November 21, 2005

The Time to Rise Will Come Again

by Frank Bowe

A while back, I wrote a piece here on Ragged Edge Online about how the movement soon will get a big jolt from the aging of the 76-million strong Baby Boom generation.

Reader response has been gratifying. Along with the customary "thanks for writing this" notes came a small flood of e-mails with questions. Most were variations on a theme. "Why aren't our people out in the streets protesting?" asked one, urging civil unrest. "Where are the next-generation leaders?" inquired another, noting that many of the "names" of the disability rights movement were gradually leaving the stage, via retirement or death. "How do we recapture the magic of the 1977 sit ins?" queried a third, recalling the 10-city protest that I led to help make section 504 effective.

These are reasonable questions. After all, some 70 percent of American adults with disabilities remain jobless, about the same as in the pre-ADA days. People are struggling. Almost every week seems to bring more news about threats to Medicaid, accessible and affordable housing, and even the right to bring suit. Why aren't people crashing the ramparts? It's also true that today's disability rights leaders tend to have greying hair. From Bob Kafka and Nadina LaSpina of ADAPT, Americans Disabled for Attendant Programs Today, to John Lancaster and Dan Kessler of NCIL, the National Council for Independent Living, our most visible leaders tend to be on the far side of 50. And it has been 15 years since the national activities that brought us ADA, not to mention 28 years since the 504 demonstrations.

Here I write about how I see the questions and attempt to answer them. Of course, others will view things differently and will have other opinions. One unique feature of the online Ragged Edge is that readers can easily post comments. I look forward to reading those.

The Times, They Are A'Changin'

Former New York Times reporter Eileen Shanahan was the PR person for the U.S. Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare at the time the 504 protests were occurring. Here she shares her impression of the protests.

Part of the story, it seems to me, is timing. Let me begin by sketching the environment in which the 504 protests emerged. Jimmy Carter had just been elected President. He brought virtually no foreign policy experience to the position, and the country really didn't care. Americans were looking inward. We wanted to focus on domestic policy. Bear in mind, too, that the Spring 1977 demonstrations took place just a few years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act (including Title VI) and the 1972 Higher Education Act Amendments (which gave us Title IX). Those earlier laws famously were accompanied by very visible protests – the March on Washington of 1963 and the Miss America protest of 1969 among them. So the stage was set. We had a country ready for domestic change and some recent precedents that helped our citizens to understand what we were trying to do.

We do not live in that kind of a country today. As a nation, we are much more preoccupied by Iraq, Afghanistan, and the recent unrest in France (the car torching in late October and early November), in London (the July 7 bombings), not to mention the horrors of Pakistan (the October 8 earthquake) and the earlier hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In this post-9/11 period, the news is dominated by truly frightening images. Meanwhile, the average American today associates words like "protest" and "demonstration" with violence, hopefully foreign. That's why it is so hard for ADAPT to get media coverage for their protests in Washington, in Tennessee, and elsewhere. News editors simply decide that those "actions" are not news.

Why People Rise Up

photo of wheelchairs rolling down highway. Photo by Tom Olin.A more fundamental factor has to do with ourselves. This is widely misunderstood, so bear with me. The popular belief is that protests arise when large numbers of individuals are fed up with the injustices of their lives. Actually, that rarely occurs. Rather, people rise up when they sense a whiff of hope. I learned that early on. My teacher was Eunice Fiorito, a fiery blind woman in New York City. When I went to Washington in the mid-1970s, my charge from the board of the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities (ACCD) was to make real the promise of section 504, the final sentence of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act. What we did was to communicate that potential, so that people with disabilities from coast to coast and border to border could understand it and relate it to their own lives. "Sign 504" buttons appeared everywhere. It was that growing sense of hope that led the ACCD board to authorize the 10-city sit-in that I proposed in early 1977 and to enable us to carry out that demonstration successfully.

A decade later, Justin Dart traveled to all 50 states to carry a similar message. The recently introduced bill, which was to become the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, promised to extend section 504 to the private sector in our country. Justin and others (I was privileged to work with him, as were thousands of others) communicated how the ADA, if enacted, would change the very communities in which people live, including hotels, restaurants, movie theatres, and banks. We talked about how title I of the Act would open up opportunities for employment. The message of hope resonated, so much so that more Americans with disabilities by an order of magnitude participated in ADA events than had taken part in the 504 demonstrations.

This idea was succinctly stated to Martin Luther King, Jr. by one of his aides: "People think revolutions begin with injustices. They don't. A revolution begins with hope." The "Happy Warrior," Minnesota senator, vice president, and 1968 presidential candidate Hubert H. Humphrey, said much the same thing: "History teaches us that the great revolutions aren't started by people who are utterly down and out, without hope and vision. They take place when people begin to live a little better – and when they see how much yet remains to be achieved."

The Climate in Washington

Another reason people become active is that they sense that change is possible. In the late 1970s, we as a nation not only thought that positive change in Washington was possible, we actually expected it. This was the post-Watergate era. The need to reform politics in the nation's capital was so widely recognized that it was a central theme for Carter's presidency.

