Posted by StreetWise in Magazine ArticlesGary Arnold is grand marshal of this year’s Disability Pride Parade, which steps off at 11 a.m. Saturday, July 19 from Plymouth Court and Van Buren and proceeds west to Dearborn Street and then north to Daley Center Plaza. Arnold is public relations coordinator for Access Living, a disability rights organization serving Chicago, and vice president of public relations for Little People of America, a national membership organization that offers support and resources for people of short stature and their families. He spoke with StreetWise reporter Emma Peters about the parade’s importance.
StreetWise: What do your responsibilities include as Grand Marshal?
Gary Arnold: Kind of just representing the spirit of the parade—so the spirit of disability empowerment, disability pride, and engaging in the disability community. But in terms of my real responsibilities I get to be in the front on parade day, I get to lead it and then say something at the program. I’m just kind of an ambassador between the disability community, the parade and the broader community.
SW: Why is having this parade important to the disabled community?
Arnold: On many, many, levels it’s important. I think there’s still a lot of misinformation out there and disability can be presented as a negative thing […] the whole idea of the parade is to send this message that disability is natural. It’s going to hap- pen to many of us, if it’s not going to happen directly to you it’s going to happen to a family member or a friend and chances are it’s going to be with you for the rest of your life. And so with that in mind, it is sort of a natural thing that happens to so many people and it’s important in order to have a community of people with disabilities where you feel comfortable and you feel welcome.
It’s important to embrace disability as a part of who you are and when you start to do that you start to realize that a lot of the issues that come with having a disability aren’t really related to the disability. They’re more closely connected to attitudes and stigma related to disability and perhaps physical barriers that are out there in the surrounding environment that make things difficult for people with disabilities. So our whole goal is to change the world around us rather than focus on changing the disability. So I think that’s important for people who don’t know much disability to kind of send that message. And it’s important for people who are new to the disability community. If you’re 20 years old, or 30 years old or 40 years old and you acquire a disability. That transition the first few years might be challenging so its important to have a community that celebrates disability. You become disabled but you’re still who you are and you can still have all of these opportunities and pursue all of these things.SW: You work for Access Living doing public relations, what impact have you seen over your 15 years there?
Arnold: The Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA], I’m kind of 10 years behind that. I think since I’ve been here, since about the 10th anniversary of the ADA, there has been a lot more exposure. [It] brought changes like accessible bus lines, so more people with disabilities were able to travel on main line transportation, so that means more of the general population is exposed to disability.
And then you have other changes in the built environment; with a built environment things become more accessible. Like curb cuts: almost everywhere you go in the city now it has that. Also Millennium Park, when that was built, there was a big commitment to making it accessible for everyone. The built environment is not perfect by any means in Chicago but more and more it’s becoming an environment where people of all ability types are able to access things and that just lets more people participate and through that participation, just inherently, awareness builds about disability.
Disability, like I said before, is becoming natural because people are used to seeing more people with disabilities around. And so since I’ve been at Access Living I’ve been able to witness some of that and to see it in other issues as well. Historically, the idea was that if you have someone with a disability, the best thing to do is just send that person off […] where they’ll live with other people with disabilities. The bottom line with stuff like that is that people with disabilities, for generations, have been segregated. It used to be that people thought that was the right thing to do, but that’s changing.
That changed with [ADA] and also just in the last 15 years since I’ve been around. I think Illinois is a good example of that [change] because Illinois has shifted its mindset. Illinois is now trying to close down some if its remaining state-operated institutions for people with disabilities and give those people living there opportunities in the community.
SW: Let’s talk a little about the community that Access Living helps form. I know that a lot of your employees are people living with disabilities but I’m sure there are also others who aren’t.
Arnold: Yeah, we’re what’s called an independent living center. And we’re created through this law from the early 1970s called the Rehabilitation Act. One of the requirements of that is that centers like Access Living be governed and staffed by a majority of people with disabilities. So I think that the requirement is that the board of directors is at least 50 percent and then the staff is at least 60 percent people with disabilities but right now I think we’re much closer to 70 percent in terms of the staff for people with disabilities.
It’s important we follow that protocol because one of the current steps of independent living is that people with disabilities are their own best advocates, or their own best allies. For so long it was other people telling people with disabilities what is best for them – whether it be doctors, guardians or family members. But with Access Living, the idea is to shift that mindset to say ‘no, people with disabilities should be speaking for themselves, should be making their own decisions, should be controlling their own lives.’ ”SW: What about the outreach you’ve done with underserved communities?
Arnold: So income is a big issue in the [disability] community. Most people with disabilities are not working and that’s for many, many, different reasons but employment is a big issue. There are a lot of low-income people with disabilities and that’s primarily who we serve. […] Every so often we do a strategic planning, an examination of our own services. We look at issues in Chicago and what we are doing and where is there a gap. And we try to create a service that might fill that gap.
An example of that, several years ago we looked at our Latino base of consumers and we compared that to the percentage of the Hispanic population is in Chicago. We realized that our percentage of consumers we serve who are Hispanic are much less than the percentage of Hispanic people living in Chicago. So that told us that we’re not doing a good job of reaching out to the Hispanic community so we started developing new programs around that: programs that would specifically work to organize Latinos with disabilities, programs that specifically tried to partner with other Latino organizations or other Latino non-profits and specifically in neighborhoods that are traditionally Hispanic. We did that in order to build our outreach to the community, to raise awareness about disability, to share information about services that we offer. We built a program to meet that need.
Another need is definitely the mental health community. We’re what’s called cross-disability, so we serve people of all different types of disability whether it be intellectual, physical or psychiatric. But traditionally across the board the psychiatric community has been one that’s underserved. In Chicago even, they’re cutting back on clinics—closing the clinics. So we’re trying to recognize that and be a support for those issues.
SW: Why are the distributions skewed?
Arnold: There tend to be more people with disabilities in lower-income neighborhoods. That’s usually kind of related to access to health care, access to quality food options and things like that. Also let’s say you’re looking for housing. If you’re low-income, finding housing that is accessible is a lot more difficult than if you have high income and you’re looking for an accessible place. So the low-income people with disabilities are more apt to reach out to us in search of housing than someone with a higher income.
Arnold: I think getting to continue in the direction we’re going in in terms of integrating people with disabilities. In Illinois, continuing to close down the institutions, making sure that anybody who is currently in an institution or in a nursing home has the option to move out [and] live independently in an apartment of their own.
I think with mental health there’s a whole lot of stigma out there. Lots of times you see crime linked to mental health issues and I think that’s kind of unfairly building stigma around disability, around psychiatric disability. So kind of confronting that issue, raising awareness about mental health issues. And employment also, we need to do a better job of recruiting people with disabilities into the workforce and I think corporations and employers need to do a better job of tapping into the disability pool of workers. So I think those three things are important avenues to improve upon and to build upon.
StreetWise Editorial Intern