Today is Monday, April 26, 2010, three months away from the 20th anniversary of our civil rights law, the Americans with Disabilities Act.
This marks a personal anniversary for me as well. Twenty years ago this summer I attended a cookout at a friend of a friend’s and was told about a job opening at the agency where this friend’s friend was a manager. I’d been out of work for awhile, subsisting on temp jobs, as there wasn’t a lot of work in Pittsburgh at the time for someone who studied English lit in college. The job was humble — answering phones and handling something called “information and referral” for the Three Rivers Center for Independent Living, but this friend’s friend, Sandi Weber, was passionate about the work of this agency and so I applied. Sandi has spina bifida, which meant nothing to me at the time. And thus began the ongoing big adventure of my lifetime.
As the ADA grew, so did my involvement in our struggle. A highlight was being one of the organizers of the Midtown Sweep, in which our local advocacy group, Accessible Communities Today in Harrisburg, Pa., filed three or four lawsuits a month against inaccessible businesses in our own neighborhood, the Midtown. By the time we were done, our neighborhood was accessible, and ramps started popping up throughout our entire city. Our group was called “Wheelchair Avengers” as an insult in one of the local newspapers, but I’ve always thought that would make a good T-shirt. And once a business became accessible they loved us. Perhaps that’s because we made a point to hold press conferences showing off the new access mods and made sure we bought their products. Or perhaps, simply, it was because they knew they were wrong and were relieved to be back on the side of angels.
Our “sweep” inspired Pittsburgh’s “Southside Sweep” and even the “Metro Sweep” in what seemed like far-away Louisville, Ky. We organizers piled up in a van and drove through a wicked snowstorm to hang out with the Louisville advocates and share our experience.
Less than a month after the 10th anniversary of the ADA I started here at New Mobility, then went to seminary down in Lancaster where, a little bit at a time, I achieved a master’s degree, and now I’m back in Harrisburg. Over the past 10 years I haven’t had occasion to do much organizing or advocating. I miss it like crazy, but I had some learning to do. And I love being privileged to tell your stories more than I can say. Telling the story of us, really. It’s been a fair trade-off.
A lot has changed in the past 20 years. Our law has grown up, and I guess I have, too. I’d do a lot differently if I could relive those years, but I wouldn’t dream of changing the outcomes.
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