With the recent passing of Judy Heumann, the disability rights movement and the world have lost one of our greatest champions. Known as the mother of the disability rights movement, Judy was instrumental in the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act nearly 33 years ago. She championed accessibility in all aspects of society, from physical to educational to attitudinal barriers. As her brother stated in reference to her contraction of polio at age 2, “She spent her life fighting, first to get access for herself and then for others.”
Judy grew up in Brooklyn, New York. In 1952 when Judy turned 5, her mother rolled her up to the bottom of the steps of her local public school and prepared to enroll her in kindergarten. In 2003, when my son Benjamin turned 5, I rolled him up to the bottom of the steps of his local Denver public school and prepared to enroll him in kindergarten.
The concern of both principals was the same: Your child poses a fire safety hazard.
The ensuing events illustrate the vastly different generations each child was born into. Benjamin had the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the ADA in his arsenal. He started kindergarten the following fall with his neighborhood peers. The school installed an elevator and the city added curb cuts so his sisters could wheel him home. He made friends and he was a part of the community.
Judy’s mother wheeled her home that same day. She received two hours of weekly instruction in her home for the next four years.
We have come far since 1952. Audible crosswalk signals, ASL interpretation, ramps and curb cuts can be found throughout our city.
But as Denver Councilman Chris Hinds found when he unsuccessfully tried to access a stage for an election debate just last month, we have a long way to go. Councilman Hinds sent an unintentional message to the world that evening — not the message he had hoped to send, but rather a piercing proclamation that in 2023 we still have physical barriers in public spaces that marginalize disabled people.
We must all do better. Accessibility isn’t any one person’s fight, and it is not just a disabled person’s fight. It certainly isn’t one venue or one stage’s fault. Barriers to access can be found throughout our state and country. Physical barriers usually exist in older structures, and older structures often exist in communities constructed before the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. This doesn’t excuse the inaccessibility, but it does remind us that issues of equity play into accessibility challenges.
Disability is not stagnant. It will impact many in our community as we age. It could strike any of us at any time. And it should not take a stage or steps or a curb or a cluttered restaurant aisle to make us appreciate the barriers still facing disabled people.
Judy Heumann spent her life fighting for all of us. She was part of a group of disabled activists that crawled up the U.S. Capitol steps in support of the ADA’s passage. Because of Judy and her fellow activists, Benjamin and his disabled peers can attend school.
But Councilman Hinds’ experience reminds us that it takes more than a law and its enforcement to guarantee accessibility – it also takes knowledge and community and individual reflection. It is a moral issue.
What happened in one venue to one of our Denver residents is unconscionable. But it happens all the time to many disabled residents in our city. Curb by curb, step by step. Without the spotlight. Disabled rights are human rights, and we can do better.
Karen Roberts, of Denver, serves on the Denver Commission for People With Disabilities. Benjamin Roberts graduated from George Washington High School in 2018 and now attends a day program in Aurora.
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