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A New Generation is Ready to Lead

A New Generation is Ready to Lead

Editorial Column from Guest Author Michael Bailey

PEAK Parent Center has, for a generation, empowered families to participate fully in special education advocacy. The lessons of family integration and full inclusion have not been lost on the children who have benefited from the advocacy of those families. A new generation of people with disability pride and high expectations is the result.

"Nothing about us without us," is far more to these young people than just a slogan. It is a mantra and an expectation. This generational shift challenges the past and foretells the future.

Let's begin with a little history. A number of laws were passed which opened doors for individuals with disabilities. The Labor Standard Act, which authorizes sub minimum wage jobs for adults, dates all the way back to 1938. Supplemental Security Income, which provides payment to adults with disabilities, came into being in 1974. The Education of the Handicapped Act (the forerunner of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA) was enacted in 1975. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990. The ADA's community integration mandate was extended by the Supreme Court's Olmstead decision in 1999.

A person twenty-one years old was born after these reformist laws became reality. While veteran advocates still see many of the principles of these laws as new and revolutionary, young people have grown up in a world where all of these things are normal. They did not have to fight the battles of the past. They are the beneficiaries of those struggles of the past but are also the hostages of the existing limitations, making them the most effective critics. Their new voices, this new generation, presents an unprecedented opportunity for real freedom.

An example of how young people are changing the dialogue was demonstrated by reactions to Segregated and Exploited, the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN) expose of sub minimum wage workshops. The proposal for supported employment with competitive pay, which resulted from the findings of Segregated and Exploited, immediately split the disability world along generational lines.

The status quo was not happy. ACCSES is a professional organization for vocational providers. It is the main lobbying group for segregated employment. Days after Segregated and Exploited was published, ACCSES released a public letter condemning the report. In my own state of Oregon, our rehabilitation association labeled it "cherry-picked cheap shots."

Self Advocates Becoming Empowered (SABE) on the other hand enthusiastically endorsed the report. They even sent their Vice President, Max Barrows (pictured right behind the podium), to Baltimore for the NDRN Annual Meeting to personally deliver their message of support. "Thank you," he said, "for telling the truth about sheltered workshops."

In efforts to understand the different and positive response of SABE, I spoke with three twenty-something Americans, asking them what had influenced their thinking about disability. Their answers were similar in many ways.

Joe Stramando is a graduate student at Michigan State University (MSU), an outspoken advocate, and an ADAPT member and activist. I asked him about disability pride. He distinguished disability pride from his pride as an Italian-American or MSU Spartan. "Disability pride," he said, "is always an act of defiance."

"It flies in the face of the persuasive, dominant, cultural narrative that disability always equates with tragedy. This is the narrative that maintains the power imbalance that is the root source of all social oppression experienced by disabled people. The disability tragedy narrative is the jail warden of our people."

In Chicago, Amber Smock is an organizer at Access Living, an Independent Living Center. "A source of pride in our disability is our difference," she said. "In the process of finding our way we are aided and validated by our peers. We are in the process of making our own answers and affirming ourselves."

Allison Falleur of Portland, Oregon works as a benefits counselor at Disability Rights Oregon, Oregon's Protection and Advocacy agency. Allison credits her family as helping to instill in her an overall sense of pride and equality.

"They never drank the pity Kool-Aid," she says. "It was always clear that they expected that I would accomplish everything my brothers and sisters did. They gave me a voice."

After a series of surgeries, Ms. Falleur's family suggested to her that perhaps she should give up her career and move to an assisted living facility. "I said to them 'you prepared me to get a job and a degree and I did.' Mental and physical issues will not stop me."

These three young leaders are typical of a generation that benefited from past victories but are now ready to take the next step to real independence. It is worth noting that before critics dismiss them as "high functioning," forty years ago it is very likely that all three of these individuals would be living in some kind of institution. The criticism proves my point. The system has always been guilty of paternalism and under estimating what people with disabilities are capable of.

Of the next stage Amber Smock said, "How do we teach our people how to use the power that we own? The momentum toward gaining pride is really happening fast now. We have a lot of courage and we must use it, with or without humor, depending on the situation."

"The ADA is great but people have greater aspirations," Allison Falleur says. "Accessibility is not enough. We need new legislation regarding employment and community living. A living wage must be a mandated civil right."

"Non-violent direct action tactics lead people to the use of adapted equipment. It works," says Joe Stramando. "It makes me proud to think of early activists defying ableist domination. It is time now to take the next steps. Whatever they may be, pride will play a big part and people with disabilities will be the leaders."

A history of advocacy and new ideas has given people with disabilities their best weapon ever: a generation of young leaders that grew to adulthood with a sense of empowerment, restlessness and a yearning sense that there are new and different things to be done.

This generation of young people is ready to lead. Will the older generation follow?

That question frames the next stage of the struggle for disability rights.

Picture of Michael BaileyMichael Bailey (pictured left) is President of Disability Rights Oregon and President-elect of the National Disability Rights Network. He is author of "Special Education: A Parent's Guide to a Child's Success." He lives in Portland, Oregon. Michael is also the proud father to two daughters, Eleanor and Taylor.

Copyright 2011 © by PEAK Parent Center, Inc. All rights reserved. Permission to reproduce may be obtained from PEAK Parent Center.