Disability Rights Advocacy: Now is the Time


Disability – the one minority you can join at a moment’s notice.

Do I have your attention?

Extrapolating this truism to recognize that the disability community constitutes approximately 15 percent of the population, along with the fact that the disability community is disproportionately affected by poverty and poor health, is what motivated New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI), to devote itself to advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities some 40 years ago. Over the years, fellow advocates from across the city, state and country have joined NYLPI’s Disability Justice program. Yet, there is still much work to be done.

Disability advocacy means ensuring that the rights of all persons with disabilities are respected in all aspects of their lives. Deborah Danner should not have died at the hands of a police officer who was apparently unequipped to deal with the needs of persons with mental illness. Children with learning disabilities should not be ignored, sent home and ultimately forced out of charter schools. Persons who use wheelchairs should not be held hostage in their apartments due to non-functioning elevators and inaccessible building entrances and exits – nor should access to mammography machines or subways and buses be denied. How can we stand by when persons with intellectual disabilities are paid far below minimum wage to toil in the bowels of a turkey processing plant? Shouldn’t we be outraged when New Yorkers attempt to keep persons with developmental disabilities from living in their co-op, claiming that it will decrease property values? And can any of these individuals find true justice if our courthouses prevent both physical and communications access?

One of the challenges for the disability community is its enormous diversity. It presents questions such as whether the interests of persons with mental disabilities intersect with the interests of those with physical disabilities, and whether persons who are deaf or have hearing impairments consider themselves to have disabilities. We must recognize each person’s individual needs while fighting for such over-arching principles as equality, inclusion and self-determination. A critical tool for protecting individual needs and ensuring equality, inclusion and self-determination, is the unique mandate of the Americans with Disabilities Act (and other civil rights laws for persons with disabilities) that society do something affirmative to “accommodate” persons with disabilities. While accommodations must only be “reasonable,” and cannot present an “undue burden” or “fundamentally alter the nature” of any program, leveling the playing field may require offering sign language interpreters, readers, large print, Braille or modified schedules, policies, equipment or examinations.

The nonprofit sector is one of the prime movers and shakers for disability advocacy. In addition to nonprofit law offices like NYLPI, there are countless disability-specific offices at the forefront of improving the lives of persons with disabilities by engaging in legislative advocacy, providing technical assistance and developing policies for change. Nonprofits also provide direct services to the disability community such as housing, educational programs and legal services. NYLPI works with nonprofits on virtually all of its disability rights campaigns and looks forward to joining forces with others.

Here are some things every nonprofit can do to help advocate for persons with disabilities:

* Hire persons with disabilities.

* Accommodate your employees and clients who have disabilities. You can learn more about accommodations by contacting the Job Accommodation Network.

* Make sure your agency is accessible to the physical and communication needs of your employees, clients, and visitors. You can learn more about accessibility by contacting the New York City Commission on Human Rights.

* Collaborate with NYLPI and other nonprofit disability rights advocates.

The disability rights advocacy community welcomes you.

Ruth Lowenkron is the new director of the Disability Justice program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. She is a passionate disability rights advocate, having worked in the field for over 30 years, including stints with both New York’s and New Jersey’s protection and advocacy agencies for persons with disabilities. She counts as one of her proudest achievements founding a not-for-profit law office devoted to involving the private bar in advocating on behalf of the rights of indigent persons with disabilities.

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