Just being outside was Essence Jackson’s favorite part of the Disability Pride Celebration and Parade held Sunday in Delaware Park.
“I ate a hot dog and a sausage, and I visited with people I hadn’t seen in a while,” said 33-year-old Jackson, who has cerebral palsy.
Sunday capped a two-day celebration honoring the 26th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, or ADA, the civil rights law aimed at protecting against discrimination based on disability. It was signed into law July 26, 1990.
The local event was the second annual celebration intended to spread awareness, said event captain Haylee Nugent. The 16-year-old is legally blind and entering her senior year at Lackawanna High School. She explained the square logo on the front of the blue-and-white T-shirts just about everyone was wearing: In the design, four small boxes comprised the large square. Each of the four boxes contained an image that symbolized the disabilities represented at Sunday’s event.
“This is for people who have wheelchairs, who have spinal disabilities,” Haylee said pointing to her shirt. “This is for mental health – the one with the cranium. This is for deaf, so they have the sign language, and this is for blind people.”
It does not matter if a person is in a wheelchair, blind, hearing-impaired or mentally challenged, they deserve to celebrate their uniqueness, said Kate Trombley, director of community engagement for Western New York Independent Living, a major sponsor of the weekend event that featured volleyball and other games, live music and food trucks in addition to the grilled hot dogs and sausages.
“We’re celebrating our independence,” Trombley said. “There’s’ the Irish festival. There’s the Gay Pride Parade. There’s all these things but nothing that says disabilities are OK,” Trombley said.
Festivalgoer Gwen Squire works as a counselor at Self-Advocacy Association of Western New York as an advocate for people with disabilities. The ADA is important because people with disabilities want to be able to do all the things that people without disabilities want to do, Squire said.
“We want to go to college, which I’ve done,” said Squire, who earned a master’s degree from the University at Buffalo in rehabilitation counseling.
The 49-year-old Buffalo resident also started her own business – Outside the Box Advocacy – in which she lectures people on disability awareness.
“I think that’s what the ADA is all about, too, bringing awareness about people with disabilities, how we can contribute to everything just like anybody else can,” she said.
More wheelchair accessibility in buildings is something that she would like to see more of, even though it is already part of the ADA. Some older buildings just aren’t equipped for wheelchairs, and it can be quite the challenge trying to do regular, everyday activities – such as the time she was in the Southtowns and wanted to get a bite to eat.
“It is a law, but you can go to like older buildings and they’re not accessible,” she said. “Like if you go to North Collins – I went there one time to get a slice of pizza somewhere because I was doing a presentation there, and it wasn’t’ accessible. The lady who was with me had to go in and get the pizza and bring it back out to me.”
Another Buffalo resident, Michael Rogers, 40, feels that the ADA could use more accountability and enforcement at every level.
“I think a lot of times things are skirted around, and I think we need to have more national, state and local accountability. … And if they’re not happening, people need to feel the heat for that sometimes,” said Rogers, who uses a wheelchair.
Like Squire, Rogers also works for the Self-Advodacy Association of New York State. He teaches people to speak up for themselves and other people, he said. It’s part of the disability rights movement of which the ADA is the center.
“Before ADA, we really didn’t have anything federally that really put people to task when it came to housing or accessibility and/or employment,” Rogers said. “We really didn’t have anything that held people to task from a civil rights point of view to make sure we were treated equally.”
The law enabled a number of advances, said B.J. Stasio, 45, of Buffalo. “It laid out the framework to help us get employment, to help us get accessible housing, to help us get accessible transportation,” said Stasio, who is employed by the New York State Office for People With Developmental Disabilities. He said the problem with ADA is that every state interprets it differently, even though it is a federal law.
“I would like to see it be uniform so that every state has to follow it the same,” he said.
Still, Stasio agreed with one of the themes of the day: that the ADA is the most important law in history for the disabled community.
“All in all, it’s a good act,” Rogers said. “It helps people have events like this and celebrate being a person with a disability and being an American.”