On August 29, all eyes were turned to Washington, DC as our nation collectively commemorated the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington.
In his stirring remarks, President Obama shared the path that the marchers had walked to Washington, advocating for change in a non-violent way. And he made a point that resonated particularly with me, a person with a disability:
“Because they marched, America became more free and more fair — not just for African Americans, but for women and Latinos, Asians and Native Americans; for Catholics, Jews, and Muslims; for gays, for Americans with a disability. America changed for you and for me. And the entire world drew strength from that example, whether the young people who watched from the other side of an Iron Curtain and would eventually tear down that wall, or the young people inside South Africa who would eventually end the scourge of apartheid.”
America has changed for people with disabilities. We have come a long way since 1963, when people with disabilities couldn’t even participate in the March on Washington, because the city wasn’t accessible. We have come a long way since the days before restrooms were accessible in restaurants, shopping malls and office buildings. We have come a long way since President Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, and his son approved the ADA Amendment Act during his second term.
I am constantly reminded of just how far we have come. Ball State University, from where I am a proud graduate and a current distinguished fellow, is one of the nation’s most accessible college campuses. This semester, I am teaching “The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and its Amendments: Supporting a Sustainable Lifestyle for People with Disabilities,” (POLS 403/408/503). My students reflect the diversity of this country, and as I listened to our President, I was struck by how those who marched on Washington paved the way for my students.
Yet, as President Obama and others have shared, we still have much, much more to do. Unemployment for people with disabilities is still is disproportionally higher than for the general population. Only 17.8 percent of persons with a disability were employed in 2012. Many people with disabilities, particularly those who pursued college and graduate degrees, are chronically underemployed and unemployed. They struggle to earn a viable living. Some are forced to rely on public assistance.
We are making progress, however. Earlier this year, Indianapolis city leaders included the Disability Enterprise Category to the city’s contracting program with overwhelming bipartisan support. Young people with disabilities are empowering themselves to compete in current job market. More organizations are adding – or considering adding – internship opportunities for students with disabilities.
Like the marchers from 1963, we will not be deterred. We will keep on marching.