Thursday, March 6, 2008

Julia's Musings: Does It Really Make A Difference?

A friend asked me once “Does all of your advocacy work really make a difference? The constant lobbying for access, for equality, for inclusion for people with disabilities -- are you seeing any changes? Any improvements?”

I ask myself this question a lot, usually when I am driving home after a long day at the General Assembly. I almost always arrive at the answer “yes, it does make a difference,” but you know, it is nice to see some evidence of progress out in the community. It is good to be reminded why we do this work. This weekend I witnessed both the difference advocacy makes and the significant challenges that we continue to face as a community.

On Friday I went to the North Carolina Symphony for an evening of music and relaxation. I sat in the front row, in an accessible seat where I could see every delicate finger position and bow movement of the violinist. There was a time when the only accessible seats in a theatre were in the back, the last row near the wall, almost hidden from view. When we, the disability community, fought for equal access through the Americans with Disabilities Act we were probably not focusing on theatre seating but in this area as in many, our voices made a difference.

After the symphony I decided to take the accessible trolley back to where we had parked our car. While waiting for the trolley I struck up a conversation with a blind man who was waiting with us. We started a discussion about politics. He asked what I did and I told him I was a lobbyist. His first reaction was not favorable; “lobbyist” does not have very favorable connotations. Once we got past the usual lobbyist jokes, this gentleman expressed his concern about the “Left on Red” bill that had been introduced last session. I chuckled to myself; this was a piece of legislation from last session that I and other disability advocates actively worked against. He had heard that it died in committee and was happy someone was working for his interests. Our work made a difference.

When I arrived home that evening I received an email regarding an unfolding situation at the North Carolina School for the Deaf. Student leaders had wanted to hold a protest regarding the unequal education they are receiving and because the school administration does not know how to communicate through sign language. The protest was promptly squashed by the administration and several students were suspended. These student leaders want to exercise their right to speak out on issues that directly affect their lives. Students have been speaking out in our high schools and college campuses for years. The fact that we are still fighting in our state for these basic rights for deaf and hard of hearing students reminds us that there is much more work to be done.

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