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Evolution: 23 Years of ADA, Changing Attitudes about Disability

Guest post by Community Media Workshop board member Gary Arnold

This summer marks the 23rd anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The anniversary reminds me of a story a colleague of mine told me years ago.  The story goes: he sat in a room with reporters, then bluntly said, “The best thing you could do for us would be to never write another word about disability.”

Though not helpful for my job as public relations coordinator, his story resonated.

At the time, story lines around disability included Jerry Lewis exclaiming that if he were a person with a disability he’d only be “half a person;” and raising “pity” money for kids with muscular dystrophy; Princeton ethicist Peter Singer advocating to kill disabled babies; and Clint Eastwood directing a movie about a boxer who ends her life after becoming disabled.

The dominant message emerging from these story lines was that disability is a tragedy best dealt with by finding a cure or ending life.

These story lines conflict with reality.  Research may have its place, but resources going toward a cure are better directed toward accessible transportation, accessible schools, accessible housing, and job placement.  Million Dollar Baby may have won some awards, but the inspiration for the movie comes from a boxer named Katie Dallum who, continues to live and be productive. A painting of hers hangs in the second floor hallway of Access Living.

In reality, people with disability are average.  They are not interested in cures.  They are not wallowing about and wondering how to overcome disability. They are ordinary people who try to do ordinary things like go to school and go to work.  Unfortunately, sometimes they are not able to because they are forced to engage in communities that are not physically accommodating and engage with attitudes that are still stunted by stigma associated with disability myths.

At Access Living, our goal is to give people with disabilities the tools they need to navigate stigma and inaccessibility in order to participate in general society.

To support that goal, as the public relations coordinator for Access Living, my job is to sell the ordinary.

The better I am at pitching stories that show people with disabilities are just like everybody else, the more the general public makes connections between people with disabilities and the regular fabric of society.

The job can be challenging. Ordinary doesn’t compete with cures, infanticide and assisted suicide when it comes to headlines.   But challenges are what define the job of a non-profit communicator.  I love the process of connecting with reporters, sharing information, then building professional relationships.  More times than not, those connections don’t lead to media hits, but every once in a while they do.  Even if the connections don’t lead to stories, when we build relationships, we position ourselves as sources.  As a source, media relay our messages, even if the stories are not directly related to our organizations.

Twenty-three years after the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed, more work needs to be done in terms of equality for people with disabilities.  The unemployment rate of people with disabilities is higher than any other marginalized community.  Thousands of people with disabilities are still segregated in institutions when they could be living at home with the right community supports.  These issues lead to a disconnect between the disability community and the general population.

As a result of this disconnect, media sometimes continue to describe disability as if it is a curse or disease.  But the gap between disability and non-disability is slowly closing, and there are plenty of stories to be told that will help change attitudes about disability, and that will continue to close the gap.  As a non-profit communicator, I am proud to be part of the effort to help bridge the gap.

Gary is the public relations coordinator for Access Living and a board member of Community Media Workshop. Follow him on Twitter @gary8970

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