Wanted: allies in the fight for disability rights

By Joan Vennochi, Globe Columnist,Updated August 5, 2020 in the Boston Globe.

‘We don’t have allies. It’s just people in wheelchairs,’ said Carol Steinberg.

When the landmark Americans With Disabilities Act turned 30 last month, Carol Steinberg was doing what she always does: pushing hard for more accessibility for people with disabilities.

As Beacon Hill lawmakers took up a major economic development package — which includes money for affordable housing — Steinberg was lobbying to add language that would require that buildings constructed before 1991 that are being converted into apartments must include units that can be adapted to the needs of senior citizens or people with disabilities. The amendment, sponsored by state Senator Michael Moore of Millbury, was not adopted. Given the crush of last-minute amendments, Steinberg knew it was a long shot. But the outcome was still a disappointment — especially as it came a few days after the headlines and hoopla over the 30th anniversary of the ADA. But Steinberg, who has been fighting for this measure for at least 10 years, isn’t giving up. She said she owes it to previous generations of disability activists.

“They fought so hard,” said Steinberg, a lawyer who uses a wheelchair due to multiple sclerosis. “Their fight is not over. We have to carry on their legacy.” She is also motivated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has been devastating to people in nursing homes. More than 60 percent of the people who have died of COVID-19 in Massachusetts resided in such facilities. If there were more accessible housing, more people could live independently and more safely, said Steinberg.

In the response to the other pandemic that has been sweeping the nation — systemic racism — Steinberg sees a model for disability activists. Since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, doing nothing in pursuit of racial justice — while claiming not to be racist — is no longer acceptable, assuming it ever was. Allies are needed. The same is true in the fight for disability rights. “We don’t have allies. It’s just people in wheelchairs,” said Steinberg.

People like Steinberg are forces of nature, and you know it the minute you meet them. I first encountered her in October 2019, when she and a band of fellow activists gathered at the entrance to Governor Charlie Baker’s State House office suite, trying to get him to pay attention to a variety of accessibility issues. During the several hours they hung out in hopes of meeting with the governor, I spoke to them about the help they said they needed to make housing more accessible. In December, Baker did meet with them but didn’t commit to any specific housing policy.

“Please don’t say anything bad about Governor Baker,” said Steinberg, who remains hopeful he will embrace her mission. So, in the interest of her protecting her optimism, I won’t. What I will say is that there are some champions, like Moore and state Representative Christine Barber of Somerville, who are seeking compromise with opponents who believe accessibility costs too much money. More champions are needed.

The biggest obstacle to progress may be those who do nothing. Nothing great happens without a groundswell of support. That was certainly true of the ADA, which was signed into law on July 26, 1990, by President George H.W. Bush on the South Lawn of the White House. “More than 2,000 people, many in wheelchairs, cheered from the lawn. Activists had waited years for this moment,” wrote The New York Times in a special section on the recent ADA anniversary. Considered one of the country’s most comprehensive civil rights laws, it prohibits discrimination and is supposed to guarantee that people with disabilities have the same opportunities as everyone else.

Yet, 30 years later, the gap between that sweeping promise and the experience of living with a disability is huge. That’s why Steinberg is on the front lines, pushing for the kind of change that will make buildings accessible to all. It’s a simple goal that has proved difficult to achieve. More allies would definitely help the cause.

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