I had the opportunity to sit down with the President of the United States, Barack Obama, his staff members, Valerie Jarrett, Cecilia Muñoz, and Kareem Dale, along with 11 other American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD) interns to discuss the future of disability policy.
|Top: Rak, Jim, Mark, Frances, Zoe, Rachel, Shawn, Stephanie, Bonnie, Paul|
Bottom: Ben, Allie, Me, Dana, and Adam in front of the West Wing
For 50 minutes, we had a detailed discussion with the staffers about our concerns and thoughts on all aspects of disabilities. Suddenly, the door bursts open and in walks President Obama to the Roosevelt office and he says, "Hello Everyone," and everyone, stunned, stood up (minus me, Ben and Allie who are in wheelchairs). I looked over to Ben and Frances and we widened our eyes at each other. He proceeds to shaking everyone's hands, asking their names and where they are from. Half way through, he gets to me, shakes my hand and I say, "Hi Mr. President. My name is Martina. I'm from Fresno, Ca, and my heart is pounding so hard right now." He laughs, gives me a hug, and then says, "I'm glad you're here. Nice to meet you."
It was an amazing 25 minutes spent with all of his attention focused on what we interns had to say about our concerns for our disability community. So many important issues and concerns were raised on behalf of our disability community as well as suggestions for change, which were noted by his staffers. Some of the main points made were the need to decrease unemployment (very high unemployment rate of 27% among those with disabilities, which his administration has been working hard to change, at least federally by opening up jobs for our population), increase community integration i.e. via education (equal opportunities and rights to higher education), and expand accessibility (universal design for everyone).
I talked about the importance of integration of people with disabilities into society/community via jobs, education, etc. I focused more education because I feel the administration is making strides right now with employment of people with disabilities (and continue to improve). I feel that if you want to instill values in someone, the best time is start is when they are young, which could be through the school system from K-12. People become more aware, tolerant, considerate, and inclusive of people with disabilities when they gain more exposure to those who are different from them--this has been the case for many family and friends of mine. Imagine a world where everyone including business owners and civil engineers realize that simple accommodations can be made for those with disabilities including elevators in business buildings, accessible elevators at metro stations, voice software for the blind (i.e. Siri was created for the blind), etc. that allow us to be highly functioning and independent individuals and able contribute to the progress of our country.
It was reassuring when President Obama told us that disability issues were very personal to him and something he cared deeply about. I knew he meant it when he shared his story about his father-in-law who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and the struggles he faced before ADA time, getting to his sons' basketball games an hour early with his family to get to the seats, as well as going to Michelle's dance recitals with difficulty. He understood that there are challenges within our community that can be addressed with simple accommodations. He said that his goal is to "provide equal opportunity for everyone in this nation to maximize their talents if they are willing to work hard." That includes those who are in the disability community. He told us that we are the future leaders of America, especially in the disability community, and encouraged us to continue to be self-advocates. We can run a sub 50 in disability rights. It's important that we are heard.
I left the meeting feeling empowered to get more involved in my community. I gained so much perspective of the role I can play in terms of civil rights, more specifically disability rights. Direction may come from a little inkling or a strong passion for something, and I believe that this meeting instilled a desire in me to serve and reaffirmed my passions. I have thoroughly enjoyed this summer and cannot wait to apply all I've been taught to create change towards a better quality of life for others, and health policy is one of many good approaches to address current health issues among these populations.
I want to thank AAPD for making this experience possible and for all the great work they put towards advancing the disability movement. This has been an incredible summer and I couldn't have asked for a better adventure. I look forward to what is in store.
Here is a link to the White House blog which includes details and a video from the meeting.