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Disability Pride: Parade is 10 years and growing stronger

Mon, Jul 22, 2013

The annual Disability Pride Parade set for Saturday, July 20 is “10 Years and Growing Stronger,” which celebrates not only the mission of the parade, but also achievements by people with disabilities over the last decade. The parade’s mission is to change the way people define “disability,” particularly breaking down and ending internalized shame among people with disabilities.

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“I view the most important part of the Mission Statement as, ‘to promote the belief in society that disability is a natural and beautiful part of human diversity,’ ” said committee member Bill Thomasson in an email interview. “Or to put it another way, ‘We’re here. Get used to it.’”

“As someone who became legally blind at age 63 — Hey! That’s more than a dozen years ago now — I have always considered disability pride a given,” Thomasson said. His vision loss is due to age-related macular degeneration in both eyes: he can see just the second line on an eye chart, and his eyesight is now declining very slowly after 12 years.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor monthly sample survey for June, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 13.4 percent in 2012, compared to the 7.9 percent unemployment rate for people without disabilities. Additionally, people with disabilities are three times as likely to be over age 65.

“Disability is not always considered within the spectrum of diversity for larger corporations, although more and more, it is part of the discussion,” said Gary Arnold, the public relations coordinator at Access Living. Without employment, people with disabilities cannot find an affordable, accessible place to live and fully participate in the community.

When his second eye went bad, Thomasson helped biomedical researchers with journal articles as a medical writer. Because he was self-employed, he didn’t have to worry about an employer making accommodations to keep him in his job, he said. He bought his own assistive technology, “with the very welcome help of the Illinois Department of Rehabilitation.” These included screen magnifiers for his computer and a small telescope attached to his glasses.

“My biggest annoyance, and the reason I wish people would get used to the fact we’re here, are software and web site developers who can’t grasp the fact that some people have their computers set to display yellow text on a black background (the extra contrast helps visibility),” he said.

Thomasson marched in the first parade with a politician’s contingent and was then invited to join the committee. He has been its treasurer for five years.

The Disability Pride movement has grown a little every year in the decade since Chicago’s first parade in 2004, Arnold said. “It makes people more aware of the community and culture of people with disabilities,” he said. “It shows them it’s something people with disabilities celebrate but don’t allow to define them.”

Anyone who supports Disability Pride is invited to take part by signing up on the website. The parade starts at 11 a.m. at Plymouth Court, behind Harold Washington Library, and continues down Dearborn Street to Daley Plaza.

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StreetWise was fortunate enough to e-mail interview Karen Meyer, this year’s Grand Marshal. Deaf since birth, Meyer is a feature reporter on ABC7 Sunday Morning News and Thursdays at 11:30 a.m. and is president of Karen L. Meyer and Associates, a consulting firm specializing in disability issues. She has served as executive director of the Center for Access Unlimited, a firm that assists corporations in complying with the Americans with Disability Act and has been teaching at DePaul University since 2003, where she directs the office of students with disabilities.

StreetWise: Nearly 20 years ago you were vice chair of President Clinton’s committee on Employment for People with Disabilities. What did you want to have happen then and what do you see happening now nationally?

Meyer: We wanted to increase employment among people with disabilities. Not only hiring people with disabilities but also promoting to management levels. The unemployment rate among people with disabilities is still high and also for people without disabilities. I think things are slowly improving.

StreetWise: You have conducted seminars for AT&T, Motorola, Discover Card, Northern Trust, and Waste Management. What can the private sector do in employing people with disabilities?

Meyer: Many companies have relationships or partnerships with organizations and agencies that work with people with disabilities in finding qualified individuals for potential positions. A number of them have internship programs where they provide job experiences for people with disabilities as well as employment.

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StreetWise: When you worked with the Illinois Attorney General’s office, what were some of the biggest issues you saw for people with disabilities in Illinois?

Meyer: I recall the issue of health insurance coverage as being a major challenge for people with pre-existing conditions. Our team spent a number of years working on getting the Comprehensive Health Plan (CHIP) legislation passed. We finally succeeded.

StreetWise: What is the essence of the course you teach at DePaul?

Meyer: First of all, my class is not limited to students without disabilities. I do have students with disabilities who take my class. Some of them are not ‘open’ about their disability. I cover a wide range of disabilities-related topics ranging from public attitude to discrimination in different areas such as employment, housing, health care, and education. I want my students to have a better understanding of what it means to live life with a disability and better understanding of disability issues.

StreetWise: As someone who has been profoundly deaf since birth, what accommodations in high school and college helped you get to where you are now and what accommodations do you see as necessary for the community at large?

Meyer: In high school I was mainstreamed. For English I was in a special education class. All my other classes I relied on a note taker. For undergrad I just asked my friends to take notes for me, and in grad school I had interpreters for all my classes (I also asked friends to take notes for me). As for the community at large, I believe people have the right to request reasonable accommodations for whatever they need.

Cindy Ji & Sarah Berz
StreetWise Editorial Interns
– Loic Youth contributing

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