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Documentary film, panel discussion explore disability rights movement

Image: Discussing the struggle for civil rights in the disability community are (from left): Michael Winter, senior program analyst with the Office of Research Management, Federal Transit Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation; Judith Heumann, special advisor for international disability rights in the U.S. Department of State; and Claudia Gordon, special assistant to the director for the Office of Federal Contracts Compliance Programs with the U.S. Department of Labor and a Gallaudet trustee. (Photo by Janice Johnson)

Discussing the struggle for civil rights in the disability community are (from left): Michael Winter, senior program analyst with the Office of Research Management, Federal Transit Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation; Judith Heumann, special advisor for international disability rights in the U.S. Department of State; and Claudia Gordon, special assistant to the director for the Office of Federal Contracts Compliance Programs with the U.S. Department of Labor and a Gallaudet trustee. (Photo by Janice Johnson)

Lives Worth Living, a documentary that chronicles the history of the American disabilities rights movement, including footage of the 1988 Deaf President Now (DPN) protest, was screened for a Gallaudet audience on March 14 in the Kellogg Conference Hotel's Swindells Auditorium. The film was followed by a panel discussion that included two cast members from the documentary. The event was part of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion's ongoing lecture series and Gallaudet's DPN 25th Anniversary celebration.

Dr. Angela McCaskill, chief diversity officer, introduced the panel members: Judith Heumann, special advisor for international disability rights in the U.S. Department of State; Claudia Gordon, special assistant to the director for the Office of Federal Contracts Compliance Programs with the U.S. Department of Labor and a Gallaudet trustee; and Michael Winter, senior program analyst with the Office of Research Management, Federal Transit Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation. Heumann and Winter were interviewed in the film. Rachel Bass, an undergraduate student majoring in psychology, served as the mistress of ceremonies.

Provost Stephen Weiner, who served as the panel's moderator, remarked that the disability movement in the U.S. started after World War II due to the large population of veterans who received disabilities during the war. "It became a grassroots effort and became the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, and our president (Dr. Hurwitz) was a board member," Weiner said. He also praised Gordon's work with the Department of Labor. "Because today, many disabled people continue to be underemployed, temporarily employed, or unemployed," he said.

Lives Worth Living features key people in the disability rights movement, such as Justin Dart, an activist who helped pass the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA); Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), an author of the ADA; and former Gallaudet President I. King Jordan. The film also discussed the process of passing Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, guaranteeing rights of people with disabilities. This involved massive protests by members of the disability community, including many wheelchair users who dragged themselves up the steps at Capitol Hill.

The panelists shared their comments about the film. "It's very exciting to see what has happened over the last 40 years and also to see where we are today and how much further we have to go," Heumann said. "We are a cross-disability movement; we are not a movement representing only physically disabled people or only people who are blind or people who are deaf or only people who have intellectual disabilities of even people with mental health disabilities. The law, the ADA, and Section 504 made us realize that if we continued to advocate for changes for blind people and didn't consider the issue that deaf people and other people were facing, legislators were not paying attention. We all are fighting for equality."

"This (film) really gave me a sense of dignity to be involved and to be able to fight for our rights and the dignity of a deaf person to go to the emergency room and have an interpreter. The dignity of someone with cerebral palsy to go into a restaurant and not be thrown out because the other customers objected to them being there," said Winter. "We have the right to be part of society just like anyone else."

Gordon commented that she was honored to share the stage with Heumann and Winter. Growing up in Jamaica, where services for deaf people are scarce, she said she had little hope for a promising future. Gordon said she gained hope when she met deaf role models at the Lexington School for the Deaf in New York City like Lindsay Dunn, then a faculty member at New York University, and now a professor in ASL and Deaf Studies at Gallaudet. Gordon eventually graduated from American University Washington College of Law in Washington, D.C. in 2000 with a degree in law--the first African American deaf woman to claim this accomplishment.

"The film was able to show the fact that people need to take action to make things better," Gordon said. "A revolution actually begins with hope. So for myself, Judy (Heumann), Michael (Winter), Justin Dart, and all the students who lead DPN, they all had a hope for a better day, a better future, and that's where revolution begins." She added, "We still have a responsibility to continue the movement."

--By Megan Clancy

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