Reflections on Activism and the ADA From the DEC’s Newest Team Member

My name is Raymond Magsaysay and I’m interning for the Diverse Elders Coalition for the summer through OCA’s flagship summer internship program. I am a rising junior at Vassar College majoring in Sociology and minoring in Hispanic Studies and English: Race & Ethnicity. I am so excited and honored to be working with and learning from the DEC this summer as many of my personal passions parallel the organization’s mission. Like the DEC, I am committed to social justice, focusing on coalition-building and intersectionality as vehicles for social change. In other words, collective power—forged through shared stories and struggle—and, as Audre Lorde pointed out, the cognizance that “there is no thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives” are key. DEC’s work certainly fits this mold: we are a coalition of five national leading aging organizations that is dedicated to ensuring empowered and dignified aging in diverse communities, recognizing that elders of color, American Indian/Alaskan Native elders, and LGBT elders are at multiple intersections of oppression: ageism, racism, classicism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and more.

Last week, I had the great privilege of attending a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA). The event was hosted jointly by the Administration for Community Living (ACL) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)’ Office of Civil Rights. Aptly titled “Community Living for All: 25 Years of the ADA,” the ceremony centered inclusivity and the shared stakes between the aging and people with disabilities. There were many prominent guests like world renowned disability justice advocate Judy Heumann; Sharon Lewis, Principal Deputy Administrator for the ACL; Kevin Prindiville, Executive Director for Justice in Aging; Diana Braun, disability advocate and volunteer. The speakers and the panelists highlighted the many and crucial victories established by the ADA and the Olmstead decision such as improved accessibility of buildings and the ban on segregation due to disability status. At the same time, the speakers recognized the long, arduous way to go toward true justice and accessibility for people with disabilities. They also discussed current endeavors numerous advocates and stakeholders are undertaking to ensure the fruition of such a vision.

Elders and activists with the Road to Freedom ADA Celebration tour.

Elders and activists with the Road to Freedom ADA Celebration tour.

The room itself felt profound and powerful, as many of the advocates of the ADA who were present twenty-five years ago were in the room themselves. It was so inspiring to hear, as the speakers spoke of them, how their relentless dedication, combined with their vision for fairness and justice, helped pave the ADA’s successful path to creating a more equitable society. The emphasis on the shared stakes of the aging and of people with disabilities was also important to hear. It echoed the continued need for solidarity and inclusion, with speakers underscoring the collective power that can be built through coalition-building between elders and people with disabilities, acknowledging that both have increasingly similar needs, especially with regard to accessibility and dignified living.

And although there was just minimal reference to communities of color and LGBT communities, who are disproportionately burdened by additional hurdles like language barriers and/or higher rates of isolation to equal access and healthy living, the repeated stress on inclusion was nonetheless nascent and necessary. The centering of inclusion made me question what my adolescent peers’ and my stakes and roles were in supporting the fight with elders and people with disabilities. “We’re all aging,” one speaker noted, and it is indeed true: we are all aging, by the second, by the minute, and by the day.

In this vein, it is important for all of us to support the continued implementation of the ADA. We all have a shared stake in its future, and we all can contribute to ensuring that the ADA remains a powerful tool for social justice. The reality, as multiple advocates at the commemoration observed, that the ADA and the rights and protections it guarantees are unknown to many, including those who are in dire need of them or even those who benefit from the ADA, like myself. I did not know, for instance, that I was eligible for accommodations through the ADA for some of my medical conditions until I was in dire need of them and sought help. Evidently, this points to larger structural problems. Perhaps one way we can work to begin addressing this is to engage in expanded educational campaigns that aid people to realize their rights. We must especially conduct culturally and linguistically competent outreach, specifically targeting those who are disproportionately burdened like immigrant communities with limited English-proficiency. Institutions—governments, schools, care homes, etcetera—must also actively play a role in ensuring that individuals are aware of their rights and protections and guarantee equitable access to services—not only complying by law, but also by moral obligations. For those who are in the fight for justice for all, we must also not forget the enduring presence of ableism and ageism even within our movements.

These are obviously only a few ways to begin, or rather, continue, the fight for equal access and dignified living for all. We must strive to be inclusive, recognizing shared struggles and shared stakes but also accepting and paying attention to the differences and nuances of experiences to better address people’s unique needs. This is crucial to turning the ADA’s vision into a full reality of an equitable society where everyone can live with dignity. And although the American with Disabilities Act benefits those with disabilities most directly, everyone, on some level, benefits from it because the Act strives to build towards a socially just society. And a just society benefits us all; it bequeaths us with fulfillment, justice, and the freedom to live our lives according to our own agencies.

 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.