Over my lifetime (1943 to the present), I have witnessed many wonderful changes for the better regarding positive events that have improved the lives of persons with disabilities (PWDs). Medical breakthroughs like the Polio Vaccine and Penicillin have eliminated some infectious diseases that can cause permanent disabilities and the effects of some diseases like Tuberculosis.
I grew up with a number of friends from 1949 – 1957 at the Branch Brook School in Newark, New Jersey for children with orthopedic and physical disabilities that did not result in serious cognitive loss. Except for not including any non-disabled students, this school was far ahead of its time due to New Jersey mandating special education services in the state. Branch Brook employed generous programs in OT/PT and speech therapy to augment our special education program. We also had a wonderful Assistant Superintendent for Special Schools, Dr. Elizabeth M. Kelly, who administered Newark’s entire special education program which included at least 6 special schools and a number of additional services in regular K-8 as well as the high school buildings. Despite Dr. Kelly’s many duties, she knew the name of every child in her program. Branch Brook had students with Post Polio Paralysis, Cerebral Palsy (my condition), visual impairments, legg calve perthes, amputations and conditions manifested through accidents or criminal attacks.
Due to President John F. Kennedy’s concerns for his developmentally disabled sister Rosemary, the major national movement for federal legislation removing discrimination against PWDs began in earnest in the early 1960’s. This resulted in the passing of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Education For all Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (now renamed The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA) and The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Amendments to these and new laws continue to this day.
Another big factor that is aiding PWDs are everyday advances in technology derived from space exploration, computer technology and other initiatives. I remember using the prototype IBM electric typewriter in the 1950’s. Assistive Technology ranges from simple tool alterations to complex new inventions along with ongoing barrier removal. One future innovation spoken about lately are cars that can be programmed to drive themselves. This will be a boon to the elderly and PWDs who do not drive.
We have made admirable gains in improving the lives of PWDs since the 1940’s. This has not been a perfect line of progress. Laws have predictable or unintended consequences such as creating legal traps that pour money into the court and law firm systems taking resources from PWDs. A glaring example is the not yet completely settled Jose P. v Mills Special Education case in NYC, commenced in 1978 due to many children not receiving special education services. One thought is to attempt to eliminate a community’s sense of being overwhelmed by a legal mandate despite being given a grace period to comply with it.
I have some thoughts on what we must we do to sustain our gains over the past seventy years to further improve the lives of PWDs. Empirically, we need world-wide and national stability without catastrophic natural disasters, economic crashes, and civic stability with a minimum of strife and unrest from war and other international disagreements. Advocates among us need to remain continually diligent in formulating legislation or seeking redress in court for actual, not perceived policies that harm PWDs. These efforts need to be augmented with ample research and visibly persuasive documentation.
As I am a pre-baby boomer who grew-up in tough talking Newark’s Industrial East Side with the nickname “Down Neck,” I am not a huge supporter of trendy “Politically Correct” language changes that seek to eliminate perfectly good words from the dictionary as being offensive. This can lead to distracting political whining that deters the real work of building more ramps and other forms of barrier removal. These concrete actions will lead to more satisfactory percentages in employment, education, civic participation, financial independence, freedom to worship and recreation for PWDs.
Those of us living with disabilities know that life is not Sesame Street, with its quick glossing over difficulties to mercifully and temporarily shield young children from reality. Let’s continue our advances and pass them on to future advocates so that PWDs may enjoy an increased degree of life’s enjoyments and join the fun with the jovial “Big Bird” within all of us!