Disability Pride Then and Now

by Dawna Callahan, Founder & CEO

All In Sport Consulting

President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 26, 1990, making official a historical landmark law prohibiting discrimination against people with disabilities. That same year, Boston celebrated the first-ever Disability Pride Day, and over the last 30 years, July has become known as Disability Pride Month. This annual observance aims to promote visibility and mainstream awareness of the positive pride felt by people with disabilities.

Disability Magazine states that “’Disability pride’ has been defined as accepting and honoring each person’s uniqueness and seeing it as a natural and beautiful part of human diversity.” In celebration of Disability Pride Month, I want to share one of my earliest experiences with disability pride.

In 1974, my hometown newspaper, the Argus, wrote an article about me titled, “Taking the ups and downs out of being handicapped.” I share this somewhat reluctantly (how many of you would be comfortable sharing a photo of yourself at 5 years old?) along with this recent article from the LA Times featuring nine-year-old Rory Siwula from Costa Mesa, Calif.

In June, with her megaphone in hand, Rory and her family took to the Newport-Mesa Unified School District office to protest for more accessibility in her school restrooms. She can’t reach the lights, sinks, or soap dispensers, and there are no stalls that fit her wheelchair in the general education restrooms.

As you compare the two articles, you will notice that the language has notably changed since 1974 as the terminology evolved from ‘handicapped,’ to ‘disabled,” but the general theme of those in the disabled community having to demand equal access is unfortunately unchanged nearly 50 years later.

Both articles showcase the common arguments – ‘It costs too much,’ ‘It will only help one student,’ ‘We’ve already met the compliance requirements’ – all of which are short-sighted in that accommodations and universal design actually benefit everyone.

On one-hand, I am proud and hopeful that there are young disability advocates like Rory coming up the ranks. On the other, it’s disappointing that young students still have to fight for equal access at school. And school is not the only place where the disabled have to advocate for equality and access.  Sometimes it feels like we need Rory’s megaphone every day.

As sport leaders working with disabled athletes, I know you’ve fought the good fight advocating for your athletes in their quest to participate and compete. You’ve set a good example, so pass the baton to your athletes. Support them in discovering their voice, encourage them to be curious and ask questions, build confidence by acknowledging and celebrating the pride they have in their identity as a disabled individual and athlete, and watch them develop into powerful advocates.

We all need to be proud in who we are and what we stand for every day. I look forward to seeing how young advocates like Rory and many of your young athletes develop into strong leaders who are proud of their disabilities. And, fueled by their advocacy and leadership, I’m excited to witness the progress they drive over the next 50 years.

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