Celebrating 10 years of disability rights 

Attitudes are the real disability, as the now-familiar bumper sticker reminds us, and this week Missoula’s disability community comes together to celebrate the progress that’s been made toward reshaping public attitudes about the disabled, and discuss the work that remains to be done.

July 26 marks the ten-year anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), the landmark legislation that brought to millions of Americans with physical and mental disabilities sweeping reforms and civil rights guarantees in employment, housing, telecommunications, education, access to public facilities and governmental services.

The Missoula celebration, which kicks off during Wednesday’s Out To Lunch festival in Caras Park, coincides with a host of celebrations going on that day in eight other Montana cities and hundreds more throughout the nation.

“Our mission is about progress, diversity and vision, because we know that there’s been a lot of progress made, and we know that in terms of diversity, there are so many different kinds of disabilities,” says Jude Monson, education coordinator for Summit Independent Living Center and the Montana coordinator for ADA celebrations. “But it’s also for the Missoula community to say, they are part of our community, and [see] how can we benefit each other.”

By now, most Americans have some degree of awareness of ADA, from its requirements about handicapped parking spaces and wheelchair-accessible doorways, to closed captioning on television broadcasts and in courtroom procedures for the hearing impaired.

But the ADA also protects a diversity of other individuals with physical and mental impairments, from the burn victim who has lost his sense of touch, to the person injured by a chemical accident, such as some victims of the 1996 Alberton chlorine spill.

Monson notes that Missoula, as a progressive and well-educated urban community, has made remarkable strides in its ADA compliance, as has the University of Montana, Mountain Line bus system and many Missoula-area businesses. Still, she says more work remains to be done, such as better educating architects, builders and small business owners about the reasonable—and cost-effective—accommodations they can make for both disabled customers and employees. Mentoring and leadership programs in the public schools have also raised awareness of the needs of the disabled by presenting young people with positive role models of adults with disabilities.

“Everyone has a dream,” says Monson. “Yes, it’s great that Missoula has done so much, but there’s still more to do and always will be. And so we need to stop and celebrate at this moment and keep moving forward.”

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