Today, we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his lasting impact on civil rights in this country.
While Dr. King is no longer with us, we are blessed with so many people in our community who were not only alive but participated in the Civil Rights Movement.
Last year, I had a chance to interview our friend and volunteer Edith Kelson about how Dr. King’s message of nonviolence “mesmerized” her as a young person.
Edith participated in local marches after church, in sync with marches happening in every city across the country. She remembers walking for miles in heels because it didn’t occur to her to bring a change of shoes.
She told us how she learned how to peaceably fight against the injustices that infuriated her every day.
“He made everyone want to be a part of a solution,” she said.
If you missed that conversation last year, I encourage you to watch it.
Or — better yet — ask someone in your life to tell you their real-time impressions of Dr. King and how they participated in the Civil Rights Movement.
History is so much more powerful when you can experience it through firsthand, personal stories. I pray you use today as an opportunity to seek out those stories.
The Fight for Disability Rights
While most people know that Dr. King advanced rights for the black community, most aren’t aware he fought for the rights of disabled people as well.
If you look at pictures from marches in the 1960s, you’ll notice people with disabilities walking alongside Black Americans.
They fought for what they called the Independent Living Movement — the idea that everyone should be able to function independently and be included in all of society, regardless of abilities.
Dr. King’s efforts — alongside the efforts of so many other black activists — led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, preventing labor discrimination based on race, religion, gender, or nationality.
However, protection for people with disabilities wasn’t written into Section 504 of the Civil Rights Act until 1977, after three different presidents hesitated signing the language into law.
A 25-day sit-in in San Francisco — the longest non-violent occupation of a federal building in U.S. history — was the final push that formalized Section 504. This allowed people with disabilities to be considered a minority class with a united voice, rather than individuals whose circumstances were dealt with case by case.
The regulations that protected those rights weren’t created until President George Bush, Sr. signed the American with Disabilities Act, or ADA, in 1990.
The Impact of Disability Rights
Rights for those with disabilities were so long in coming because of the financial implications of creating that level of inclusion.
Requiring buildings to be wheelchair-accessible meant that communities across the nation had to retrofit public buildings, from the parking lot to every bathroom. That’s a huge investment of time and money.
That extra investment is still playing out today. Just a few years ago, a local lawyer was suing the owners of older, small shopping plazas for ADA compliance.
Our church was a tenant in a plaza in Hollywood when it underwent hefty renovations under the threat of a lawsuit.
Despite the high costs, I think we would all agree that inclusion is worth the investment. Even if you’re not physically challenged now, many of us will use a wheelchair or a walker in the future.
Then we’ll be thankful we can still visit our favorite places without assistance.
Our Fight Today
Today, rather than marching in the streets, we’re fighting a battle of information.
Activists like Dr. King did so much work to ensure the rights of every American. But while those rights are enshrined into law, I feel like I’m constantly telling people what they are.
For example, seniors — and their loved ones — know the ADA exists. However, they don’t know how it helps them. They don’t know how the law ensures their rights. And they don’t know how to access funds available to them.
Part of Heart2Heart’s mission is to keep seniors informed of their rights and the resources available to them. We’re here to fill in the gap — sometimes with information and sometimes with extra manpower from our volunteers.
If you or our loved one is struggling to be included in their community because of a disability, give us a call. We love opportunities to continue Dr. King’s legacy of inclusion and equity.