Editor’s note: Continuing with our independence and advocacy themes in celebration of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), VisionAware peer advisors Mary Hiland, and Elizabeth Sammons were co-winners of the ADA25 Celebration Essay Contest in Columbus, Ohio. Mary wrote Crosswalks to Civil Rights. And below is Elizabeth’s winning essay.
My True Independence Day
My true independence day arrived with a walk one hot summer day in 1974, a generation before the Americans with Disabilities Act. That spring, my parents had hired a lawyer for $1 to convince our local school system that it was time to mainstream its first known child with a disability – me, that is. After numerous delays, county officials told us that I needed to take a bus to a one-story school, not the local school where I had expected to join my neighborhood friends. Looking back, I think they were trying to scare my family into keeping me in the blind class I attended in the next county; they didn’t know us very well!
Proving I Am Not a Community Hazard
My parents began trying to make me use a white cane. But to my eight-year-old mind, the cane meant shouting to the world that I was blind. I remember holding it stiffly in front of me, refusing to let its tip touch the ground. One July day, my mother told me a policeman would be coming the next week to escort me to the bus stop, and if I was judged a “community hazard,” I could kiss my dream of attending local school good-bye. “So you’d better improve your cane technique,” she concluded.
(Picture of little girl with cane. It is not a picture of Elizabeth.)
Deciding the two-hour daily commute to my old school was not worth it, I began letting my hand and arm relax. I learned what my cane could show me as it tapped the sidewalk, bumped tree root swells, or slid along the cracks on brick streets.
My Perfect Walk
When the policeman came, I was ready. My ears and cane guided me through a perfect walk with him. Near the end, he remarked “I am proud of you that you are being so independent. You’re safe to go anywhere you want.” I knew that was my real independence day.
Today this stubborn girl who had to prove that she wasn’t a “community hazard” mentors youth with disabilities, bolstered through integration memories starting with that summer walk with the policeman. Sometimes with wonder, I drink in their optimism, their can-do spirit. I see their life roads and learning, forged through great disability reforms in work life, transportation and social attitudes fostered by the ADA.
“The Soft Bigotry of Lowered Expectations”
In 2000 I returned to the United States after a decade abroad, unaware of many ADA changes, shortly after President George W. Bush twisted ears and consciences with his poignant comment on “The soft bigotry of lowered expectations.” Looking into the USA from the outside, this phrase forced me to come to terms with what we earn, versus what we deserve. I enjoy challenging young people with and without disabilities in discussions about the delicate balance between our rights as all citizens and our responsibilities to merit the respect of friends and colleagues. While I wish everyone wonderful celebrations of this ADA quarter-century Independence Day, I also urge each of us to fan the ambition and creativity to continue forward on our independence walk.