Remarks by Rebecca Vallas
July 23, 2018
My name is Rebecca Vallas, and I’m the Vice President of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.
Thank you to Kelly, Tim, Bruce, and Lou Ann for inviting me here today. It’s truly an honor to have the opportunity to speak to a room filled with grassroots activists, policy leaders, and some of the most impressive civil rights activists across the United States dedicated to disability rights and justice. On a personal level, I’m honored to speak to an audience that has inspired my own career in social justice.
28 years ago, the drafters of the ADA began with an idea, the codification of a right: equal justice under the law. But as if this was some radical idea, it was met with massive pushback, challenge, and resistance. Now it’s no surprise to us that perseverance and limitless dedication proved insurmountable to the critics, and equal justice became a right, not a privilege. On July 26, 1990 what was once an idea suddenly became a new reality for tens of millions of Americans, and their families.
Over the past half-century, the United States has made many other great strides toward removing barriers to employment, education, economic security, and more for people with disabilities. In addition to the ADA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, and the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Olmstead, laid critical groundwork for equal opportunity as well as deinstitutionalization. Medicaid has grown into the nation’s primary provider of home- and community-based services, and the Affordable Care Act not only cut the nation’s uninsured rate in half—it also put in place critical protections such as essential health benefits that established mental health parity and prohibitions on lifetime limits as well as discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions.
We should all be proud of this work, but none of us should think for a moment that we’ve done what we set out to do. I often find myself asking a simple question in light of this progress.
What could equal justice under the law look like? It’s a question I’ve thought about for a long time, since my early days as a legal aid lawyer in North Philly.
Increasingly, it’s become harder and harder to answer—or even to envision. We are living in an era where accountability often feels unattainable particularly with what used to be a 24-hour news cycle now replaced by a 24-second news cycle… Where discrimination based on disability, sex, education, and race has become not only tolerated but modeled and even sought at the highest levels of power in this country.
It’s a hard question to answer when we are confronted with a Supreme Court nominee who wants to send us back to a time before modern labor laws, a President who thinks it’s acceptable to attack the American people and our very institutions and to mock a reporter with a disability, when the head of the agency charged with ensuring community living questions whether or not community inclusion is actually the law of the land, and when leaders in Congress refuse to speak up and head off the rapid crumbling of advances in civil rights that have been made over the last 28 years, including through direct attacks on the ADA.
It often feels that to live through this moment is to find one’s daily life punctuated by the daily horror of breaking news update after breaking news update that have become so normalized over the past year and a half. As my sister Rebecca Cokley often says, we aren’t drinking from a firehose, rather we are drinking from a flame thrower.
But the worst thing we can do, and the very thing they want us to do, is to back away from the fight. To accept not just the status quo but the steady rollback of the clock. To sit out the fight when it affects a community that is not ours, or give up because it’s just too hard and there are too many attacks on too many fronts.
The thing is, acceptance of the status quo isn’t the nature of progress, and it’s sure as hell not in the nature of the disability community.
We must instead choose agency. The path of resistance, of protest, and of meaningful change. We must choose the story of justice that includes mobilization of diverse ideas, and the recognition that disability rights and equal justice is consistent with recognizing human dignity, human rights, and the inherent potential in and equality of every human being.
We must choose the story this community has championed, and perhaps ask a new question; not what equal justice could look like, but what equal justice should look like. We must choose the story that we’ll tell our children. The story that many of those currently in power in this country would rather not tell.
This is very much the story of 2017. When we reached a turning point. When the broader community and even the mainstream media finally took notice of disability activism. When the disability community saved the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid.
Suddenly the disability community was front and center for all of America to see. The power and dedication of groups such as ADAPT and NCIL who had for decades been putting their bodies on the line to achieve historic progress, was now, finally, being recognized. A year later, I stand here and reflect upon the sea change that the disability community has created, and the momentum you have built.
But the battle is far from over, and it remains uphill from here.
But as we ask ourselves what lies ahead, and where must we go in the next chapter of this fight, we must look beyond the ADA and beyond the silo that too often encases the disability community.
While we have achieved tremendous progress, 28 years after the signing of the ADA, we have a great distance yet to go. It’s no secret to those of us who work in this space that people with disabilities face poverty rates nearly three times higher than people without disabilities. Disabled people are among the most vulnerable to extreme weather events, which are only becoming more frequent due to climate change. Hundreds of thousands of workers with disabilities are still paid less than the fair minimum wage, an injustice that is well worth noting as we mark the 80th anniversary of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which enshrined this double standard into law. People with disabilities are massively overrepresented in our nation’s prisons and jails, with people behind bars at least three times as likely to report a disability as the general population. And for far too many disabled people in this country, community living remains a privilege instead of a right.
Meanwhile, ongoing attacks on the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid, nutrition assistance, and even the ADA itself have proven that the disability community continues to be the canary in the coal mine in the current political moment.
So where does that leave us? And with what as our charge?
We have no choice in this moment but to think big—and to fight together. And not just within the walls of the disability community. For too long the notion of disability policy and disability rights has lived in a silo, artificially and counterproductively separate from the fight to end poverty and tackle historic levels of inequality, artificially and counterproductively separate from the fight to curb climate change and to prepare for ever more frequent extreme weather events, artificially and counterproductively separate from the fight for criminal justice reform, from the debate around opioids, and even the fight for universal health care.
