Standing on the backs of giants

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

I love the social justice work I do to ensure that all families have equal access to public playgrounds.  This has been my passion since my son was born 20 years ago.  I am only able to do my work because I stand on the backs of giants in disability advocacy.

In February 1963, President John F. Kennedy’s delivered a special message to Congress on Mental Illness and Mental Retardation (now called intellectual disabilities). President Kennedy envisioned a future in which, as he put it, the “reliance on the cold mercy of custodial isolation will be supplanted by the open warmth of community concern and capability.”

On October 31, 1963, President Kennedy signed the Mental Retardation Facilities and Community Mental Health Centers Construction Act of 1963.  It was the last piece of legislation that he signed prior to his assassination.

Five decades ago, it was common for people with developmental disabilities, like my son, to live in institutions; many were excluded from their communities, separated from their families, and subjected to abuse and neglect.

In a blog recognizing the fiftieth anniversary of this important legislation, Sharon Lewis of the US Health and Human Services Department wrote, “Thankfully, we have seen substantial change in the past fifty years, and the Developmental Disabilities Act (DD Act) is the foundation upon which those changes have been built. In 1963, children with disabilities did not have the right to go to school with siblings and peers without disabilities because the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act did not pass until 1975. People with disabilities did not have any civil rights protections until the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, with the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 establishing broad non-discrimination protections.”

Every day I thank the thousands of parents, community members and people with disabilities who made these issues their life work.  Because of their work, my son goes to public school along with his peers. He lived at home until he was 18.  We can enter public buildings and walk down sidewalks without hitting barriers.  If they had not dedicated their lives to knocking down the barriers of housing, schooling, and discrimination, my life would not be spent making recreation inclusive for all.  I could never thank them enough.

Fifty years ago this week, John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was eight days old when it happened.  I was not alive, when he signed that last piece legislation.  But his signature on that bill changed my life.

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