Some Thoughts on Social Justice

I was about 12 years old when the first Freedom Riders traveled to the south to demand full civil rights for African Americans. I asked my dad what it was all about. While he was explaining it I remember being somewhat baffled by the whole notion of inequality. I was raised Christian and taught we have an obligation to take care of each other – all of us. My dad was disturbed by the fact that people who were demanding social justice were attacked by law enforcement. I was incensed we could treat other people differently because they didn’t look like us – that some in our country thought people of color were less somehow. It didn’t really hit me then that some prejudice looms in each of us.

About the same time my dad told me of an Asian couple that wanted to move into our neighborhood and the association voted against it. I couldn’t believe my ears as my father’s explanation for discrimination was based not on ethnic bias but on property values. I couldn’t reconcile it and hoped that deep down he couldn’t either. Later I experienced firsthand racial discrimination, right here in the Pacific Northwest. I had an African American roommate and we were denied entrance into a restaurant. I wanted to make an issue of it because the restaurant owner said there was no room but I saw plenty of open tables but my roommate said “Let’s just move on, it’s not worth the hassle”.

Following the signing of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act, the civil rights law guaranteeing equal opportunity for people with disabilities, the federal bureaucracy failed to create the regulations to implement the Act. As a result there was a nationwide sit-in of government buildings operated by HEW (Department of Health, Education and Welfare) in 1977. I watched the demonstrators with chained wheelchairs refusing to leave the offices in San Francisco and thought they didn’t have a chance of forcing the government into action. It didn’t seem possible because the group was small and no Freedom Riders were coming over the horizon to their aid. I was wrong. The protesters prevailed. They got noticed and the regulations were issued. I think that was the first time I was impressed with the determination and issues surrounding individuals with disabilities. You can read more on the history of the disability rights movement at:

By time the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) came before Congress I was personally involved with the issues relating to the civil rights of individuals with disabilities. With 16 years in the rehabilitation field and firsthand experience with the challenges of individuals with disability in the areas of accessibility, I worked to encourage Congress to pass this significant legislation. It is sometimes difficult for an able-bodied person to understand the importance of access. The able-bodied person has not experienced the challenges of a non-ambulatory person negotiating moving from point A to point B until you have actually helped someone in a wheelchair access the entryway of a museum or hotel room or other public area. I vividly remember my experience in 1978 or 1979 of traveling with a person in a wheelchair to a conference. This was long before laws were changed to require curb cuts and accessible hotel rooms and restaurants. What I thought were simple steps turned out to be monumental barriers for this person in a wheelchair.

I learned through many years working on behalf of individuals with disabilities the challenges and, by extension, the indifference to disability. The prejudice they experience – name calling, teasing, lack of access were all done in my presence as if an able-bodied person had the right to look down upon another human. It reminds me of Selma, Alabama in 1961. The blatant discrimination of not being allowed entry or being asked to leave a restaurant because the people I was with were “too grotesque”. It reminds me of the “Whites Only” signs at public facilities in some parts of this country until the mid-60’s. On July 26, 1990 the ADA was signed into law and what a glorious day it was! I had been at Morningside a year and was elated at the signing. With this law the self-determination movement began, centering on the right of people with disabilities to make choices about their own lives, have the same rights and responsibilities as everyone else, and speak and advocate for themselves. It made so much sense – their time had arrived. Or had it? Has it changed monumentally in the last 20 years?

This last week I was listening to board members of a sheltered workshop defend paying sub-minimum wage and sheltered employment. I was outraged at the thought and expression that people with disabilities were “less than”. I thought of how embarrassed I would be if my friends with disabilities were in the room listening to people talk about people with disabilities as not really being productive, that no business would pay the going wage for them. Finally, I couldn’t contain myself and spoke out (really on behalf of them) saying that as a matter of justice we should do everything in our power to make sure people with disabilities have the same rights, same access, same wage and same opportunity as all other citizens. I wish I could have been as powerful and eloquent as Justin Dart, the tireless supporter of access for people with disabilities. I can just hear his message “I call for solidarity among all who love justice, all who love life, to create a revolution that will empower every single human being to govern his or her life, to govern the society and to be fully productive of life quality for self and for all.” He concluded with a call for “Justice for All”.

Fighting for people’s rights is a challenge. It isn’t easy. It can be painful. But it sure feels good to know you are supporting what is right, what is true and what is just.


CEO Viewpoint is published by Jim Larson, CEO Morningside

This space is intended to share my thoughts and update the community on issues concerning Morningside and its clients as well sharing inspirational employment stories.

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Posted in ADA, Advocacy, Inclusion