By Joan Leotta
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is poised to celebrate its 25 years as a signature piece of American civil rights legislation on July 26th. To ensure that the commemoration offers more than a single day of champagne moments, for the past three years the ADA Legacy Project has been busy assisting with a series of projects and events designed to preserve, celebrate and educate about ADA. The festivities will provide both moments to reflect upon the past and offer stepping stones to envision a still brighter future for people with disabilities.
According to Mark Johnson, a founder and current chair of the ADA Legacy Project and Director of Advocacy at the Shepherd Center, the Legacy Project has three distinct purposes: to create a unified, community-wide based approach to the preservation of the history of disability rights, to celebrate its milestones and to educate the public. Johnson spoke with SMG to share the Legacy project’s vision and to rally public interest in honoring the ADA’s achievements. Johnson sees the Americans with Disabilities Act’s future as strongly connected to “positive self and community identity for people with disabilities, greater community living services and supports, economic justice and a new generation trained in the process of achieving positive change in our society.”
History and Partnerships
In describing Legacy’s collaborative vision, Johnson commented that, “Many saw the coming ADA anniversary as a timely opportunity to focus on the history of the disability movement in the U.S., to raise pride among people with disabilities and engage the ADA generation, that group of individuals who acquired disability after the passage of the legislation.” He notes further that to bring such lofty goals to fruition, it was necessary to start early—and he did. “I was involved in the tenth anniversary and as this bigger one approached, I realized it was an opportunity to open a window to a call to action and accelerate the process of rights for disabilities. I also knew a successful effort would take time to plan.”
Therefore, in 2012 with the blessing of the Shepherd Center where Johnson is employed, a small group met in that facility to set goals and begin the project. Their hope was to forge a unified approach to this process with all of its stakeholders and build an infrastructure that would remain at work well after the celebrations on July 26, 2015. In conjunction with this vision, the role disability rights played in the civil rights movement would be an important theme of the project. Johnson remains ever-mindful of the relationship between Legacy and the struggle. That understanding, in fact, shapes the partnerships the team has created.
Johnson believes “partnerships are central to our work. Partners can be individuals, organizations, or companies with a national scope that preserve, celebrate, or educate. Two of our first partners were and still are the ADA National Network, and the Georgia Disability History Alliance. We serve as a clearinghouse by connecting and coordinating”. Johnson notes that “partnerships are like pieces of a puzzle—the more partners we have the more clearly the larger picture of rights for everyone is assembled.” An example of this is Legacy’s work with the Center for Civil & Human Rights that opened in Atlanta in 2014. Johnson has been involved with the museum from its inception. The Center has included disability rights in its core displays and in fact, from May through September of this year, is participating in the anniversary with an exhibit of disability-rights that will feature ADA milestone photos by Tom Olin.
If you or your group wishes to partner with ADA Legacy for future projects, instructions are located on the website at http://www.adalegacy.com/get-involved/become-partner.
A Special Partnership-Generating Effort: The ADA Bus
The ADA tour features interactive exhibits designed to draw people with disabilities of all ages and cultures. Courtesy of the Museum of disABILITY History, Legacy bus visitors will first see a four-panel display on the history of self-advocacy. They may read about the ADA Legacy Project and learn more about its efforts to preserve disability history, celebrate major milestones and educate future generations of disability advocates. There is also a booth where advocates may post their thoughts and a photo, relating the difference the Americans with Disabilities Act has made in their lives. The tour bus also features the ADA quilt which is available for advocates to sign, as thousands have before them, a testimony to how many have experienced the tour and many other Legacy projects.The ADA Bus was originally procured for the 2006-2007 Road to Freedom, a tour that promoted the importance of the 2008 amendments to the Americans with Disabilities Act. Both the bus restoration and its re-wrap (new pictures and logos applied to the truck exterior) were undertaken by Andy Houghton and the U.S. Business Leadership Network. The 2014-15 California tour was launched under the leadership of Christina Mills, Deputy Director of the California Foundation for Independent Living, and Sarah Triano, Executive Officer at the California Committee for the Employment of People with Disabilities. Mills and Triano also coordinated the spirited kick-off event at the capitol building in Sacramento. Now managed by the ADA Legacy Project, the bus has partnered with many sponsors and organizations around the country to accomplish this extraordinary effort.
