When I think about the disability rights movement in America, I think of two serious barriers that keep us from coming together as a powerful force. First, so many of us have the thought “What difference can I make?” Secondly, there is a lack of understanding of who we are and how much power we hold if we come together as a whole. My own personal example illustrates these phenomena, and one way it can be overcome.
As a child, I hated school because I had to study more than my peers, but could never achieve the same high grades. In high school, I was diagnosed with dyslexia. I was sent to phonics classes and individual tutoring. In 1994, I was faced with the possibility of going to college. I told myself, "I can't do it". I never felt connected to the disability community; I just accepted the fact that I could not do certain things.
In 1995, I started a fund raising company. I quickly realized that I lacked many basic business skills needed to push my business to the next level. But my company met with a measure of success, and I felt more confident of my abilities as a result of this entrepreneurial venture. I tackled college head-on to get the necessary skills, this time with an “I can make a difference” attitude. The college provided note takers, tutors, and the opportunity to take tests with extended time. Now I have a BA and a sign language interpreting degree. I am truly grateful for the equal access to education that I was given. During those times, whenever I met someone with a learning disability, we’d talk about what it is like to have a hidden disability. That experience was really my only connection to people with disabilities; I still did not understand my role as a member of the disability community.
Then in 1996, I volunteered as a teacher at a school for Deaf children in Kenya. Kenya has 41 Deaf schools with about 80-100 students per school. The teachers are hearing and I was shocked to find that many cannot sign. The Deaf children could not imagine going to college. When I arrived home, I founded a nonprofit organization called East African Deaf Connection, which has evolved into Global Deaf Connection (GDC). To date, GDC has provided college scholarships and the services of full-time Kenyan Sign Language interpreters for a total of 13 Deaf Kenyans who have graduated from teachers college in Kenya. This type of program has never been done before in all of Africa. Global Deaf Connection has also sent multiple groups of Deaf education teachers to inspire and mentor Deaf Kenyans to understand that they can make a difference. My experience in Kenya was the first time I really felt connected to a group of people with a different disability, since their struggle for equal access to college was so related to mine. But still, I did not feel a full connection to the disability community.
In 2004 I was awarded the Paul G. Hearne Award for Emerging Leaders with Disabilities from the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD). I was honored to receive this award in Washington D.C. and, for the first time, feel connected to the disability community as a whole. The gala awards event was filled with some of the most amazing people with disabilities that I have ever met. In the past, I was accustomed to working with the Deaf community, or the Blind community, or ADHD community. Never did I fully realize the collective power of the organized disability community as a whole. AAPD helped me understand this power.
With the November elections approaching and in future elections, it is important that the disability community, as a collective group, get to the polls. People with disabilities are the largest minority community in the United States, but are the least mobilized voting block. We make up 20 percent of society, yet we only vote at a 35-45 percent turnout rate. (Kelly Anthony, Paraquad, Inc).
Getting to the polls is a very important part of systems change for a community that is commonly underemployed and very susceptible to state and federal budget cuts. Each election, I try to encourage at least one other person to register and vote, along with getting to the polls myself. Some years, I get a hand full of people. I would like to make this same challenge to everyone reading this editorial. Help someone get registered. Let them know where they should go to vote and what form of identification they’ll need for voting.
They can register on-line at http://www.lwv.org/voter/register.cfm, and all the other information needed can be found at http://www.lwv.org/voter/vote.cfm . We can make a difference. Let’s join together so the collective power of the disability community is felt in every election.
Kevin Long is the Founder and CEO of Global Deaf Connection. He is a recipient of the 2004 Paul G. Hearne Award for Emerging Leaders with Disabilities. Visit www.deafconnection.org for more information.