Nothing about us without us! Regardless of the challenges around authentic inclusion, people who have disabilities are part of the solution.
By Albert J. Rizzi, M.Ed.

As had been true during his campaign run, President-elect Joe Biden seems to be making good on his promise of focusing on diversity and authentic inclusion. As evidenced by his cabinet appointments that include highly regarded movers and shakers who are people of color and different ethnicities, women, members of the LGBT community, and dare we hope, members from the disability community to serve our great nation inclusively. Aside from the fact that there are many very capable people in this group, higher-profile positions can serve to inspire others to careers in politics or other types of government service. If we want to effect change, we need a seat at the proverbial table and Biden’s speech impediment technically makes him one of “us”.

According to his disability plan, Biden will name a director of disability policy within the Domestic Policy Council. That is a good start but there is an opportunity to do much more than just appoint someone to effect the change. Biden needs to be and exemplify the change we want and absolutely need to see in America.

As far as supporting legislation, President-elect Biden should familiarize himself and his cabinet with the bipartisan legislation, the Online Accessibility Act (H.R. 8478). This proposed legislation is poised to address the digital divide that exists for people who have disabilities. If this gets through Congress, it will make consumer-facing websites more accessible and usable to all regardless of their ability. An added benefit of this legislation is its potential for reducing litigation leveled against unknowing corporations for noncompliance with those federal regulations protecting a person’s rights to accessible, usable, and functional digital platforms.

In retrospect, President Trump has done nothing empowering, in my opinion, for the 62 million American citizens who happen to have a disability. He and his extreme right-winged cronies have tried, in a few different ways, to de-fund and dismantle the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. As I discussed in a blog post earlier this year titled “Trump 2021 Budget Hurts PWD”, Trump’s priorities were for proposed cuts to Medicaid, state councils on developmental disabilities, university centers on developmental disabilities, and protection and advocacy programs for people with disabilities. Pre-pandemic, there were almost $50 million in cuts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities, and the elimination of funding for health professional training to screen, diagnose, and treat people with autism.

Almost immediately upon taking office, he put the brakes on efforts to qualify and quantify standards for determining compliant, usable, accessible, and functional digital communications and information for people with disabilities, undermining the promises and intentions of the bipartisan supported Americans with Disability Act of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Indeed, those who are less charitable with their critique could say that the changes Trump made to safety-net programs in the last weeks of his presidency are harmful, especially during the pandemic that we all continue to endure. In the article by Arthur Delaney from Huffington Post, titled “Trump Administration Finalizing Last-Minute safety-net Cuts”,  he proposed changes to make it harder for people to appeal denials of disability benefits and he has made it more difficult to get help through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

But I digress, let history judge whether President Trump’s legacy proves what good he and his administration did for people who just happen to have a disability. If we get caught up in the failures of the past, we miss impacting the present and thereby, preparing for the future. Albert Einstein once said, “Learn from yesterday, live for today”, this Albert concurs and is more concerned with living for today by making it better than yesterday and making sure our tomorrows are full of promise and hope. The challenges of America’s future, in addition to traditional priorities and protocols, requires that much more must be done as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people who have underlying health concerns or disabilities make them especially vulnerable to infection and they suffer more severely as a result. But forget about the actual disease, which is horrible enough. The consequences of the pandemic go well beyond that, adversely impacting our civil liberties.

Voting during the pandemic was especially tough for people who have disabilities. Included in the list of not wanting to get sick and possibly die, some voters endured more than long lines. There were absentee ballots that were not accessible or usable, as well as voting machines that were less than usable and functional to people with disabilities.

I personally had to endure a two and a half hour wait to vote, and that was after waiting only 10 minutes to get up to the voting machine. Along with my partner Jonathan, I had no wait at all to secure our ballots.; we were pleasantly surprised. But, while Jon was done voting and ready to leave, after a total of what I assumed was a mere 20 minutes, I was waiting on the people responsible for managing and maintaining the poll site to figure out how, on Election Day, to set up the accessible voting machine for a person who happened to have a disability.

