Our Past, Our Present, Our Future
A recap of our End-of-Year event
Despite a long and volatile year fraught with death and uncertainty, we created room for celebration and reflection in Advancing Power and Influence, our virtual end-of-year event (now live on our YouTube channel!). In addition to congratulating, announcing, and welcoming our Advancing Leadership Members and Fellows, we showcased three disability rights activists: the Honorable Congressman Tony Coelho, Keri Gray, and Lateef McLeod. Because we focused on our Members and Fellows in last week’s announcement post, today’s post will focus only on these three guests of honor.
Too Pretty for Some Ugly Laws
Lateef McLeod is a nationally recognized poet, blogger, and activist with cerebral palsy based in the San Francisco Bay Area. We asked him to open our event by reading one of his works. Gazing solemnly into the camera, Lateef reminds the world that he “too smart and eclectic for any box you put me in” in his powerful piece titled, “I am too pretty for some Ugly Laws.”
A brief and bleak history lesson for those of you unfamiliar with the “ugly laws:” during the 19th and 20th centuries, several U.S. cities passed ordinances that prohibited anyone deemed “diseased, maimed, mutilated or in any way deformed” from appearing in public spaces. Thanks to the work of disability rights activists, these “ugly laws” exist only as a blemish of the past, a truth Lateef reinforces in the closing lines of his poem:
“Whatever you do,
my roots are rigid
like a hundred year old tree.
I will stay right here
to glare at your ugly face too.”
The Honorable Tony Coelho and Keri Gray
The evening’s main event was a conversation between the Honorable Tony Coelho and Keri Gray. A brief introduction before we recap their discussion —
Tony is a former United States Congressman, a top strategist for the Democratic Party, Founder of the Coelho Center for Disability Law, Policy and Innovation, and — drum roll — author of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). We’re pretty sure it goes without saying that our disability community simply would not be where we are today without the ADA and Tony’s efforts in making it a reality. Having him participate in our event is an honor.
Keri is an organizer, activist, and advocate working to center and honor the multiple intersections of the Black experience, as well as Founder and CEO of the Keri Gray Group, where she advises young professionals, businesses, and organizations on issues around disability, race, gender, and intersectionality. We are so fortunate to have her perspective in this conversation.
Onto the recap!
Tony feels power lies in our willingness to be open about our disabilities. “I think there has been a tendency over the years for us as people with disabilities not to want to talk about it. […] If you are willing to say who you are, you will gain power — not only for yourself, but for all of us.”
Keri agrees that avoidance of disability acceptance has been an issue, recalling how she readily embraced her Black and female identities growing up, but not her disability identity. “The representation that I saw growing up was mostly folks who were sick in hospitals, folks who were locked up in various types of institutions. Even though that is part of our narrative, it was not balanced out with anything that I found to be positive or empowering.”
“You knew the stigma and you wanted to avoid the stigma?” Tony suggests.
“Yeah, that was literally most of my life,” she admits. Citing recent disability role models actress Jenifer Lewis and gymnast Simone Biles as examples, Keri says that disability representation has been blossoming thanks to an increasing willingness to talk about it. Circling back to Tony’s earlier statement, she says, “I just genuinely agree — we have to start with this concept of just saying the word disability, acknowledging that, and reclaiming our power.”
History in the Making
Keri asks Tony about his contributions to the disability community’s watershed moment. “This year we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disability Act. I’m wondering if you can help us reflect on what that journey was like.”
Tony says that when he introduced the bill, he got a lot of support from all sides. “Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, didn’t make any difference.” He talks about how these politicians all knew individuals who had been treated unfairly for having a disability and agreed that it was a matter that needed to be handled. Still, even with support, there were roadblocks. For one, he says the Supreme Court ruled that only visible disabilities counted under the ADA. “And so then we had to introduce the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act to in effect say, ‘Supreme Court, you’re wrong!’ […] the ADA includes every disability.”
“It makes me think of the history of the Civil Rights Act, where initially it didn’t include sex,” Keri muses. “One of the things that I really love when I think about the journey that disability rights is on right now, is making sure that we’re incorporating a system and a framework that is intersectional and making sure that no one is left behind […] We’re not just talking about visible disabilities, we’re also talking about invisible disabilities. We are also talking about disabled people of color, […] LGBTQ, […] women, and going down the list and making sure that all of our folks are incorporated.”
An Administration with Representation
Keri brings up President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala’s barrier-breaking acceptance speech. “Having President-elect Joe Biden talk about disability, having Vice President-elect Kamala Harris talk about she’s the first woman, but will not be the last woman, [was very powerful.]” Regarding this, she asks Tony, “I’m wondering if you see this culture of change in terms of disability, leadership, and representation.”
“Well, it’s happening Keri, but it is slower than I would like, to be very honest,” Tony says. “Having [Biden] say that ‘I have a disability, I stutter, I’ve stuttered since I was four years old,’ that’s exactly what all of us in the disability community need to do. Embrace it, talk about it. And with Joe doing it is just tremendously helpful to our community. But that doesn’t mean that we’re there yet. That means that we still have a lot of work to do.”
Keri relates this to the conversations surrounding President Obama’s election. “People wondering — have Black folks finally arrived because we got a Black president in office? Lord knows that was very important in terms of the Black community having that, but at the same time, to be disillusioned and thinking that everything is where it needs to be because of that would be false.”
“Not so long ago when I was in the Congress, there were very few women in the House or the Senate,” Tony says. “Now, there’s over a hundred women in the House and there’s several women in the Senate. What has happened in that period of time? Women come to the table differently than men in regards to legislative issues, and priorities, and so forth, so that things have changed as a result. It’s true with people of color. It’s also true with us.”
Keri considers this. “Seeing the progress that has been made. Seeing the policies, the practices, all of that and saying, ‘What else can I do to make sure that I keep the torch going?’ And I think that type of unity — I think that type of us being able to find ways that we can collaborate and find not what we disagree on, but what we have in common. I feel like I’m talking like we need some more bipartisanship up in here,” she laughs.
“Disability isn’t political,” Tony points out. “It isn’t Democrat or Republican. It’s everybody. Anybody can join our community at any time in their life. At birth, or when they’re 60, or when they’re 40 or 70, they can join.”
Thank You For Joining Us!
A big thank you to each and every person who made our end-of-year event special: the Honorable Tony Coelho, Paula Conrad, Helene Gayle, Keri Gray, Brian Heyburn, Whitney Hill, Lateef McLeod, our Members and Fellows, and of course, all of our supporters.
This will be our last blog post of 2020, so we want to take a moment to wish you happy holidays and a very promising New Year.
ADA 25 Advancing Leadership envisions people with disabilities leading with power and influence for full participation and equal opportunity as a vital part of our civic fabric. Our diverse network of leaders with disabilities are using their power to create a just, equitable, and inclusive society. To learn about becoming a Member or Fellow, please visit https://www.ada25chicago.org.