By Phil Pangrazio, President & CEO, Ability360
For nearly 20 years, I’ve been going to the annual conference of the National Council on Independent Living (NCIL) in Washington, D.C. The conference is always a great reenergizer. It reminds me of why Ability360 exists and why we are so important. It’s also a great opportunity for us to orient some of our newer Ability360 staff to independent living philosophy and the disability rights movement. There is nothing more powerful than being hunkered down in the Grand Hyatt for five days with a thousand people with all types of disabilities. Hearing their stories! Learning and sharing experiences! Strategizing political action! Its grass roots action and organizing at its best. You can feel the energy and emotion running high throughout.
All NCIL conferences are great, but this year’s July conference was extraordinary in so many ways. First, the disability community is in the midst of a heated battle to defend the Americans with Disability Act from notification provisions, which would weaken it as we saw in Arizona. Second, the Senate healthcare vote to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, occurred the week of the conference. Not since the passage of the ADA itself has NCIL and other disability rights groups, such as ADAPT, had such an opportunity to engage in direct action with so much at stake. The Republican “repeal and replace” agenda included massive cuts to Medicaid that surely would be devastating to the disability community. I truly believe the advocacy by NCIL, ADAPT and others made a huge difference in the final outcome on this issue.
So if you’re wondering what happened in D.C. that week, here’s some of it. As usual, the conference attendees marched from the Grand Hyatt to the Capitol lawn where they gathered for a boisterous healthcare rally that nearly echoed to the halls of Congress. Unlike recent years, there was tremendous participation by congressional leadership, mostly from Democrats of course. Senators Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, former Senator Tom Harkin, former Secretary of Labor and current DNC chair Tom Perez and nearly a dozen other members of Congress came and fired up the large, loud and enthusiastic crowd. They really set the stage for what was next to come.
Typically after the rally, advocates head to congress for their scheduled Hill visits. This year however, about 400 of us marched to the Hart Senate Building for a healthcare demonstration and a bit of civil disobedience. We wanted to send a message to all Senators that cuts to Medicaid were immoral and wrong for America. And boy did we! Chants of, “free our people” “no caps or cuts to Medicaid” and “our homes, not nursing homes” echoed throughout the buildings atrium as Senate staffers looked on with their cell phones recording the demonstration from the second to seventh floors. It was truly a powerful, historic and moving moment for the disability rights movement! After what seemed like 20 minutes of boisterous chanting, the police arrived en mass with bullhorns and began warning us to disband or we’d be arrested. In the end, about 65 demonstrators were arrested. The rest of us went on our way to conduct our remaining congressional visits.
Just a little more than two days later, 48 Democrats and three Republicans, Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and John McCain of Arizona voted against the scaled-down Republican plan to repeal parts of the Affordable Care Act. When McCain voiced his no vote with his dramatic and memorable thumbs down sign, I was so proud to be an Arizonan. I will always believe in my heart that our advocacy had something to do with it! Now with the threat of new repeal and replace bills, our advocacy must rise again and demand a bipartisan solution that works for all Americans.
Photo courtesy of NCIL