus stop.

“We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

— From the opinion written by Chief Justice Earl Warren in the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education

(Topeka, Kansas) One of Tom Olin‘s photographs in the mural on the side of the Freedom Bus captures a protester with a disability holding a sign declaring, “Separate is Never Equal.” On August 1, as we pulled in front of the historic Monroe Elementary School building, Dennis Vasquez, Superintendent of the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, enthusiastically told us that he could think of no better place for the bus to stop. This incredible event was sponsored by the Topeka Independent Living Resource Center (TILRC) and, on very short notice, local advocates and supporters welcomed us and highlighted the strong bonds between the African American Civil Rights and Disability Civil Rights movements.

The event was covered by two major TV stations and the major area newspaper. Bus Crew and local organizers alike later celebrated as the media — in addition to providing widespread coverage — got the message right and covered disability as a civil rights issue rather than framing it as a health care, charity or sympathy issue.

In 2004, America celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in which the Supreme Court held that school districts violated the Fourteenth Amendment by racially segregating children in schools. The Monroe Elementary School, now preserved as part of the National Park System, was one of four segregated elementary schools for African Americans in Topeka.

Our traveling exhibit was set up in the “Reflections Room” of the museum and flowed well with the permanent collection chronicling the Fight for Constitutional Rights and Equal Justice Under Law. The program and press conference — along with lunch for 100 — took place directly outside the school building where Mike Oxford, TILRC’s executive director kicked off the event. Mike is on the national advisory committee of ADA Watch and the National Coalition for Disability Rights and TILRC is one of the founding organizations and major contributors to our efforts. Representing the city was Rio Cervantes-Reed, the director of the Topeka Human Relations Commission. The local speakers and the Road To Freedom’s Jim Ward spoke about how the Brown decision and its rejection of the “seperate but equal” doctrine laid the foundation for the Rehabilitation Act, ADA, IDEA and Olmstead.

While all the speakers powerfully expressed the rally call for freedom, equality and opportunity, no one seemed to speak louder than the late Justin Dart whose words are posted on a floor-to-ceiling photograph of disability advocates in the permanent exhibit. His message lives on:

“Envision education for all! Envision health care, jobs and communities for all! We are not going to be second class citizens any more. We will live free and equal in our communities. We envision respect, dignity and life for all! We will fight to the end of time for equal access to the American Dream!

Far from just celebrating the concept of inclusive education, this event reminded us all that for children with disabilities the work is not yet complete. In fact, the most recent data collected reveals that fewer than half of all children with disabilities are fully integrated in their schools and almost 25% of children with disabilities remain in segregated settings — separate schools or facilities.

As disability rights attorney, Steve Gold reminds us:

“Disability advocates must make education more than an individual child’s issue; we must organize around education. Pretend every child with a disability is your own; would you accept a segregated educational system for your child? Tell your school boards and state educational officials that Jim Crow education for children is NOT acceptable, whether based on race or disability.”

Read press coverage from the Topeka Capital Journal at

Stop by Road to Freedom bus likens disability and civil rights

By Claire Engelken

The Capital-Journal

Published Thursday, August 02, 2007

A building that played a prominent role in abolition of racially segregated schools in the 1950s provided the backdrop Wednesday for a lesson on the rights of another group of people.

The Road to Freedom bus stopped at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, 1515 S.E. Monroe, during its yearlong, 50-state tour to focus attention on the struggle to ensure the rights of disabled people.

Anthony S. Bush / The Capital-Journal

From left, Dallas Hathaway, 14, of Topeka, David Pracht, of Wichita, and La’Keysha Wilson, of Topeka, visit the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site on Wednesday during the Road to Freedom Bus tour event.

Anthony S. Bush / The Capital-Journal

Jim Ward, president of Americans with Disabilities Act Watch, talks about disability rights Wednesday at the Brown historic site.

The yearlong, 50-state tour began in November 2006 in Washington, D.C., and is scheduled to return to the nation’s capital on Nov. 15, 2007. From Topeka, the tour will go north into Nebraska and then move east into Iowa for several days. For the full schedule, go to Ward, president of Americans with Disabilities Act Watch, said the Brown v. Board site was an appropriate stop for the tour.

“Disability rights are not charity,” he said. “It’s a civil rights issue.”

Ward lives on the Road to Freedom bus with his wife, Debbie Fletter Ward, and sons Zach, 3, and Jake, 2. He said the bus has made 40 stops in the past eight months and will make another 45 stops before the tour ends in November in Washington, D.C.

The tour started on Nov. 15, 2006, in Washington, D.C., and is a project of ADA Watch and the National Coalition for Disability Rights. The bus houses a photographic exhibit that tells the history of the movement leading to passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

According to the Web site, the tour is designed to tell the history of the struggle for disability rights, past and present, and promote educational and economic opportunity for children and adults with physical, mental, cognitive, sensory and developmental disabilities.

Ward was introduced Wednesday by Mike Oxford, executive director of Topeka Independent Living Resource Center. Local speakers included Rio Cervantes-Reed, of the Topeka Human Relations Commission.

Oxford said Topekans should be proud of their city.

Ward said he has seen a positive change in the public’s perspective of the disabled since he began working.

“Even getting our issues in the media is a big deal, and on top of that, it is being presented as a civil rights issue,” he said. “We still have a lot of work to do. The struggle will go on.”

Oxford said The Road to Freedom’s visit to Topeka, which lasted from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., was organized in just a few days.

“The tour notified us Friday from St. Louis and said they had an open spot,” he said. “We basically got it together on Tuesday. We made a lot of e-mails and calls.”

David Pracht, 39, of Wichita, was among those who turned out.

“I hadn’t heard much about the ADA in a few years, so I came here to see what was going on,” said Pracht, who uses a wheelchair. “I’m really happy that I came. It’s the first step in the right direction.”

Claire Engelken can be reached at (785) 295-1285 or