Know It 2 Own It: Teaching and Learning About Disability Rights

In a recent blog post, we introduced you to “Know It 2 Own It,” a campaign to encourage Americans to learn more about the disability rights movement and history that led to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in July of 1990.

This month, as students across the country settle into their daily academic routines, now is the perfect time to think about teaching and learning about disability rights.

American history is also the history of people with disabilities. Though her life spanned the 19th and 20th centuries, many 21st century students still find inspiration in the remarkable career of  Helen Keller – the American author, lecturer and activist and the first deaf and blind person to earn a college degree. The story of her early years is the subject of the powerful play, “The Miracle Worker.” President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, considered by many as one of the nation’s greatest elected leaders, helped guide the country and the world through some the 20th century’s greatest crises while using  a wheelchair. One of the most beloved singers alive today, singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder, was born blind. These are just some of examples of the contributions that people with disabilities have made to the richness and diversity of our shared American life through the years.

The disability rights movement is a part of American history, and understanding that history is valuable to all of us. The struggle for disability rights is part of the broader cause of civil rights and human rights.

This month’s guest video blogger, Rebecca Cokley, is Executive Director for the National Council on Disability (NCD). In the video, she describes how she got involved in the disability rights movement as a child, what she thinks are the most important messages for young people with disabilities, and why she is committed to mentoring others. Her motto is:  “Lift as you Climb.”

The Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) wants to hear from you. Have you found mentors in your local community that could teach students more about disability rights? Does a member of your school community have a family member with a disability who might be willing to share their experience?  Does someone have a family member who works in a disability-related non-profit, business, or government agency?

Please let us know how you are working to bring about positive change in your community by sharing your story on social media with the hashtag #know2own.

Click here to view past Know It 2 Own It blogs and join us here next month. October is Disability Employment Month!

Sue Swenson is Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education.

Know It 2 Own It: Celebrating the Americans with Disabilities Act

This week, we celebrate the 24th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). On July 26, 1990, President George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law. This landmark legislation was the nation’s first comprehensive civil rights law addressing the needs of people with disabilities. It prohibited discrimination in employment, public services, public accommodations, and telecommunications.

Earlier this year, during a speech commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, President Obama said, “For history travels not only forwards; history can travel backwards, history can travel sideways.  And securing the gains this country has made requires the vigilance of its citizens.  Our rights, our freedoms — they are not given.  They must be won.  They must be nurtured through struggle and discipline, and persistence and faith.”

The President’s words also ring true for the disability community and the ADA.

Over the next year, we will be posting monthly blogs featuring people who participated in and led the disability rights movement, as well as young adults and students working to make a difference in their communities.  Together, we carry the torch forward. When we know our history, we can own our rights. As we often say, to know it is to own it.

During this time, we encourage you, your friends, and your family to learn about the disability rights movement. We want to hear from you. Please let us know how you are working to bring about positive change in your community by sharing your story on social media with the hashtag #know2own.

Check out our first video blog with Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon and Michael Yudin, Acting Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services:

Sue Swenson is Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services at the U.S. Department of Education.

Celebrating a Disability Rights Pioneer

Ed Roberts is one of the most important pioneers of the disability rights movement. Roberts was a talented athlete with dreams of playing professional baseball when he was disabled by polio in 1953 at the age of 14. Having a disability taught him many things, not the least of which was the importance of a good education. He could only move a couple of fingers and a couple of toes, yet he attended three years of high school by phone while lying in his iron lung at home.

After a senior year back in the school building, Roberts still had to fight to be allowed to graduate, but eventually he received his diploma with his mom Zona by his side. When he went to college and graduate school, he had to find a place to live on campus that could accommodate the iron lung he slept in every night.

Roberts also started using a power wheelchair while he was in graduate school. If you’ve ever used a curb cut to help you cross a street with a stroller, a rolling suitcase or a wheelchair, you can thank Ed Roberts and his allies with disabilities. His iron lung and his power wheelchair are now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution here in Washington, D.C.

Besides his advocacy for educational rights, Roberts was a founder of the Independent Living (IL) movement and director of Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) in California. Both IL and VR have been part of the Department of Education since it began, and the programs operate in all 50 states and DC. Later in his life, Roberts took time to speak to hundreds of young adults with disabilities and parents of children with disabilities across the US. That’s where I met him, when my son Charlie was only seven years old. Roberts taught what nobody else did: that people with disabilities belong everywhere; that a student with the most profound disabilities has a lot to offer in any classroom; and that my job as a parent was to ensure that my son could make his own choices, and make his own voice heard, even if he couldn’t speak. Ed showed every day that charisma is not limited to able-bodied people, and that just being present is a form of advocacy. No wonder he won a MacArthur fellowship “genius” award: he helped us all understand that learning to thrive with disability was about expectations, education, employment, and empowerment above all else.

In January, the Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services invited current and emerging leaders of the civil rights movement of people with disabilities to celebrate Roberts’s life. Guests discussed their own experiences in the civil rights movements of people with disabilities, the impact Ed Roberts had on their lives, and the importance of sharing his story with future generations of students.

Many students and families still don’t know about the civil rights movement of people with disabilities. Empowerment comes with knowledge. Learning about Ed Roberts is a great place to start.

To learn more about Ed Roberts and the civil rights movement of people with disabilities the Minnesota Governor’s Council on Developmental Disabilities website.

Sue Swenson is deputy assistant secretary in the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services