Sunday, April 11, 2004

For people with disabilities, time has brought progress

Alive and well

Debra Kendrick

Ohio State University celebrates 30 years of service to students with disabilities this month. Preparing to speak to faculty and students in honor of that celebration, I have, not surprisingly, been thinking about the changes 30 years has brought to campus life for students with disabilities.

There are many. Being accepted in the first place is one. Being able to get into the buildings and classrooms is certainly another. Changes in the lives of people with disabilities have occurred beyond campus, too - out here in the world of work and family and going to church and getting by.

Most of us, the 54 million Americans identified as having physical or mental disabilities, want simple equality and acceptance. Attitudes were the greatest barrier to that equality decades ago, and many positive events have worked to wear down those barriers.

Two big milestones

While there are too many milestones to name them all, here are some which stand out among the rest.

In 1990, I attended the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act into law by President George Bush. That law, prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities in every public setting from the work place to the bus stop to the local grocery store, was the first and most comprehensive legislation of its kind to be passed in the world.

In 1996, while covering the Atlanta Paralympics, I realized that these competitive games for elite athletes who happen to have disabilities is probably one of the most promising contemporary influences on negative attitudes and stereotypes.

Deaf Miss America

National milestones include a crowning of a Miss America who was deaf; a prime-time family TV series starring a young man with Down Syndrome, and a renowned actor breaking his neck and not having to disappear from public view.

Here in Cincinnati, we have witnessed tangible symbols like wheelchair ramps at intersections, handicapped parking spaces, Braille menus in area restaurants, listening devices in our theaters. We have witnessed the evolution of the Inclusion Network, a unique organization initiated by the Mayerson Foundation, with the laudable goal of making Cincinnati the most accessible city anywhere.

But barriers remain

Still, the attitudinal barriers keeping Americans with disabilities from a fully included place at the table are far from removed. The unemployment rate among people with disabilities remains at an appalling 70 percent.

Some whisper nervously about relatives or neighbors who have been diagnosed with mental disabilities. We are still often forced to see loved ones languishing in nursing homes because funding is inadequate for home-based care. And kids with disabilities in our schools are not always getting the accommodations they need to thrive.

The greatest change in the last few decades, it seems to me, is that having a disability is now respectable, not a fact to be hidden in shame. We're alive and well.

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