The technology or other solutions that were supposed to make my voting experience seamless, expeditious, safe, and secure were anything but. I was being ordered to step away from the voting machine that I was standing in front of so others could vote. My civil liberties were inconsequential to all that day and after about an hour of waiting in front of the voting machine, I lost my shit. It wasn’t until a security guard named Trinny came up with nothing but compassion and empathy for my circumstances that my blood pressure started to drop. She promised, her words, that the technician would be there in 10 minutes we would regroup. Well, thanks to Trinny, my newest “sister from another mister”, and a technician named Joe who not only did the machine get properly calibrated, but confirmed and affirmed how right I was about how ill-equipped everyone was about these critically important machines for people like me. This was one election year that I was NOT, emphasis on NOT, going to be marginalized and disenfranchised.

Despite being told by no less than six people that I needed to move out of line and that they had set up the voting machines properly, it turns out they had not. No one in the polling station knew how to engage the options for making the voting machine usable, accessible, and functional to a person with a disability. It was not a pretty scene. However, my ability to self-advocate led to my vote being recorded and counted despite the utter lack of training necessary to allow a person who happens to have a disability the right to vote. I did learn that perhaps going from zero to a Big Green Meanie in under two seconds might not always be the best first step. We all have a right to cast our vote independently, privately and I dare say, in a timely manner. It’s not a luxury, it is a right, pandemic or not, afforded to every American and not just those of you who are “temporarily able”.

The pandemic also revealed cracks in the economy where too many people are only a missed paycheck or two away from economic ruin. If they got sick, even with good insurance, many were economically doomed above and beyond any physical ramifications of the disease. Then too, 2020 also exposed far too many underlying problems about how our society takes care of its most vulnerable populations. The impact on children, the elderly, PWD, and the impoverished regularly take the spotlight during the evening newscasts. What most of us do not understand, grasp, nor acknowledge is that most of us are merely “temporarily able”. People with disabilities are at the intersectionality of life, meaning that all age groups, races, genders, religions, and orientations are going to become a member of the disability community. So, forewarned is forearmed. If we, as a global society, do not work together to ensure people with disabilities are valued and empowered to greatness, then none of us will be able to live the American dream of life, liberty, and the barrier-free pursuit of happiness.

The recent norms of social distancing, remote working and distance learning have exposed our vulnerabilities as a society. The demand on our virtual highways and infrastructures has barred millions of people from executing in their schools, in their careers and in life in general. This has been the norm for most if not all of my peers and colleagues, pre-pandemic, who just happen to have a disability. The silver lining in this pandemic is all of those “temporarily able” people have been barred from using their technologies. This has allowed, for the first time in human history, for the general public to appreciate what has been happening, or not happening for that matter, for those of us with a disability. Platforms like Zoom for conferences have focused on making their digital platforms usable and functional, and not just accessible. Academic institutions are playing catch-up with making sure their learning management systems and testing platforms are able to be used by people of all abilities and not just some people. Again, in my opinion, the only reason that the disability community has a fighting chance for advancement in academia and career goals has to do with most of America having no choice but to walk a mile in our moccasins. Having a disability, and trying to not just survive, but thrive, has been ever elusive prior to this pandemic. I, for one, see this as a moment for our nation, the incoming administration, and our global society to take lemons and make lemonade! Vodka optional.

Today, all our students, but none more so than students with disabilities, have to endure nonexistent or inadequate technology, poor bandwidth, or access to the right tools they need to promote their own abilities while attempting to create unlimited possibilities in their lives. Then layer into academic struggles faced by our undervalued educators and the lack of direct services afforded to students with a disability, and academic enrichment has become more difficult to realize. The challenges imposed on students and teachers alike and not being in the classrooms or schools daily has presented challenges the likes that academia has never seen before. Studies show that the pandemic disproportionately hurts people who have disabilities, regardless of where they fall on the Ability spectrum.

