The Intersection Between Policy and Everyday Life
Social Workers as Agents of Change
Ann Emerman, MSW, Vice President for Legislation, Disabled in Action of Metro NY
I’m a person with a disability (polio 1944), a wheelchair user for 65 years, and a social worker. My caseload includes families, children, adults crushed by poverty, mental illness, stigma and discrimination. In the 1960s, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Medicare and Medicaid in 1965, and possibilities seemed limitless.
The civil rights laws and movement gave hope to others with second-class status. Most persons with disabilities (pwd) received their services in protective, segregated settings. They had yet to organize a movement to demand dignity, equality, and independence, and had yet to embark on their campaign to change the structural environment, and to shift funding priorities to meet their needs.
From 1944-1958, I lived in institutions. An independent living test case, I was placed in a YWCA, and my parents paid room/board. Educational and transportation costs were covered by the state vocational rehab agency. In 1958 I had my first integrated educational experience since second grade until 1964. After graduate school, I worked at Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital from 1964-1972.
I paid taxes, yet could not leave my block, use public transportation, enter most buildings, restrooms, theaters, concert halls, stores or the local polling site, without relying on assistance from strangers. Humiliating and infuriating, yes; however the upside of no curb cuts was that I met my husband of 39 years! In 1972, I gave birth to our daughter, and decided then to put my anger, energy and skills to work for change. In 1977, I joined Disabled in Action (DIA), a volunteer civil rights group.
DIA was preparing to test the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal funding bill which contained language prohibiting discrimination on the basis of disability in federally funded agencies, programs, and services in Section 504. DIA joined with public interest lawyers eager to establish case law, and access to public mass transportation became the test case. Since the MTA, as a major public service, received its funding at the federal level, DIA filed its lawsuit in the federal court; Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association (EPVA) filed in the state. The goal was to force the MTA to replace retired buses with lift-equipped ones, and through attrition develop a fully accessible fleet. DIA and EPVA launched a multi-pronged campaign: DIA held rallies, sit-ins at the MTA, visited representatives, held “Ridership Days” and street actions. Disabled veterans and seniors, having greater access to elected officials, worked the halls of Albany and D.C. The Court forced the MTA to settle the lawsuits before it could spend $9 billion on subway upgrade. In 1984, the state legislature passed the Handicapped Transportation Act, and the community eventually got 100% lift buses, key subway stations with elevators, and a paratransit system (Access-A-Ride) for persons needing door-to-door service. With the enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) 1990, accessible public transportation extended nationwide. The ADA public accommodation provisions and DIA’s One-Step Campaign made many stores and services accessible, using the “readily achievable” standard.
The strategy of enforcing existing law in the courts, generating new law in legislatures, building coalitions for mutual support, and becoming politically active, worked for us. All government sites and services, such as polling sites (and machines), a citywide pedestrian ramp program, ferries, terminals and piers are becoming fully accessible. First state, then city and now national building code standards require accessibility in residential and commercial buildings, newly-built and substantially renovated. There are some wheelchair accessible taxis and liveries, but foot-dragging officials and powerful lobbyists have slowed the drive toward 100% cabs via attrition.
The journey toward independence was aided by elected officials who “got it”, and worked with us to make it happen. There were others who saw us as zealots seeking special privileges, and filing frivolous lawsuits. They stirred negative press and other roadblocks. Even the Supreme Court misinterpreted the ADA civil rights bill as a benefits bill, and ruled against disabled plaintiffs in employment discrimination cases, and in favor of corporations. Congress recently clarified its intent in the ADA Amendments Act of 2008.
In 1999, the Supreme Court’s “Olmstead Decision” ruled that forced institutionalization is discrimination. The ADA mandates government services are to be delivered in the “most integrated setting”. Disabled persons seek an independent lifestyle, and seniors want to age in place. For years, disability groups have worked to change Medicaid law, which is mandated to fund institutional care, but not mandated to fund care in a person’s home. The Community Choice Act would correct this institutional bias. Both Obama and Biden, as Senators, co-sponsored the bill last year, raising hopes for passage this session. Hundreds of persons with disabilities were in D.C. in April to push the bill in Congress, with AARP support.
Social workers act as the eyes, ears and conscience of society. They’re uniquely positioned to be change agents. Whether working with individuals, groups or communities, Social Workers have the skill to perceive patterns, document problems, propose workable solutions, garner support from natural allies, and work for systemic change.