Gaining ACCESS

More than 53 million Americans are currently diagnosed with one or more disabilities. The reasons run the gamut from the aftermath of violent crimes to accident-related injuries to degenerative diseases to congenital conditions — and that’s just the beginning.

Many people experience multiple and mixed disabilities. Countless disabilities are invisible, as well. Every year, another million people acquire disabilities, and this number will likely continue to grow as the “boomer” generation continues to age.

The longer any one of us lives, the higher are our odds of experiencing disability — either temporary or permanent.

Disability is as natural as apples: One in five is green. Green and red apples have more in common than what’s different about them.

Sadly, to many who are “there,” the hard fact is how little most of us were aware of how radically life can change in an instant … or over time. We marvel at those in the disabled community who experience disabilities from birth and rise to the challenges of living fulfilling, productive lives. Experiencing disability at any age or phase of life requires change, adjustments, adaptation and acceptance of our conditions, if we are to maintain quality in our lives.

People with disabilities (PWDs ) continue to occupy an inferior status in our society, documented by Census data, national polls and various independent studies. The one-fifth of those with disabilities are severely disadvantaged socially, vocationally, educationally and economically. They face restrictions and limitations from our nation’s history of unequal treatment. Historically, society has tended to isolate and segregate PWDs, contributing to political powerlessness. Despite some improvements, discrimination against PWDs continues to be a serious social problem for rapidly increasing numbers of people.

Discrimination against people with disabilities persists in such critical areas as housing, employment, education, public accommodations, transportation, communication, recreation, institutionalization, health services, voting and access to public services. PWDs outinely encounter discrimination by way of overt or covert exclusion; the effects of architectural, transportation and communication barriers; segregation; policies and procedures that violate human dignity; and other methods.

As America celebrates its independence this month with fireworks, speeches and cookouts, the one-fifth of your fellow citizens who happen to have disabilities wish to remind you — the temporarily able-bodied — that independence isn’t real for all of us yet.

Based on characteristics beyond human control, and resulting from stereotyped assumptions about the disabled population’s abilities to contribute to society, PWDs have been subjected to isolation, poverty, limited opportunity and tremendous losses of human potential.

As an example of what People with Disabilities can accomplish by working together, ACCESS Independent Living, with the support of the Western North Carolina Community Foundation offers a new community resource: a revised and expanded Web site — www.access-wnc.org.

ACCESS Independent Living is a grassroots nonprofit, built and governed primarily by PWDs, in the company of allies without disabilities (yet). Founded in 1999, ACCESS is resolutely people-powered by volunteers with no salaried positions. We’re part of the Independent Living Movement, which promotes self-help, mutual support and full equality and participation on the part of PWDs. Independent Living combines the self-help movement, the consumer rights movement and the growing disability rights movement.

Independent Living is rooted in self-help, recognizing that people with shared concerns and common interests are the experts. Groups working together around these shared concerns can find and implement solutions without the help of professionals or people who haven’t experienced a given issue.

In knowledge, there is power. In numbers, there is strength. These lessons took firm root in the Independent Living Movement, which set about building an inclusive community of, for and about people with all kinds of disabilities. The Independent Living Movement recognizes that we have more in common in the challenges and barriers we face than what separates us into sundry categories of disability and “special interest” groupings.

Advocacy is a key part of the mission of Independent Living, both on behalf of individuals who may not know their rights or have the skills to exercise them yet, and regarding systems, policies and procedures that attempt to delay us. Independent Living is committed to breaking down the barriers we encounter — whether systemic or attitudinal — which refer to other people’s reactions: stereotyping, talked over/at/about, pitied, stared at, etc. We see educating and raising the awareness of the general public about disabilities as part of this mission.

The foremothers and forefathers of the Disability Rights Movement were paying attention, and began the crusade for equal rights for people with disabilities in the early 1970s. Much has been accomplished, but much remains to be done.

Justin Dart, credited as the father of the Americans with Disabilities Act, recently passed away. Justin was an inspiration to many as a lifelong activist who used his personal inherited wealth to fuel our movement. He was devoted to our causes; he attended a disability event in the rain in his chair the day before he died. Justin, we honor your work and are grateful for your service. May more of us resolve to honor your example by carrying on with the struggle for full equality for people.

On ACCESS Independent Living’s expanded Web site, you’ll find many features not available until now: personal ads to meet people and build your own community; classified ads for previously owned assistive technology and adapted vehicles; regional, state and federal resources. We’re also building a calendar, which will eventually list events, forums, training, films, etc. of interest to PWDs . We also make participation in the political process simple, with links to state and federal legislators’ e-mail.

The site also provides resources for grassroots organizations and current ADA rulings, along with technical assistance. You can check out volunteer opportunities, complete our needs-and-interests survey, or submit a volunteer application online. Chats and forums are available, along with a myriad of other services.

The ACCESS Web site will expand and evolve with your participation and suggestions. We’re serious about making the site a comprehensive resource to meet the needs identified by the community we live in.

[Ron Hillabrand and Carol Hubbard are ACCESS Independent Living volunteers.]

ACCESS Independent Living is offering a limited number of T-shirts (available for $15 each) to help promote the organization’s expanded Web site. Send check or money order to ACCESS, P.O. Box 905, Asheville, NC 28801. Find out how to make tax-deductible donations to ACCESS by visiting www.access-wnc.org.

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