The bus has covered more than 21,000 miles, driving through 30 states, with stops at city halls, public gathering places, disability organizations, public schools, universities, disability conferences and Abilities Expos. The numbers of people touched at any one stop vary widely. In Greenville, South Carolina, for example, an EXPO planned by 25 local groups drew about 800 people. One of those South Carolina visitors was an occupational therapist and member of the American Occupational Therapy Association. She requested that a stop be organized at the AOTA gathering in Nashville. With the American Occupational Therapy Association’s cooperation, the Legacy tour bus parked at the conference headquarters. During that single stop, Legacy recorded over nine thousand visitors.
Funding the ADA Legacy
Keeping Legacy up and running also requires diverse collaborations. Johnson is no stranger to energetic fundraising and his convictions are clear: “When you start organic, you begin with partners. Some of them become sponsors. Our two founding sponsors were Amerigroup Foundation and Shepherd Center, my employer. However, a lot of our funding comes from individuals—small donors. Most comes through host fees and merchandise sales. There is a place on the website to purchase t-shirts and tattoos and other “swag” with the ADA Legacy logo. Other items can be customized, with a home state insignia, such as the state of Texas, which added a lone star, and Alabama which has emblazoned the whole state name on ADA shirts.
Current ADA Achievements
Since its passage in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act has impacted lives on every level: personally, nationally and internationally. Mark Johnson notes that this vital piece of legislation has helped change individual and group attitudes, given pride to the disability community, and created the passage way for many more policy related victories in employment rights and community living rights. Personally, he has felt its positive impact in the range of everyday conveniences that make life in our communities an equitable experience: the increase in available parking for people using mobility devices or for others who cannot manage distance and required parking; the fair hiring practices in the job market; and freedom and fairness in his decision to live wherever he chooses. The content of the Conventions on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities that most countries have signed is founded on our ADA. Above all, the Americans with Disabilities Act has and continues to provide a platform for hope for even more improvements in the future.
Expanding Legacy’s Reach Now and in the Future
When the ADA was passed 25 years ago, the primary tools of information dissemination, in addition to media contact, were postal mail and the telephone. Johnson explains that, “Now we have the web, Facebook, twitter and more” to expand the organization’s engagement with the world. Utilizing both local and national coverage through its partners, as in the recent efforts of New York City that escalated from a parade to honor a person with a disability that has escalated into a month-long celebration of achievements of persons with disabilities. Such efforts have helped circulate the ADA message throughout newer media outlets. Today, instead of the telephone, there are new tools –twitter’s hashtag, and facebook for example.”Legacy plans to develop a tweet campaign in the weeks just prior to the anniversary date of July 26. If you use the internet, be sure to check out their site and “like” it –https://www.facebook.com/adalegacy..
As this article is being written, Legacy is working to make its website available in a more mobile-friendly format for phones and pad devices. Johnson shares that the organization is “working with Google’s Cultural Institute on an initiative to make the content of brick and mortar museums mobile.”
Creating a generation of new advocates means communicating through media these young people prefer. Mark Johnson understands this: “Young people in particular are users of these newer media. However, it is not only the media we are transforming, we are also retooling the message, developing new strategies. The young are eager to want to know not war stories of past victories (although that is important to archive) but also the why of how things came to be what they are today and then how they can effect change in the future.” After the July 26 launch, plans are already in place for the Disability Rights Center to manage the Road to Freedom Tour and for USBLN to manage the Disability Rights Museum on Wheels. However, the ADA Legacy Project will still play a role. The full scope of that role will depend on their budget, but Johnson anticipates continuing at least as an advisor, convener and facilitator as well as the manager of other projects such as archiving ADA25 and The ADA Legacy Tour, finding a home for NCCHR’s ADA25 photos exhibit, and continuing to coordinate with the University of Georgia and the Georgia Disability History Alliance. In addition, the group will continue to promote its core mission of preservation, celebration, and education, market and sell disability pride products, and work to develop a disability advisory committee for NCCHR, similar to their women’s group.
Mark Johnson is looking for continued advancement in the areas of economic justice for all, more use of universal design, and the changing of perceptions of disability from a negative to positive, both within and outside the community. He says, “It’s pretty hard to move forward when someone sees you as something less. The future of the movement hinges on normalizing disability—a natural disability of living long and interacting with the environment instead of negative. I am inspired by Laura Hershey a severely disable poet, and early leader in the movement. Individual battles have been won, the ADA has earned and deserves the celebration of its silver achievements, but we need to continue to work so that in the next twenty-five years, achievements will continue and with respect to justice, perception and design, they will be pure gold.”
Note: The Hershey poem can be found here: http://disabilityvisibilityproject.com/2014/12/01/poem-by-laura-hershey-you-get-proud-by-practicing/.
Article edited by Kim Slaughter White.