Most of the solutions available to soften the blow of this pandemic and the economic hardships it has imposed on us all are only further exacerbated by an economy that has been hemorrhaging. We are all left to struggle financially, emotionally, spiritually, and physically as we attempt to make sense or cents when and where we can. Without a strong and robust economy, even if employed, many of us still struggle to pay the bills, keep a roof over our head, and feed ourselves and our families due to deep cuts in salaries or the elimination of those high paying positions we once held. In short, unless people are gainfully employed, taxes cannot be collected and, unless the Treasury is well-funded, which it is not, the funds we need to rebound from this pandemic financially, even after a vaccine becomes available seems daunting and overwhelming.

Even though things seem grim, I contend there are significant silver linings throughout our society that can only serve to buttress our American resolve and determination. We’ve got a pandemic, a bad economy, social unrest, and I haven’t even touched on the internal political strife that has plagued our country for a number of years now. Yet, I believe the future is brighter than it has been these past four years without a doubt.

We now have two, soon to be three viable vaccines being administered to our frontline workers, the elderly and soon Main Street America. Addressing these challenges requires much stronger leadership from the government at all levels because things don’t magically fix themselves overnight. As has been said in recent weeks, we are not a red nation, we are not a blue nation, but a nation united in all we do. We are the United States of America and that united coalition of peoples has included those of us with a disability like never before. However, the road ahead is full of challenges and Americans will rise to any and all challenges to ensure and protect our citizens, all our citizens, regardless of Ability, Race, Gender, Orientation, Religion or Age.

I know it is wishful thinking given the divided partisan times we find ourselves to be in. But I am an optimistic realist and I believe the solution includes relying on and including those of us who happen to have a disability. The disability community is a resilient community, often doing more with less, often being an afterthought as opposed to being thought of at all. The disability community has had economic hardships imposed upon us and yet we still survive. To truly thrive as a people and a nation all of us, including people with disabilities, must come together to fix what is broken relying on all our citizens and not just those of you who are “temporarily able”.

The Biden administration and all our nation’s representatives duly and legitimately elected by “We the People” need to harness the power of all American citizens, including the disability community, to help solve our nation’s problems. The disability community is not looking for a handout, but a hand up. The disability community has been so thoroughly marginalized and disenfranchised, that while we are overlooked for our strength and perseverance, the firsthand knowledge and lived experiences we have to merely survive could prove fruitful in forging a solution that helps people of all abilities during these uncertain times. The disability community representing nearly 25% of the US population, is the largest minority group in our nation. The disability community is comprised of people of color, men, and women alike, people of all orientations, all religions, all ages, and all political walks of life. Yet we are underrepresented in all areas of both our social and corporate cultures. Yet, research shows that people with disabilities are more reliable, dependable, and educated than most. When we consider the challenges we are facing as a nation and a global society, who knows more about adapting to tough situations then the disability community?

So, if you are a member of the disability community or are one of our friends or family, I encourage you to be part of the solution, do not turn a blind eye or a deaf ear and perpetuate the problem. What does that require each of us to do? Whether you have a disability or not, get involved politically or perhaps, consider applying for a job with the United States government. There are plenty of local resources, but USAJOBS is a website that is specifically designed to help Americans find jobs in the federal government. And believe it or not, they actively look for people who have disabilities. What’s more, Selective Placement Program Coordinators (SPPC) are there to help agencies in the government recruit, hire, and accommodate people with disabilities. Nonprofits have been hit and hit hard by this pandemic, so you might consider volunteering in any way that you can. There are plenty of places in your hometown that could use your help!

Remember, “Nothing about us without us!”  Let’s work as a team of like-minded Americans deserving of all the freedoms afforded under our constitution and work together to ensure a bright and promising future that is accessible to one and all. remember TEAM stands for Together Everyone Achieves More. Help America achieve more by working together. #AccessAbility