It’s that kind of siloed thinking that paves the way for well-intentioned but counterproductive, and even inadvertently ableist policymaking—like straw bans that may make sense from a purely environmental perspective, but which in practice compromise the accessibility of public places. Like policies that restrict access to opioids that help people manage chronic pain. Like “universal health care” proposals that leave behind people with disabilities because they fail to include long-term services and supports.
That’s why, wonderful as it is to see disability activism finally gaining the broad recognition and visibility it has so long deserved, recognition is not enough. The disability community must be understood and viewed and appreciated not just as part of an outreach strategy, or a compelling protest meme, or talking point.
I have long pushed my brothers and sisters across the broader progressive community to realize that fighting for social justice doesn’t automatically make our work inclusive—or even accessible. That every issue is a disability issue and must be understood as such. And that working with the disability community doesn’t mean calling up ADAPT and seeing if they’ll get arrested at a particular place and time to help get earned media around a particular cause.
That’s why I’m beyond proud to announce that this Wednesday, the Center for American Progress is launching the Disability Justice Initiative, a project dedicated to applying disability as a lens across each and every issue we work on, in service of building out a truly inclusive policy agenda. As we launch the Initiative, CAP is proud to become the first and only progressive think tank with a dedicated disability project.
Importantly, the work isn’t and won’t just be about developing inclusive policies. It’s about building an inclusive movement. And this starts with who is at the table. Under the direction of long time disability activist and my dear sister Rebecca Cokley, the Disability Justice Initiative will ensure that the 1 in 5 Americans with disabilities are not left out of the conversation, and that people with disabilities—including and especially multiply marginalized voices such as people of color with disabilities, immigrants with disabilities, and LGBTQ disabled folks—have a seat at the table.
We are not just setting a big table, but we’re completely reconfiguring it to include not only the traditional parts of the disability community, but also people who haven’t traditionally seen themselves reflected in the disability space—including people with chronic health conditions, cancer survivors, people with eating disorders, and those in recovery. The work will tackle, head-on, the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism. And at our launch event on Wednesday, we will have the pleasure of being kicked off by a remarkable leader and champion, Senator Tammy Duckworth, and a badass all-woman panel of disability leaders.
We know the power of breaking down silos, of standing shoulder to shoulder. And we know that the work of setting a big table—and of being at the table—requires a commitment in both directions. As we saw the LGBTQ community show up and fight alongside the disability community to defeat dangerous legislation that would have significantly set back mental health parity, today we see the disability community showing up and working with immigration activists to ensure we are meeting the needs of those on the border being traumatized and acquiring disabilities as a result of family separation and warehousing in cages.
These types of partnerships and alliances serve as a model for all of our work—particularly in the current moment when never has it been truer that divided we shall fall. And notably they remind us that being at the table requires a commitment in both directions.
I want to take a moment to acknowledge the tremendous work of someone who’s not here today but has been a leader in this space, and a constant voice in my head as we build out this work. Paul Timmons, through his work with Portlight Inclusive Disaster Strategies, came to us a year ago and planted a seed with CAP about the need to create something new and different, something that would utilize CAP’s resources and tools to support and amplify the voices of people with disabilities who have been impacted by environmental racism and ableism in the onslaught of recent extreme weather events. Paul was the first funder of this work—and his dedication to seeing the disability community truly at the table with the broader progressive community, and to have disability issues and people with disabilities reflected in the broader progressive agenda, is a cornerstone of our work.
So on Wednesday, we launch. On Thursday, we mark 28 years of the ADA. And on Friday, we wake up ready to keep fighting for the promise of equal justice.
You know better than anyone it’s not going to be easy—and it never has. This fight requires constant vigilance; it requires speaking truth to power even and especially when it’s uncomfortable; and sometimes it requires pissing people off.
And it requires not just fighting to protect the gains we have made—but pushing ahead to build on those gains even as we fight to maintain the most basic of rights and protections, so that as we reconfirm the victories of years past, we lay down markers for where we need to go from here.
Case in point: health care. Medicaid has never been so popular, so beloved as it is now following the gravest threats the program has ever faced in its five-plus decade history. And while the fight to preserve Medicaid and the ACA is far from over, amid continued threats both in Congress and at the state level—it is on the heels of that fight that we are finally seeing real recognition that universal health care will never truly be universal if it fails to meet the needs of people with disabilities.
I was proud earlier this year that CAP helped to move the goal posts in that debate by releasing a health care plan that acknowledged long-term services and supports should and must be an essential health benefit, rather than privilege for those rich enough to afford them—or something one must impoverish themselves in order to receive. And I’m proud that CAP has built on that commitment by supporting the Disability Integration Act.
In the words of environmentalist and author Paul Hawken: “Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.”
There is no community with a history that more clearly embodies this call than the disability community.
And rarely in this nation’s history has this call to action has been more timely.
For anyone in this room wondering how we can possibly afford to have hope in this moment, as we fight for our very lives each and every day, allow me to briefly rewind the clock to the day after the 2016 election when we were told there was no way the Affordable Care Act would survive the new political climate.
All the Very Smart People told us the ACA was history—we just needed to accept it and think through how we could make a “repeal and replace” plan less harmful.
You heard it from Kelly—that was a testament to the power of so many of the people in this room, and of the disability community writ large.
Now shall we check together to see if it was impossible after all?
It is only by taking on what we’re told is impossible that we’ll ever achieve true equal justice.