I don't anticipate much, if any, substantive progress in Washington, DC, the rest of this year, nor in 2006. The partisan bickering is as bad as I have seen it, and I've been observing for 30+ years. The midterm elections, when all 435 Members of Congress and one-third of the 100 Senators face the voters, are now less than a year away. My sense of it is that people on Capitol Hill are less interested in substantive policymaking than they are in political posturing. Elected officials are doing things, and making statements, with an eye toward using them in fund raising and in attracting votes.

The recent off-year elections, particularly in Virginia and New Jersey, have emboldened moderates in both parties. Until this month, they've been shunted aside by more radical members at the far right and far left of the political spectrum. Now, after years of frustration, the moderates are speaking up. Meanwhile, the same outcomes are electrifying conservatives and liberals alike. There is a lot more fear, and a lot more anticipation, about November 7, 2006, than there was just a few weeks ago. All of this is destabilizing for anyone hoping to get something meaningful accomplished in Washington over the next twelve months.

It doesn't mean that we should not try. I am working on some language about telecommunications, and other advocates are working quietly in Washington as well. It does mean treading cautiously. There are things on our agenda that we have to "shelve" for now. That is why, when people ask me why this or that matter is not being pushed aggressively in Washington, I often have to ask them to be patient.

Young Turks

The term "young Turks" traces back to the beginning of the 20th century, when students, soldiers and others "went underground" in what is now Turkey, and then was the Ottoman Empire, to sow the seeds of revolution. It is loosely used these days to refer to youth who want to change things.

What about young leaders in our midst? The 1970s movement was begun by people still in their 20's, with only a few intheir 30's. Some Ragged Edge readers looked around and wondered – "Where are the Young Turks of today?" Again, it's a reasonable question. The fact is, though, that there are more young leaders out there than most of us know. The American Association of People with Disabilities sponsors an annual award for emerging leaders, the Paul G. Hearne Award. The AAPD president and CEO, Andy Imparato, is not yet 40. Kathy Martinez, the new leader at WID, World Institute on Disability, is not yet 50.

It helps to remember (smile) that the aging leaders of yesteryear once were Young Turks, too. Ed Roberts and Fred Fay were college students in California and Illinois when they started the first independent living programs in the nation. Virtually no one had ever heard of either at the time. I know first-hand that there are a lot of young Ed's and Fred's, not to mention Nadina's and Eunice's out there. We may not know their names today. Someday, we will.

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

The only constant in life, it's said, is change. Already we can sense it. The country is hunkering now for a change in direction. The humongous federal deficits have people scared, as do high home-heating costs and gas prices. Seniors are confused over Medicare. There is growing consensus that Iraq is turning into another Vietnam. All of this may come to a head on November 7. If so, it's quite possible that the climate in the country, and in Washington, DC, will become much more accommodating to domestic issues. And, as I pointed out in the earlier piece for Ragged Edge, our issues are bubbling to the surface. Already, just this week alone, I've received e-mails from the Hill telling me that this Committee Chairman or that one is suddenly very interested in hearing aids (Why do they cost so much? Why won't most insurance policies cover them?), employment (What can we do to boost jobs for Americans with disabilities?), and the Internet (Why are most Web pages inaccessible to blind persons who use screen readers?).

Stirring Things Up

In 1971, while I was still in graduate school, a Chicago-based activist named Saul Alinsky wrote a short book, called Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals. I did not know it at the time. But six years later, when we were beginning to plan the 504 protests, I was wondering aloud how to get people with disabilities to rise up. One of the ACCD board members handed me a copy, saying "You'll have to ask God." I am sure I looked confused. "Alinksy is the God of the oppressed," he went on. "I think you'll get some ideas from him."

I did – and any of you readers hoping to stir things up will, too. The book is still in print. You can get a copy for $9, or a used one for as less. In my opinion, it's the best $9 investment an advocate can make. Whether you are a Young Turk or not, Alinksy has much to teach you. It was this book that convinced me in 1977 that a sit-in would work. Alinksy taught me to stay within the experience of our people. While going outside the experience of the other side. Having hundreds of people with all kinds of disabilities in their offices was foreign to virtually every federal employee in Washington, New York, San Franciso, and Denver.

Here's another good guide: Getting to Yes. This is an oustanding primer on how to reach compromises that let everyone walk away satisfied. It's $10.

You can have either, or both, in your hands within a week. Just go to Amazon, Barnes and Noble Online, or any other Web-based bookseller. You can save money, too, by purchasing used instead of new books.

Let me end with a suggestion for using your savings. Send a check to the Disability Activist Legal Defense and Education Fund. It's designed to help ADAPT activists who get arrested for standing up for our rights. Send the check to: ADAPT, 1339 Lamar Square Drive #101, Austin, TX 78704.

Frank Bowe, often called "The Father of Section 504" and "An Advocate's Advocate," has a 40-year history of activism. He led the 1977 nationwide protest that gave us section 504, worked with Justin Dart and others on ADA, and helped to make TV captioning available everywhere. A professor at Long Island's Hofstra University, his newest book is Making Inclusion Work (Prentice Hall, 2005).

Posted on November 21, 2005