Words by Josue Ramirez
Edited by Abigail Vela
One thing Juan Carlos Lopez remembers about growing up during the ’80s in McAllen, Texas, was the lack of ramps. Lopez uses a wheelchair and recalls how many of his childhood experiences were limited by the inaccessible built environment of public spaces such as parks.
“I was young, so my mom would talk to the city officials that took care of the making of the ramps, it was a back and forth,” he describes. According to Lopez, sensitivity training for speaking with a person with a disability was not something officials were educated on. “Some would not even approach me. So I would just have to go to another park, but back then, there were hardly any ramps at any of the parks, so I would not go,” he mentions over the phone.
As a teenager, the historic signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26th, 1990, marked a shift for his future and that of many other Americans. The expansion of civil protections came only after continued direct, radical action and advocacy by people with disabilities.
Judith (Judy) Heumann is a lifelong advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. She is considered “the mother of disability rights.” Digital illustration by Josue Ramirez.
The Fight for Dignity
The Civil Rights Movement and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provided a foundational framework for the laws that would impact people with disabilities. Along with the movements for racial and social justice of the time, people with disabilities became more visible as soldiers returned home as victims of the violence of the Vietnam War.
The topic arose as a priority issue for the country. The Rehabilitation Act – a replacement of the pre-existing federal laws on funding for vocational rehabilitation services and the government’s responsibilities to individuals with the “most severe disabilities”- was key to advocates’ efforts. Particular interest was in Section 504, which states, “[N]o otherwise qualified handicapped individual… shall, solely by reason of his handicap, be…subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Despite the Nixon administration’s opposition via Veto, direct actions like the blockage of Madison Avenue in New York by organizations like Disabled in Action led by Judy Huemann resulted in the signing of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. While significant, the victory was the start of a four-year uphill battle to develop, implement and enforce regulations.
On April 5th, 1977, after years of organizing, advocates began the historic 504 Sit In that took over San Francisco’s United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare building. The goal of the protest was to have Secretary Joseph Califano sign the Sec. 504 regulations. Over 500 disability advocates began the occupation, which continued for 26 days. It is the longest lasting sit-in in American history. On April 28th, 1977, the regulations were signed. They gave some rights to people with disabilities, including access to public services like education and housing, as well as a private right of action.
Years after the 504 Regulations were signed, the continued grassroots organizing and direct actions by groups like ADAPT (Americans Disabled Attendant Programs Today) would once again be required to push for federal protections for people with disabilities. In a striking demonstration on March 12th, 1990, 60 activists left their mobility-assistance devices and crawled up the 83-step staircase that led to the Capitol. Known as the Capitol Crawl, the action created nationwide support.
Four months after, on July 26th, 1990, President H.W Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA): a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. The ADA ensures that people with disabilities have equal rights and opportunities as everyone else. The law is divided into five titles of public life:
The fight for disability rights united people of all walks of life in their efforts against discrimination and exclusion
for people who are differently abled. Illustration by Josue Ramirez
THE ADA LEGACY
“Ever since the ADA came into effect, it has had a great impact on my life because now I can go anywhere that I want,” he laughs, “I know there is a lot to be done, but there is still a lot of [good] because of the ADA,” Lopez mentions his service dog as another example. He sees the ADA as a stepping stone for the disability rights movement, “It is a great law that protects people with disabilities and gives us the right to form our own opinion.”
Now, as a 43-year-old, Lopez recalls what it was like to live without that law. Not only is it easier to get around the city now, but the ADA requirements allow him access to positive and affirming assisted-living services like those provided by the Valley Association for Independent Living (VAIL).
VAIL is a center for independent living that serves people with disabilities in the greater Rio Grande Valley and South Texas through four primary services: information and referrals, independent living skills, individual and systems advocacy, and peer counseling. They are committed to enabling persons with disabilities to “gain effective control and direction of their lives in the home, in the workplace, and in the community.”
“VAIL is a great center where we can express our wants and needs in our own particular ways, and they help us,” Lopez says enthusiastically, “I have difficulty with speech, but the staff at VAIL is very patient, kind, and open-hearted in teaching us different coping mechanisms with our day to day activities.”
Lopez serves as a board member of VAIL and as a Peer Support Specialist for the Peer Advocacy and Leadership (PAL) program they host. “We learn about self-advocacy about having pride in our disabilities and helping other people with disabilities by giving them emotional support and teaching basic skills like math, where to go when they need assistance, and just being a support system for other people with disabilities who do not have those systems,” Lopez describes.
He credits the VAIL counseling program with helping him overcome personal family situations with sick loved ones and other challenges like anxiety and public speaking. “I am glad what VAIL does for us. They especially keep their mind focused on the ADA Law. They preach it cold-heartedly in their classes, to stay constantly aware about our rights and responsibilities as a citizen, even though we have disabilities we can contribute to society,” Lopez mentions.
ADA laws give Lopez confidence and great access to go around the Valley and fight the injustices that he sees within the public for people with disabilities. “With the ADA in place, if I go to a park and there are no ramps, I use the power of the ADA to ask the city where I live in that they must follow ADA rules and provide me with that ramp that I need. If not, I could invoke my right to use an attorney to get that done.”
While the RGV is a great place to live, according to Lopez’s experiences, it also has significant shortcomings, “We don’t get the same funding as other areas do, but we are working to bridge those gaps by using the tools of education.”
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