Disabled celebrate milestone in Philly

Participants lead the parade on Broad Street during the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act in Philadelphia on Saturday, July 25, 2015. (MICHAEL PRONZATO / Staff Photographer)

Colleen Devaney started kindergarten at the right time.

Had she tried to enter the year before - 1975 - Colleen, who has autism and cannot speak, might well have been rejected. But the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act had just passed, guaranteeing services to children with disabilities.

The milestone Americans With Disabilities Act would follow in 1990.

"She has been at the forefront of systems changing," Maureen Devaney, Colleen's mother, said Saturday at the city's celebration of the 25th anniversary of the ADA. "We've figured out how to have her stay home and have a full life - she's sitting here in a crowd, which is sometimes challenging for her, and enjoying it."

Colleen Devaney, now 45, has grown up as access laws around her have continued to improve, thanks in part to activists like her mother, founder of Vision for Equality Inc., which aims to help the 14,000 Pennsylvanians with intellectual disabilities on a waiting list for state aid.

On Saturday, events began at Dilworth Park with a series of speakers and continued with a parade along Market Street to the National Constitution Center.

Retired Sen. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), the primary author of the ADA; former Gov. Ed Rendell; and many leaders of advocacy groups spoke on the warm day as children played in the fountains nearby.

"Twenty-five years ago, we declared victory over intolerance," Harkin told the crowd of about 200. "Victory over discrimination, victory over prejudice, victory over fear. As President George Bush said at that time when he signed the ADA, 'Let the shameful wall of exclusion come tumbling down.' "

Harkin noted the progress made nationwide, including the shuttering of state hospitals that institutionalized the disabled; infrastructure improvements such as street curb cuts, ramps, and widened doors; and accessible buses and subways.

He said that in the next 10 years, the emphasis should be on jobs. Unemployment hovers around 60 percent for the disabled community, he said.

Charles W. Horton Jr., the executive director of the Mayor's Commission on People With Disabilities, estimated the number in Philadelphia is closer to 75 percent.

The primary issue his office deals with is affordable and accessible housing, Horton said. "Most of the community is lower income, and we live in an old city where it's sometimes difficult to get ramps and changes in because of building codes."

The office gives out student scholarships annually. "Education, employment, housing, and transportation - if we could fix those four things, that's the gateway to accessibility and independence," he said.

With two months until Pope Francis' visit and Mayor Nutter's warning that people will have to walk miles to get to the events, access for the disabled could be an issue.

"It's a problem. You have to balance accessibility vs. security, and that's the case not only for disabled citizens but for all citizens," Rendell said.

"I just hope they create the right balance, because I know if Pope Francis could choose how this is done . . . he'd want disabled folks to have full access to see and hear him."

Organizers for the papal events have said interpreting services will be provided, along with seating at events for the disabled community. It's unclear what provisions might be made to get disabled people there.

Dynah Haubert, 32, who lives near 11th and Callowhill Streets, attended the festivities with a sign taped to her motorized chair that read "P- on Pity."

Haubert, an attorney who works for the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, recently moved from Chinatown and said finding accessible bars and restaurants has been difficult.

"If I go with a group of nondisabled friends, and we try to go to a restaurant and we find it's inaccessible, it often can feel like it's my fault. But at events like this, where I see so many other awesome disabled people, I realize it's the fault of the businesses and this society that, when it was constructed, did not prioritize disabled access," she said.

"The problem is not me, and coming together like this feels like we can fight it."


Though the landmark legislation has brought greater public access, it has been less successful in bringing employment access. Currents, C1.