“Nothing about us, without us!” was the rallying cry of the Independent Living movement of the 1960s, which challenged pitying, paternalistic attitudes about people with disabilities and the purely medical model of “curing” and “treating” disabilities.
Fueled by the same civil rights fervor that launched the gay rights movement, the IL movement has made strides toward de-institutionalizing people with disabilities, providing support for their independence and self-determination, and creating a more inclusive society.
But all that progress is seriously threatened.
Census statistics indicate almost 300,000 individuals in the greater Milwaukee area and as many as 1.4 million in Wisconsin have one or more disabilities. LGBTs are certainly not immune from the genetic quirks, health issues and everyday accidents that can bring on a disabling condition, and for LGBTs, disability can further marginalize them in an already marginalized community.
Discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations, even 21 years after passage of the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act, is still common. Hate crimes, abuse by caregivers and the isolation of people with disabilities in institutions cry out for redress. Drastic budget cuts to Medicaid and public transit and right-wing cries for de-regulation (the ADA is a target) are expected to create more hurdles for a population already facing daunting physical and attitudinal barriers.
IndependenceFirst, one of Wisconsin’s eight independent living centers, serves greater Milwaukee. IF is committed to the goal of independent living for people with disabilities. In addition to independent living-skills training, assistive technology assessments, nursing home transition and other programs, the center has a strong commitment to advocacy. It sponsors advocacy teams in the issue areas of transportation, employment, long-term care and ADA/accessibility.
Anyone can join these teams, which have achieved real victories in the past few years, including the court-ordered revision of Milwaukee’s Riverwalk system to make it accessible to people with disabilities. The employment advocacy team works cooperatively with local employers to teach them about workplace accommodations and the value of employing people with disabilities. The transportation team is working hard to maintain public transit funding, including creating a dedicated funding source, so that people with disabilities have the transit they need to stay employed.
To join an advocacy team, call 414-291-7520/TDD. Google “independent living centers Wisconsin” to find a center near you.
On Aug. 29, the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center hosts a panel about LGBT people with disabilities from 6 to 8 p.m. at the center, 252 E. Highland Ave. U.S. Attorney James L. Santelle will speak. In addition to prosecuting federal crimes for the eastern district of Wisconsin, Santelle oversees civil rights compliance, including the ADA and the federal hate crimes law. A representative of the Milwaukee Fire and Police Commission and others may also speak. LGBT community members with and without disabilities are welcome to attend.
Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has played a proactive role, meeting with minority and immigrant communities to educate them about federal laws and programs that affect them. It is one of Obama’s many unheralded initiatives. This event offers another opportunity to get involved and to spur some disability rights activism within the LGBT community.