Originally published September 9, 2014.
When civil rights are brought up, many things are talked about—rights for minorities, women’s rights and LGBT rights. But how long does it take before the rights for those who are disabled come up? While there were many policies put into place through the ‘60s and ‘70s, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) wasn’t established until 1990, leaving those with disabilities in the dark for many years, as far as politics were concerned.
Now, almost 25 years later, those with disabilities are coming out of the dark, and letting people know that it really is okay to be different. That being said, being different shouldn’t change impressions or treatment of these individuals.
The fact that Millersville University was able to host one of the stops on the ADA Legacy Bus Tour, from Sept. 17-18, is an impressive feat in itself, and shows how much impact a new generation can have on a previously silenced group of people. But the fight doesn’t stop here.
Tom Olin, a photographer who has been featured in the Smithsonian Institute, is known for his works directly relating to the disability movement. He has worked as a photojournalist for “Adapt” and “Not Dead Yet,” two organizations that aid those who are disabled, and was one of the many contributors to the 25th Anniversary ADA Legacy Bus Tour, along with Thomas Neuville, Department Chair for Special Education in Millersville University.
“I think [this conference] needs to happen in every educational venue… The disability [community] has so much to give to the world,” Olin said.
This two-day event came to Millersville, and featured presentations, a picnic, movie showings, performances and even a rally. Tom Olin and Thomas Neuville’s dedication for making the bus tour begin, along with the support of the Provost, Dr. Vilas A. Prabhu, was what made everything come together so swimmingly.
Olin was impressed with the turnout of the ADA Disability Conference Millersville held. “Seeing the real young people… Not only were they diversified, but they were good at what they were doing. That was my favorite part,” Olin said.
Overall, the event, along with the tour itself, was a big success. “It went well beyond my expectations,” said Neuville. “People drifted in and stayed.” There was a diverse group of people in the MPR, where the conference was held, located in the Student Memorial Center. “There was a room full of different perspectives and a friendly clash of differences. When you get folks together like that… There’s the messiness that makes us think of junk we didn’t think of before,” Neuville said.
One of the keynote people of the ADA Bus Tour was civil rights activist Robin Stephens, who has been involved with making changes for the disabled community for almost 40 years. It’s that drive that inspired her to become involved with this event. “When this conference came along, I took the opportunity to educate, celebrate and preserve the ADA,” Stephens said.
“It’s great to see Millersville students embrace a different culture… [But] there’s still so much to do,” Stephens said, referring to the stigma that people with disabilities still face. “It’s more than physical access, it’s about how we’re treated… It’s about everything.”
Persevering against the limitations society has set on those who are disabled, Stephens uses her experiences to inspire other people. “I try to lead by example… Gently pushing people towards their potential, and educating them in the process,” Stephens said.
The atmosphere in the room was uplifting, empowering and helped a lot of people feel like they weren’t alone.
“A lot of times, I thought my voice wasn’t being heard, and now, I see that it’s not only me. There are others fighting for our rights,” said Rosemarie Cruz, a student at the Art Institute of York that attended the event.
A lot of times, miscommunication can be avoided if one will sit down and listen to the needs of someone who is disabled. “Don’t assume… It’s easy to generalize and assume things. It’s better to ask an individual than make broad decisions,” said Paul Fogle, Community Building Coordinator for the Lehigh Valley Center for Independent Living.
A rally was held near the end of the event, and the signs depict all of the things those who are disabled are unable to say in normal circumstances. “Do nothing, say nothing and nothing will change,” “Fix the system, not me,” “Rights, not charity” and “Ignorance is a disability,” were among the many signs displayed during the rally. Pictures were taken in front of their iconic bus right before they departed.
Perhaps one of the most important things to take away from this stop on the 25th Anniversary ADA Legacy Bus Tour is the fact that those who are disabled are people, too, and ultimately deserve as much of a voice as anyone else. “The disability [community] has so much to give to the world,” said Olin.
Neuville agrees with this philosophy, and said, “disability culture can bring to the dominant culture the power of change and unity.”
A large part of this event was dedicated to education, and allowing the voices of those who were previously silenced to come about. “Attitudes still haven’t changed. We need an attitude change,” Stephens said. “If society could step back and try to understand, they would know that first impressions are usually wrong.”