Personal Story

Impact Feature Issue on the ADA and People with Intellectual Developmental, and Other Disabilities

“We Were Fighters”:
An Interview with Connie Martinez


Connie Martinez lives in Sacramento

Charlene Jones , a Consultant and Project Coordinator from Sacramento, has been a colleague of Connie, and advisor/facilitator to California self-advocacy organizations and committees, for over 20 years. To learn more about the Task Force on the Rights and Empowerment of Americans with Disabilities, see the Executive Summary of its 1989 report available online at

In 1988-89, Connie Martinez was a member of the Task Force on the Rights and Empowerment of Americans with Disabilities. The Task Force, established by Rep. Major R. Owens, was described in this way in its 1989 report to Congress: “Composed of 35 distinguished representatives of every major segment of the nation’s 43 million American citizens with disabilities, the Task Force is mandated to collect information and to make recommendations which will assist the Congress as it considers the Americans with Disabilities Act.” In Fall 2014, Connie spoke with Charlene Jones about her experience with the task force, and the ADA’s impact on people’s lives. These are her reflections, as adapted from their conversation

Charlene: Why was it important to you to be part of the task force?

Connie: To be a voice for people who cannot speak for themselves. Many years ago (I won’t say how many!), I went to a program that was supposed to be a school, but was like a workshop where they treated people with disabilities like children. I left when I knew they were not going to teach me anything but sweep the floors. They hurt people, and I decided to stand up for them. I got into independent living and People First. I spoke out, gave speeches. When people heard me, I was asked to be on the State Council on Developmental Disabilities in Sacramento, California, and began to travel around the country, Canada, and later Japan so more people with disabilities and parents would have hope and be independent.

Charlene: What did you do as a task force member?

Connie: I don’t remember, but it was important that other people saw me there, that they understood just because I do not read, didn’t mean I could not understand what prejudice is and when people judge other people. We helped people understand that when we, as People First members, traveled around and talked to other people with disabilities about their lives and dreams. They were afraid to talk for themselves because people around them were “keepers,” not teachers. We helped write a book about it, [Surviving the System, Mental Retardation and the Retarding Environment] and we were fighters.

Charlene: What kinds of changes did you hope the ADA would make in people’s lives?

Connie: That it would change the prejudice, help more people have lives like other people, with relationships and jobs, and to be a part of the community. I live in my own place, have for a long time, and I am involved with my church, not with People First anymore, but interested in other things I want to do. I still fight for rights of people, not just people with disabilities.

Charlene: How did you feel when the ADA was signed into law?

Connie: When I heard, and we talked about what it means, there were tears. It gave dignity to our lives; it gave hope for a better life because it opened many doors. Life with choices, to live and love like we want to, like other people without disabilities.

Charlene: In what ways have your hopes about the ADA come true in the past 25 years?

Connie: More people are in independent living, living like they want to. They are involved and voting, too. People who in the past were called “retarded” show that they care about issues, and understand and really vote. Not just pretend voting like they did at the workshop a long time ago, but voting on important things.

Charlene: Do people with disabilities still face barriers to living the kinds of lives they want?

Connie: Sometimes people are still treated like I was treated in the past. Not all attitudes have changed, with people still treated like second-class citizens. Help and programs [services and supports] are not always good in other parts of the state and country. They don’t help people grow.

Charlene: How do you think the U.S. can continue to make things better for people with disabilities?

Connie: If we stop, nothing more will change. We have to work together, not just with people with disabilities, but work with other groups to fight prejudice and have more rights for more people. We must show and teach other people to take over now and be good leaders.