Impact Feature Issue on the ADA and People with Intellectual Developmental, and Other Disabilities
Giving Everyone a Chance to Be Part of the Community
For disability rights activist and self-advocate Heidi Myhre, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is about making our communities, our world, a better place for everyone. In this February 2015, interview she reflects on the meaning of the ADA and where we go next. Video clips of Heidi discussing the ADA can be found at Self-Advocacy Online.
Q: When did you first hear about the Americans with Disabilities Act?
A:I learned about the ADA pretty close to when it got signed into law in Washington, DC. But actually I was already doing that kind of work not knowing that there was a law in motion. The word “ADA” wasn’t there, but we were fighting for the same things. We were fighting to have better education, we were fighting to have better homes, and better medical care. For me I was fighting to say that I have a real disability, and I deserve a real education, I deserve to live in an apartment, I deserve human services. So I was already fighting for it before it had the name ADA. But the Americans with Disabilities Act makes it so that some of the things I was fighting for are permanent. Like if I get a job, they have to follow certain rules; work fields have to accommodate to people with disabilities. I should be able to have an apartment or house that’s handicap accessible if I can afford it. I should be able to have transportation that I can get on with my disability – it may be hard for me, but I can still go from point A to point B. If I want to take an airplane trip I should be able to take my wheelchair with me.
Q: Do you think the ADA has succeeded in removing some barriers people with disabilities faced in the past?
A: Yes. The Twin Cities has broken some barriers in transportation. Like when the light rail was being built on University Avenue in St. Paul there was a lot of ADA going on. For example, there is a family where both parents have disabilities and they have a child, so we had to think creatively about how this family could take their PCA with them, and their child, and sit together on the light rail and city buses, and use tie downs for the wheelchairs.
We’ve fought really hard for parks that are in line with the ADA. We’re struggling because we’re running into the ADA not always working because they don’t want to change nature, or they don’t want to change how the building looks or how people do things. So it’s hard to incorporate it sometimes, but it does need to be there so everybody can be part of it. We’re all part of the community once you walk out of the house.
If you go to a movie or a play there are headphones you can use if you’re hearing impaired like me, and you can hear it in headphones and adjust the volume. A lot of museums are using this where you can rent this little machine and headphones and you go around in the museum and there’s a number on signs, and you type in the numbers in this portable thing and it tells you about the exhibit. This gives you way more than you would get just from signs on the exhibit, and I can’t read very well so this helps me. And now you can do it through your cell phone.
So we’re being real creative in thinking about how to use the ADA to meet the needs of people with different disabilities so everyone has a chance to be part of the community.
Q: What kinds of barriers do you still encounter even with the ADA?
A: The way our laws are written and the way human services operates creates barriers, and I know we can go beyond that. Not only funding barriers, but getting the right kind of help to make sure we can get the appropriate equipment and the appropriate people to help people with disabilities. We’re always running into that. Human services sometimes are tied down by what the legislators have done. Or people may be stuck in the old days, meaning they don’t want to grow and move forward. The ADA has helped to open the doors to get appropriate services, but there’s always going to be tweaking of it by the disability community. Like the 5% campaign in Minnesota that we fought for Direct Support Professionals (DSPs) to have better pay, so they can have a raise for the work they do to help us. That was last year at the legislature and we’re now fighting to make it better and stronger. We have to have good DSPs for the ADA to work; there are people who need DSPs to help them get out of bed, and get into their wheelchairs, and get to their jobs. We want to give them good pay because we have DSPs who are passionate about this work, but can’t support themselves or their families on what they’re being paid.
Q: Do you think the ADA will continue to be important in the future?
A: It’s always going to be important, and we’re always going to be tweaking it. We don’t all need the same things. We have to build it to meet the needs of the people with the lowest end needs – who need the least help – all the way up to those at the highest end with the most needs. For me, I need a good pair of glasses or I couldn’t be here today doing this interview because I wouldn’t have been able to get on the bus. And I need my hearing aids so I can be in my environment and be safe. And I need my brace so I can walk better and get places. But everybody with a disability is slightly different; we don’t all have the same disabilities and needs. Just because you see a person in a wheelchair doesn’t mean all people in wheelchairs have the same disability. It’s a stereotype, and we’re very good at stereotyping. I think the ADA breaks that down and helps us figure out what works and doesn’t work for the person who has very little need to the person with very great needs. And we need people with disabilities out there fighting and making a difference for people in wheelchairs, and people with forearm crutches, and people with hearing impairments, and people who are blind, and people with learning disabilities, and people like me who have multiple disabilities. So the ADA has to be about how does it work for all different kinds of people.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the ADA on its anniversary?
A: I’m glad it’s out there because we’re saying you can’t just be left on the street corner. What I mean by that is you don’t really care if we don’t exist. And we do exist. And we’re going to be here. And we’re not a disease, we’re not a defect. The ADA makes it so that I can actually have a life. We aren’t bad people. We don’t need to be shunned away and kept in a house, or a box, or a building. We have a right to be out in the community and be part of the world.
It’s okay once in awhile to bitch and get angry because that’s how the world grows. If we didn’t change we wouldn’t be where we are today. We’d be a dead society. Change is great. I think that’s what makes us human and that’s what makes us grow. The ADA is all about change. History is all about change. It changed when the Civil Rights movement integrated schools, it changed when we integrated students with disabilities in schools, it has changed as people have come here from other countries and from other cultures, it changed with the current wars. Now we have people who fought to save our country coming back from war with disabilities and we have to think about them. I think in the future we’ll go back to Washington and we are going to re-tweak the ADA to fit what’s going on right now with housing, technology, transportation, health care, science, all the different people from around the world who come to the United States, the veterans from the war, and people who are aging.
So we have to move our ideas, thoughts, and fighting techniques toward making a better community for all. The ADA has to work for all different kinds of people.