Monday, January 19, 2009

Happy Birthday Dr. King

The history of the United States of America could be told as the history of a nation that struggled toward the vision enshrined in its Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. Slowly and inexorably, this nation has extended these rights to life, liberty to all it's citizens whether cream colored, brown or black, whether male or female, under 21 or 18 or over, whether ambulatory, seeing, disabled or not... eventually we even envision these right extended to all the world's people in our great movement to spread democracy. 

But this inclusive vision was not always so. And is under constant threat both overt and subtle. In the beginning, we are often told, only white males over 21 who owned property could vote. In some colonies, they also had to belong to the state church (told less frequently). 

When the states and the new federal government could not resolve certain differences (like who should be allowed to vote) the argument was settled by reserving these rights to the states. Thus, states were allowed to set the criteria for voting rights, and by extension all others, like property rights, rights to attend school. 

Thus was born the civil rights movement, for what could be more in conflict than the freedoms envisioned in the Declaration and the Bill of Rights and a state prohibition to attend school because a student is female, or has a darker complexion than his peers, or cannot walk? 

Most people do not realize that the history of disability rights goes back as far as the history of civil rights for women and African Americans. In fact, the years that Dr. King and Malcolm X were working for the full rights of African Americans, people with disabilities were doing some of the same work. And these years were preceded by centuries of work to slowly extend the freedoms we all cherish to people of every color, every creed, every ability, every gender (well, at least two genders and more in places)... to every one. 

Yet this is where the rubber meets the road, where the admonition sometimes attributed to Jefferson, "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance," becomes real. For intentions are not enough. 

IDEA needs to be fully funded to be real. Without funding it is de jure, and not de facto law. It cannot be real. We must hold our newest president, and ourselves, to his promise to fund IDEA and bring more of our citizens into full protection under the law, and full citizenship. For more on the history of disability rights, see: