“If you have a good story, it’s not hard to get people … to listen to it,” says Lex Frieden, about the history of disability rights, in a documentary that will air on PBS on Thursday, Oct. 27, at 10 p.m. Produced and directed by acclaimed filmmaker Eric Neudel for the award-winning TV series, Independent Lens, “Lives Worth Living” is a moving tribute to the early disability rights movement, a must-see for anyone interested in minority groups enduring segregation and persecution, uniting and finding their voice.
The film begins, fittingly, with Fred Fay, who passed away in August. Speaking of the beginning of the movement, Fay says, “Disability and rights were two words that did not go together.” Not until thousands of World War II vets returned from the war with life-altering injuries did the nation take notice of its longstanding disparity between nondisabled and disabled citizens.
For those who think disability discrimination began with architectural barriers, the film provides a much needed reality check, showing footage of shameful conditions in mental institutions that housed people with cerebral palsy, deaf people and others whose lives were swept under the rug.
The key to keeping disabled people underfoot was segregation. But with the 1960s social revolution, people with disabilities began to band together “in the spirit of righteous anger.” The Architectural Barriers Act of 1968 was the first civil rights law for people with disabilities. Then came the Rehab Act of 1973, which President Nixon refused to sign into law. Finally, under pressure, he did. It was the beginning of the golden era of disability rights awareness, a time that was ripe for the independent living movement, and its leader, Ed Roberts.
The film is bursting with righteous indignation. Protesters occupy the Health, Education and Welfare building in San Francisco in 1977, demanding that the Rehab Act’s section 504 be signed into law. In an unforgettable moment, Judy Heumann, one of the movement’s most forceful speakers, lectures Congress: “We will not allow the government to oppress people with disabilities anymore.” In that moment the pride and dignity of disabled people was written in history. The stage was set for ADAPT’s early leaders to expand disability rights to public transportation, and for Justin Dart, Jr., to become “the spiritual leader” who would chamption ADA passage.
Sen. Tom Harkin recounts an early ADA meeting: White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu, sitting across from Sen. Ted Kennedy, Harkin, and staff attorney Bobby Silverstein, begins yelling at Silverstein, a stalwart disability rights advocate. Kennedy stands abruptly, smacks his hand down on the table and points his finger in Sununu’s face. “You don’t yell at our staff ever again,” he growls, the full weight of his family history behind him. Kennedy, whose sister was disabled, understood what was at stake. Like Heumann, he knew the moment had come to demand respect.