My friends and I celebrate and remember the new freedoms offered when the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed on July 26, 1990. It opened the doors for millions of citizens to work and go to school, including disabled men and women who served during the Vietnam War. For the first time, people unable to drive could use the public transportation system because the buses and trains had wheelchair lifts. Although the ADA was signed 33 years ago, there’s still a lot advocacy work to do.
Though some progress has been made. A census shows that a total of 7.7 million disabled people, (non-institutionalized) ages 18-64, were employed from 2016 to 2020.
As a child with cerebral palsy, I attended church with my family and I dreamed of going to public school with my siblings, not knowing it was unusual for students with special needs to attend public school. Nevertheless I was thrilled when the small community in Montana where I’m from allowed me to attend. Once I was there, I quickly felt overwhelmed because I didn’t have an aide so it was a daily struggle to keep up with my homework. But. I knew Jesus as my loving Savior and He gave me strength. As I struggled, the other students learned about the value of perseverance as I persevered. Parents and other “able-bodied” kids learned compassion and how to adapt so everyone could have fun together.
But, one of the more painful lessons I learned was, how to cope with people who made fun of me. Who can change people’s hearts? Jesus can. Jesus heals our wounds and teaches us to be kind and loving, the way he loves us.
When the bill passed, Paul Hearne, the executive director of the ADA Council, remarked, “Passing laws won’t change people’s hearts.” Sadly his statement has proven spot-on. Until this very day, people with disabilities are misunderstood and marginalized. When parents and other advocates speak up on our behalf, it has helped more people to understand our needs.
When my daughter was about five, we went to Montana to visit my Mom and the rest of my family. One day, we met my sister and her teenage daughters at a restaurant for lunch. It was difficult for me to walk and talk because of my disability, so Mom helped me walk to our table at the restaurant. When we got settled in our chairs, the waiter came to the table to tell us the specials. As he handed everyone else a menu, the waiter glanced at me and said to Mom, “Can she read? Should I give her one?”
I was stunned by his question. Making the situation more intense, Mom seemed to morph into a lioness protecting her cub as she gave our poor young waiter a tongue lashing. I can still hear the frustration in her voice: “Of course, she can read. She’s a college graduate, and this is her five-year-old daughter.” Everything seemed to be squared away when he handed me a menu. But later, she commented about our experience on the back of the bill. When we were finished eating, she talked to the manager on our way out. Although the doors of establishments like this were opened because of the passage of the ADA, it’s taken much longer for hearts and minds to change. After this experience, I’m sure the manager knew his staff needed some sensitivity training.
My physical limitations due to cerebral palsy often prevent people from seeing my value. Mom, who makes friends quickly with everyone she meets, has a different perspective. When someone says something offensive about me, she often becomes my fiercest advocate and makes them aware that their behavior and unkind words are unacceptable.
Whether or not we have a disability, Jesus IS the advocate we need. Jesus loves us and He can teach us how to love one another with all of our strengths and weaknesses. No one is perfect but Jesus redeems us and breaks down barriers. Jesus has encouraged me with many Christian friends. One friend told me recently that when she takes me out to lunch, she enjoys my friendship, sense of humor and spiritual insight.
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father who is Jesus Christ.” I John 2:1
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