Today I delivered the speech below at the Lincoln Memorial as we commemorated the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's March on Washington.
I am humbled to be here with all of you today. I am a proud American with a disability and I want to thank the President for signing "503," which will provide thousands of people with disabilities jobs across the country.
Thirty-three years ago, just a few days before starting college, I dove from a boat and hit a sand bar in a foot of water. I broke my neck and was paralyzed from the chest down. In that instant, my life and the lives of my family changed forever.
I spent seven months in the hospital undergoing intense physical therapy, learning how to be independent in a wheelchair. But when I left the hospital to begin my new life, college remained out of reach. The campus was not accessible. I thought that the doors to a fulfilling life had slammed shut.
It was 10 years before the Americans with Disabilities Act. I was unable to access most public buildings. I was banned from most public swimming pools. I was told there were no jobs for people like me. Heck, I couldn’t even get on a bus. It was rare to see a person like me out in the community. We were referred to as "shut ins."
Fortunately, Widener University in Delaware was welcoming. I helped adapt the campus to make it more accessible and I was the first chair user to attend and graduate. I found employment and worked my way through college. My first job was in a two-story building with no elevator --and yes -- my office was on the second floor. So, every day I was carried, chair and all, up the stairs to get to work.
In the years since my accident, I have dedicated myself to expanding equal opportunity for all Americans. Today, I do this as Chair of the American Association of People with Disabilities, the nation’s largest disability rights organization. AAPD for short. I also do this in my role as Vice President of the Comcast Foundation.
Today we need your help to pass the Disability Treaty. The Treaty will expand the spirit of the Americans with Disabilities Act across the globe, level the playing field for U.S. businesses working abroad, and increase access for U.S. citizens traveling overseas.
We will never know how many, but I can say with absolute certainty there were people who wanted to join the March on Washington 50 years ago, but couldn’t because participating was either too difficult or simply impossible for people like me. There was just no access.
Looking back, it is fair to say that Martin Luther King, Jr. was the father of our movement as well. Dr. King had a dream. He had a dream about equality and dignity for all people.
Yet for millions of people with disabilities, this dream remains out of reach. Eight in 10 of us don’t have jobs. Most will never know what it means to work even if we are ready, willing, and qualified. It remains legal to pay people with disabilities far less than minimum wage in the United States.
Today, I share Dr. King’s dream. I dream of a world that does not hold anyone back. People with disabilities represent all races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, and genders. We represent nearly 20 percent of the U.S. population. We have seen a lot of progress, but, like all civil rights movements, we have much more to do.
I call on everyone here today to continue to stand up for and defend the rights of people with disabilities. Americans are guaranteed certain inalienable rights, and the right to pursue our dreams. Our duty as citizens is to help one another achieve those dreams.
Please go to AAPD.com/March and see what we can do together when we dream together.