The Everyday Advocate



The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, religion or gender. But people with disabilities were left out.

Freedom They Could Glimpse, But Not Grasp

As remarkable as it seems, equality in America--for people with special needs--has only existed for 20 years. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, national origin, religion or gender. But people with disabilities were left out.

My grandmother was one of them.

A shooting in a Chicago neighborhood in the 1950s had paralyzed her from the waist down. At 28 years old, my grandmother, Doveanne Bell, was confined to a hospital for 7 years—because of sheer logistics! She simply couldn't get around! No government regulations had been passed to require access ramps or elevators in public buildings. With so little interest in the needs of the disabled, wheelchair technology was stagnant for decades.

Today, parapalegics can participate in the Special Olympics in lightweight magnesium wheelchairs with titanium bearings for exceptional speed and agility. Vans fitted with hydraulic lifts are commonplace and, in many states, subsidized by the government.

Tatyana McFadden, winner of 10 Paralympic medals, 2012. China photos.

In my grandmother's day, the wheelchairs themselves were obstacles. Heavy and unwieldy, they were often too wide for standard doors. When she was finally allowed to go home, my grandmother could barely turn the massive chair around indoors, much less move freely from room-to-room.

We only had one family friend strong enough to lift the massive, steel wheelchair into the trunk, then pick her up and carry her from the apartment to the car. Going out was so labor-intensive that I don't recall this vital, healthy woman who raised me leaving the house more than once a month.

Public buildings were completely inhospitable to people with disabilities then. Even if they could have gotten through the front doors, almost every aisle, doorway, elevator, telephone, bathroom and service counter would have been inaccessible.

As a result, many talented, eligible people with disabilities were unable to make use of public services and locked out of meaningful jobs. A fully integrated life in the community was out of the question.

Only with persistent advocacy did things begin to change.

In 1953, when her athletic, fourteen-year-old son, Ed, contracted polio and became a quadriplegic confined to an iron lung, Zona Roberts stepped up. First, she hired a tutor . And then--although the internet would not be available for thirty years--an electronic home-to-school connection was created, so Ed could finish high school. When he enrolled in the College of San Mateo, Zona accompanied him, pushing the heavy, manual wheelchair through narrow school halls.

Because he saw that Ed had a passion for political science and was one of the smartest students he'd ever taught, a professor encouraged him to transfer to the University of California at Berkeley. Although the university gladly admitted him, the administrators balked when they realized he was quadriplegic.

In The Life and Spirit of Ed Roberts, Eve Kushner described the legal battle it took for the university to make good on the promise of admission. Lack of awareness about disabilities was a so high, at the time, that newspapers ran the story with the headline: Helpless Cripple Goes to School.

In 1970, Ed Roberts became the first severely disabled person to attend a university. It was a tremendous victory that would open doors for others to pursue their education. In the years that followed, huge milestones were laid on behalf of the disabled. Each of them was achieved with advocacy.

When people speak up, astonishing progress can be made. Every milestone paves the way for the next.

April 5, 1977, the start of a 25-day nationwide sit-in for Disability Rights

April 5, 1977, the start of a 25-day nationwide sit-in for Disability Rights

Before children with autism could attend public schools and those in wheelchairs could access public buildings, civil rights had to be won for millions of Americans. Before Rosa Parks could ignite a Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Supreme Court had to strike down the Alabama law which made segregated bus service mandatory.

Before Martin Luther King could march on Selma to register voters, the Supreme Court had to find the Southern Democratic Party's exclusion of African-Americans unconstitutional. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Supreme Court had to strike down the laws allowing for the segregation of schools.

Parents today are not called upon to march in the streets or stage sit-ins to secure rights for their disabled children. Laws are now in place that guarantee those rights. But the laws alone are not sufficient.

History shows clearly that action always requires an advocate. It is solely because of the courage and commitment of brave advocates that a promising quadriplegic can study political science at a state university, that a young girl with cerebral palsy can go to a movie in her own home town, and an autistic child can attend a public school with his peers.

Parents with the courage and commitment to take up the mantle of advocacy and speak out for their autistic child stand shoulder-to-shoulder with those who have made great strides in human rights throughout history.

Advocacy makes a difference—whether on the grand stage of sweeping social change or in the everyday life of a single child.