The ADA Watch/NCDR Board and State Steering Committee announced, in a show of unity with other disability organizations, its support of the ADA Amendments Act.

 

This is not, however, the ADA Restoration Act we all worked so hard on and it is quickly moving forward without the support of key disability rights organizations and leaders. The concerns being voiced come from many who were vital in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990. The Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (www.dredf.org), for example, as part of an analysis posted on their website, states that:

 

“Passage of the current deal will improve the status quo for many, but it will also mean that the opportunity to correct the paradigm to remove severity as a factor of coverage and include many more who are currently unable to use the ADA because they are not considered “disabled enough” will be lost or indefinitely delayed as the new provisions are interpreted up the judicial ladder.”

  

[The medical severity test evokes eligibility criteria for benefits programs, an area of law that the courts encounter more frequently, rather than supporting a civil rights interpretation. The severity of disability should be irrelevant to whether the plaintiff’s impairment resulted in discrimination. The ADA Restoration Act, unlike the ADA Amendments Act, would remove a medical severity test, allowing any person with an actual or perceived impairment the opportunity to show that he or she was subjected to an adverse action on the basis of that impairment.]

  

ADA Watch/NCDR spend more than18 months on the Road To Freedom bus traveling the United States to promote the original ADA Restoration Act and, in addition to working in coalition with organizations, we have been preparing to build unity and advance a shared disability rights agenda. [See below for what we have been cooking up] But, in the final weeks of this process, we held our public tongue along with AAPD, NCIL, and other national organizations at the request of disability negotiators who were in “delicate” negotiations with the business community.

  

Well now those negotiations are over, there is a deal that does not allow for any strengthening of the bill by our supporters in Congress, and there is little time to use this process to build community or change public consciousness about disability rights. There also seems to be, in this process, a missed opportunity.

 

As this process unfolded, ADA Watch/NCDR was at the table and, like others, expressed our concerns regarding content, process and timing. While many say that this is the best deal that could be had in the current environment, and while the Congressional leadership forced us into negotiations with business lobbying groups before it went to the floor, it seems that we, as a community, could have done more to soften the ground leading to these negotiations. A more cohesive and inclusive campaign, much like the one that led to the initial passage of the ADA, could have produced greater unity in our community and capitalized on all of our strengths — from the grassroots advocates to the legal teams, from our lobbyists to our media experts, and more.

 

ADA Watch/NCDR was praised by the disability negotiators for the extensive media we received in publicly making the case for ADA Restoration on the Road To Freedom bus tour. While we appreciate the praise, the reality is that we have one of the smallest budgets of any national organization – less than the yearly CEO salaries of some of the larger organizations. The fact that we received the bulk of media coverage in the year prior to this deal leaves us wondering what might have been had there been the will to fund either our campaign or another centralized effort to compete against the well-organized campaign of our opponents. While we often say that we are a poor community and that we can never compete with the well-funded corporate lobbyists, the reality is that – while our constituency is poor – there are billions of dollars being raised annually in the name of disability. Isn’t it time that a larger share of those funds went to publically promote the ADA and disability rights – not as charity, not as sympathy, not just as research or cure – but as fundamental civil and human rights.

 

As we learned in traveling around the country, and as you surely know, we are not winning in the media. More times than not, the ADA is covered as “big government putting ‘Mom and Pop’ stores out of business.” (Never mind that this is fiction and that, more times than not, we are talking about multinational corporations!) These stories are generated directly from the news releases from corporate lobbying groups and associations. When the original ADA Restoration Act was introduced these groups took aim, even declaring that individuals with a “hangnail” were now going to be covered by the ADA! Outrageous as they sound, they have been very effective.

 

So we are left to guess how the negotiations might have been influenced were there an organized effort that matched or even exceeded that which led to the passage of the ADA in 1990. A campaign that drew fairly on the resources in our community. A campaign with earned and unearned media portraying the struggle for equal opportunity nearly 20 years after passage of the world’s first civil rights law for people with disabilities. Community organizing efforts to teach and build coalition in support of restoration. Maybe even an ADAPT action at the Chamber of Commerce after the “hangnail” remarks. A united community pushing for full restoration of the ADA.

  

While, as an organization, we are not second-guessing our colleagues and have expressed support for the ADA Amendments Act, it is difficult not to imagine the results of a more unified effort. One that, in addition to the considerable legal drafting and negotiations, put similar emphasis – and funding – on the other “prongs” of the social change “pitchfork.” That we could have gotten more seems evident in the now public sentiment of at least one of the business lobbyists involved in the negotiations. Randel Johnson, a vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, referring to the original ADA Restoration Act, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying, “We couldn’t beat this bill so there was a need for a compromise…”

  

Concerns about timing have also been raised in regard to sending this bill to President Bush, as the Administration responded to passage of the Act in the House with criticism that it “could unduly expand” coverage and significantly increase litigation. This criticism follows the Bush Administration’s release of federal regulations that many disability rights experts declare will further weaken the Americans with Disabilities Act. As disability rights attorney, Steve Gold reports, “On June 17, 2008, the Department of Justice issued proposed rules to the ADA’s federal regulations which, if adopted, will significantly undercut the original 1990 compromises and will impose numerous regressive restrictions. Many of the proposed rules will ensure that full accessibility will be, at best, postponed indefinitely.”

