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Opinion: Disability can honor each person’s uniqueness

Being disabled does not mean being disempowered.
Opinion%3A+Disability+can+honor+each+persons+uniqueness
Sarah Mai

Gay Pride month was in June. Most people don’t realize it, but since 1990 we have celebrated July as Disability Pride month. People with disabilities can take pride in their identities and reflect on the strides society has made towards inclusivity.

The Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in July 1990. That Act was based on the Vocational Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which required programs receiving federal funds to accommodate people with disabilities. This is the 50th anniversary of the Voc. Rehab. Act.

Can one be both disabled and proud? Why does it seem disability and pride are not often mentioned together? 

I became disabled when I was 18: in September 1969, at the age of 18, I dove into Lake Independence and broke my neck. I went from the walking world to the wheeling world in a matter of seconds. My spinal cord was severed and I became a C 5/6 quadriplegic. I have some use of my arms, am able to push a manual wheelchair and drive a van with hand controls. 

Before becoming disabled I was oblivious to the hurdles people with disabilities faced. I do not remember ever seeing, much less knowing, a person who used a wheelchair. I had never thought about or been exposed to disability in any meaningful way and I am quite certain that I was not unusual. 

Fifty years ago, I enrolled at the University of Minnesota as a freshman. I started the University in 1973, received my BA in 1977, then started law school in 1980 and graduated in 1983.  As a freshman, I was on a committee deciding where to spend money the state allocated to comply with the Voc. Rehab. Act. The first ramps built were at Ford Hall and Northrop Auditorium. 

Disability is not often brought up. People do not like to think of the possibility of being disabled, yet over 25% of adults in the United States have some type of disability.

Disability seems to be the least often discussed group in diversity and inclusion. Not many people understand, or even try to understand, living with a disability.

I did not, and I do not, believe anyone immediately accepts becoming disabled. It’s not something that one gets happy or excited about. It takes time to learn a different way of life.

Frequently disability is viewed as a disease or something to be cured, not something to be proud of. Disability is portrayed as being terrible and that it could happen to you if you are not careful. People will say I would rather be dead than spend my life in a wheelchair.

I wrote a book to share my experiences and what I learned from over 50 years of being a wheelchair user. The title of my book is Wheelchair Bound? The question mark is important.  People are not wheelchair bound: their chair gives them freedom and hopefully that term will stop being used.

My disability became an integral part of who I am. The University helped me become a visible member of society and interact with my disability out in the open. Disability pride has been described as accepting and honoring each person’s uniqueness.

James LaBelle is a retired attorney and an inactive member of the California Bar Association.

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