R. Owens was first elected to Congress in 1982. He is
known in his Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, district as "the
Education Congressman" for his strong national stance on
education reform and his efforts to transform the concept
of public education. He is founder of the Third Force
Movement against the Republican "contract with America."
Owens, a librarian by trade, holds, among other degrees,
an honorary doctorate of law from Gallaudet University.
He was one of the original sponsors and strongest
proponents of the Americans with Disabilities Act from
its introduction through its passage.
How did you ever get the ADA past Congress?
that legislation was a long, drawn-out process. I was in
so many different meetings and negotiations. The strategy
was to link it to civil rights.
Dart's whole approach was that this is the third part of
the triad, the triad being civil rights for
African-Americans and other minorities, then for women,
then people with disabilities being the third prong. We
pushed it with that kind of message. So many things I see
in your magazine follow the same reasoning.
was the best route to get folks to understand segregation
fast. Civil rights and women's rights had a clear
history. Making the transition to rights for people with
disabilities became easier because we had the history of
the other two. We helped explain it to the Congress, but
also Congress was getting people from back home who
explained it to them in no uncertain terms. The whole
community of people with disabilities was alive,
politically alive. I give Justin Dart credit for that. He
traveled to every state in the country. He really made
people with disabilities understand that they had some
subcommittee kicked off the process with a hearing where
Jesse Jackson and Justin Dart were the leaders who
testified. We put it out there and kept it highly
visible. We kept the momentum going after
took a lot of doing because several different committees
had parts of that bill. Any one of them could have
stalled it, but they didn't. The members of Congress,
when they had to cast votes, were already thoroughly
conditioned by their own constituents. The momentum was
What is our greatest enemy?
and the attitude that fosters segregation.
a kind of sick security some people get out of keeping
away from people with disabilities. They are running away
from any situation that's not totally pure and
all-American and that requires them to do any thinking.
They're searching for a peace of mind, which they never
really find, by running away from any kind of
remember [during the fight to pass the ADA] that
we had a big hearing in Houston, Texas. The major issue
at that hearing was mass transit, and the fight to get
transit exempted from the ADA.
head of the transportation authority was scheduled to
speak. My Republican counterpart invited him, thinking he
would testify about how high the costs were, and how
difficult it would be. Instead, he testified about an
almost religious experience that he had in thinking about
the whole thing. He had come to the conclusion that he
had some special mission to help people with
testified that when you looked at it through the eyes of
'let's do it,' the costs were very small. They were less
than they'd had to spend to host a convention of
transportation executives. The cost was not that great.
Once he got the shields off his own eyes, and ended his
prejudice against people with disabilities, the barriers
were not real to him. The barriers were not the problem.
The problem was just a mean attitude that festers and has
to be challenged.
Does bigotry seem to be getting stronger?
kind of society which we still have is maybe, in some
cases, getting worse. Competition is becoming a virtue.
Intense competition drives people to go more and more
into self-interest. Even to see other folks as
didn't always see a person with a disability who had to
use a ramp or elevator as people who have been given
unnecessary privileges. But I run into that often now.
People are saying, "Why do we have to go to great expense
for these people?"
attitudes have been planted by high-level political
leaders. It's the whole thing that 'we're in an economy
of scarcity and everybody should pull their own weight
and nobody should be dependent on government, or on
programs that use taxes." There's a whole set of values,
spawned by the vocal and highly visible Republicans, that
appeal to the worst in people. Our society is moving in
that direction. Competition is such a virtue, and
everybody's so busy competing, they have no time for
How can we fight segregation?
direct action. I come from an activist background. I was
in the civil rights movement. I got arrested doing
demonstrations and direct action. I have a great deal of
respect and admiration for people who put themselves on
How can we combat the backlash?
have no power at all if you do not exercise constant
first place to start is on enforcement. We [who got
the ADA passed] did the hard part, the heavy lifting.
It is very difficult to get legislation passed. But then
the danger always is that you have no power at all if you
do not exercise constant power.
[our government] just won't enforce civil rights
laws. The laws will be ignored. It would be great if
people with disabilities could unite with women, unite
with minorities who depend on government enforcement. I
think some combined pressure could go a long way, could
establish the fact that this legislation did pass and we
mean business by it. We mean to have it enforced, we mean
to have it become effective.
lives have to change as a result of this
from Mouth magazine, September-October
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