  

The process leading to passage of the ADA Amendments Act has undeniably taken a toll on our community. There are many divisions, many bruised egos, many damaged relationships. When the smoke clears, we hope there is an awareness that there remains a need for a unified campaign to change the “hearts and minds” of Americans regarding the ADA and disability rights. We don’t claim that our coalition alone is the answer to fill that need, but we hope that we can be a part of such an effort. And as we assess what happened, we should avoid the polarizing – and often self-serving – characterizations highlighting supposed dichotomies in our community such as “disabled”/nondisabled, lawyers/lay-advocates, Inside/Outside the Beltway, physical/mental disabilities, rights/research, and the like. This is not a time for further segregation but for greater unity.

  

This certainly is not our last legislative battle and many in our community have said that laws alone will not lead to the kind of social change we are seeking. The “missed opportunity” that many are seeing in this process will present itself again. Perhaps, however, we should not wait for the next battle and can commit now to greater unity and the fostering of a stronger disability community. Now, more than ever it seems, we need to join together behind a common agenda and we need to unite all aspects of what we call the “disability community.” We need to work together as national, state and local organizations; legal, non-legal and self-advocacy organizations; advocates and academics; youth organizations; rights and research organizations; student and educator organizations; parent and family organizations; aging organizations; as well as associated non-disability led civil rights and social justice organizations.

 

We can’t afford to exclude anybody who wants to get behind our vision of equality and opportunity for people with disabilities in America.

  

See below for what the National Coalition for Disability Rights (NCDR) has in the works for fostering “unity in the community” and changing public consciousness about disability rights. New membership information for NCDR has just been posted at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/3621464/NCDRMembership-

  

What do you think? Contact ADA Watch/NCDR’s president, Jim Ward, directly and share your thoughts. He can be reached by email at jimward@ncdr.org and our mailing address is:

 

ADA Watch/National Coalition for Disability Rights
ATTN: Jim Ward
601 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Suite 900S
Washington, DC 20004

  

The National Coalition for Disability Rights Looks Ahead…

 

Here is a look at what we are working on to do our part in community organizing, coalition-building and public awareness. As always, we are seeking individual and organizational support to fulfill our mission. Please contact us if you have time and skills – or a financial contribution – that you would like to contribute to our effort. Along with organizers, media experts, writers and graphic designers, we are especially looking for technicians with experience in Joomla to put the finishing touches on our new online community news and action center.

 

Road To Freedom: Our “mobile marketing” bus continues to roll across America, spreading the message of disability rights as essential civil rights. We have traveled nearly 40,000 miles to every state. More than 100 bus stop media events have been produced in partnership with state and local disability organizations. These events have attracted extensive media attention and included Members of Congress, Governors, Mayors and other state and local policymakers. We are currently editing both a documentary film and book of the first year of this journey and disability rights history. Look for the Road To Freedom bus at the National Council on Independent Living conference in Washington, DC next month, where we will lead a convoy of vehicles to the National Forum on Disability Issues with the presidential candidates on July 26, the 18th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. To view photos from the road, go to: http://adawatch.smugmug.com/gallery/2925333_qPCEV

  

National Agenda for Disability Rights: While some might define their coalition based on disability, NCDR seeks to build unity around pressing issues of common concern. In this spirit, NCDR will be launching a drive to promote a National Agenda for Disability Rights – a declaration of values and goals to advance equity and opportunity for people with disabilities. This document, which is being vetted at the national, state and local levels, seeks to build unity and broadly focuses on civil rights, housing, government services, transportation, education, healthcare, assistive technology and more. We will need your help to get national, state and local organizations to sign-on in support of the vetted Agenda. At this early stage, it should not be assumed that each organization associated with our Board of Directors, National Advisory Committee, or State Coalition Steering Committee necessarily supports this document. This document has just been posted for comments at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/3620189/A-National-Agenda-for-Disability-Rights

 

Community Organizing: NCDR seeks to place a vetted National Agenda for Disability Rights at the center of an intensive community organizing project to build coalition within the disability community at the national, state and local levels. NCDR has been in the process of reaching out to leading community organization educators with the help of the Association for Community Organization & Social Administration. ACOSA is a membership organization for community organizers, activists, nonprofit administrators, community builders, policy practitioners, students and educators. Wikipedia explains that, while “organizing describes any activity involving people interacting with one another in a formal manner, much community organizing is in the pursuit of a common agenda. Community organizers create social movements by building a base of concerned people, mobilizing these community members to act, and developing leadership from and relationships among the people involved.”

 

NCDR Issue Areas: NCDR has identified key areas of focus for our educational and advocacy efforts. These areas correspond with leadership committees to be comprised of leaders in respective areas as well as associated online content areas of the new ADAWatch.org website and Action Center. Contact us if you are interested in serving on one of these committees and/or writing for a website topic area. These areas are:

  1. Civil Rights & Discrimination
  2. Poverty & Social Justice
  3. Healthcare & Public Policy
  4. Community Organizing & Coalition-Building
  5. Media & Public Outreach
  6. Disability Rights History    

New Website and Action Center: NCDR has been putting extensive work into rebuilding our online community news and action center that will reside at http://www.adawatch.org and http://www.ncdr.org. Launching prior to the anniversary of the ADA on July 26th, the new website will:

  • Highlight news and coalition activities in our key areas of focus
  • Provide breaking news and action alerts impacting the disability community
  • Incorporate online advocacy tools from Democracy In Action
  • Provide state pages and action tools to build the capacity of state cross-disability coalition
  • Highlight community leaders, academics and writers by way of opinion columns and articles
  • Promote “town hall” forums to increase community influence on national organizations and public policy   

NCDR looks forward to working with you build a united disability community to create a more equitable and just Nation. As always, let us know what you think.