- Associated Press - Sunday, May 4, 2014

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - When disability rights activists discovered they’d been left out of one of the highest-profile civil rights events in decades, the group came out swinging.

The country’s 57 million people with disabilities - 3 million of them in Texas - deserved to be represented at the three-day Civil Rights Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library, advocates said. Two-thirds of them are unemployed. Accessible housing is in short supply. More than 100,000 Texans are on a waiting list for services to help them live independently.

But people with disabilities have not been able to muster the kind of political clout claimed by other groups, such as the gay or women’s rights communities. That’s why the omission from the summit stung.

“We are too infrequently a part of the conversation,” Lex Frieden, one of the chief architects of the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, told the Austin American-Statesman (http://bit.ly/1kv6b9d).

Summit organizers ultimately invited Frieden to speak on a panel about social justice. But disability rights supporters say the episode was a wake-up call to mobilize in bigger numbers and stop being an afterthought. Advocates have launched a voter registration and education effort. They’re inviting candidates for top political offices to speak at a September conference on disability issues. They’re planning events to celebrate the upcoming 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Disability rights are civil rights,” said Bob Kafkaof the advocacy group ADAPT of Texas. “We thought it was a given. This whole thing highlighted that we still are late being invited to the party.”

For decades, Texas advocates have been a strong force behind many reforms affecting Texans with disabilities. Supporters have pushed for millions of dollars in curb cuts for people with wheelchairs, helped secure wheelchair lifts on Austin buses, championed wage increases for professional caregivers and pushed for more community services that let people live independently.

But that work has mostly happened outside the spotlight. Now and then, ADAPT, generally considered the most radical of Texas advocacy groups, makes headlines for its protests or mass turnout at meetings. ADAPT members have been arrested for protesting budget cuts at the Capitol, outside the Governor’s Mansion and in other public places. Kafka has been arrested dozens of times for such civil disobedience.

“We think it’s so important, people are literally willing to go to jail for it,” he said.

People who have disabilities vote at lower rates because of transportation problems, inaccessible polling places and other barriers. If it could get people to the polls, the disability community would be a powerful voting bloc, Kafka said. Together, organizations across the state - including nonprofits, schools and state agencies - work with hundreds of thousands of people. The Arc of Texas alone has a mailing list of 20,000 people.

The Americans with Disabilities Act - which outlaws discrimination in areas such as public transportation, employment and access to public facilities - was a huge step in the battle for civil rights, Frieden said. Disability parking placards and wheelchair ramps have become the norm. The less visible obstacles are the ones members of the disability community say they continue to face.

Although employers are required to make “reasonable accommodations” for people with disabilities - such as adaptable work spaces or computer technology for people with visual impairments - millions of employable Americans with disabilities remain out of work. That’s because they are often seen for “what they cannot do, when, in reality, there are many, many more things that they can do,” Frieden said.

Advocates also say that professional caretakers are poorly paid, that a shortage of funding for community services unnecessarily forces people to live in nursing homes or institutions and that the dearth of accessible housing in the community limits where people can live.

People with disabilities say these barriers infringe on their civil rights. That’s why they were so offended when they were not invited to the LBJ summit, said ADAPT organizer Cathy Cranston.

“It was like, ‘Wait a minute, guys; what about us?’” she said. “It seems like, somehow, we’re always forgotten.”

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