Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Freedom for All


Recently, I spent several days in Washington, D.C. attending a national project director's conference sponsored by the Department of Education, Rehabilitation Services Administration. The purpose of this conference is to bring project directors from around the country together to share experiences and efforts in managing innovative and national demonstration programs concerning the employment of people with disabilities.
Following the conference, I had a little time to waste before my departure to Minneapolis, so I decided to make my regular pilgrimage to the National Archive to view our three Charters of Freedom: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. I have made a special effort to see these original documents about six times now. Why? As someone who spends an important measure of his time writing, I have to admit that I am in total awe of these documents. These three manuscripts have served our country so well for more than 228 years, and together, they form the cornerstone of freedoms enjoyed by all Americans. Not a bad piece of writing, I would say!
In all honesty, the real reason I continue to go to the National Archives is for inspiration. When I am viewing the original document inked by Thomas Jefferson, I can’t help but wonder what our Founding Fathers (and Mothers) might think about the work we are carrying out today in our nation's community rehabilitation organizations. Sure, I am well aware that America’s Charters of Freedom were written at a time, when paradoxically, our country tolerated many social injustices such as slavery, racial oppression, and an undervaluation of women. So I tend to doubt that the Framers of the Constitution had sleepless nights worrying about the destiny of people with disabilities. In fact, my suspicions tell me that the pioneers of the day probably held little hope that people with significant disabilities could work, contribute to their self-support, or offer much as productive citizens to a fledgling country in-the-making.
Here is my real point. These courageous men and women who created our country and fought for our freedoms created a vision so powerful that it transcended even their own comprehension and wildest imaginations. Yes, America’s Charters of Freedom acknowledge basic truths and recognize human rights. Yet generations of Americans preceding us have not been successful in extending this American Dream to all of its citizens. No matter who you are, no what job you hold, community rehabilitation professionals are all pioneers chasing this dream on behalf of others. Together, we are fighting as reformers to insure that all Americans enjoy the freedoms that Jefferson articulated so eloquently in his historical document. And most of us will not allow disability or racial differences to prevent some people from obtaining or achieving it.
Living with a disability remains a fact of life for millions. More than two centuries after launch of the American experiment, however, educational, social, political, and economic policies continue to be the real cause for exclusion and lack of universal access to the ‘‘good life’’ for many Americans. I tend to doubt that many of us view ourselves as contemporary Thomas Jeffersons or Martha Washingtons. Yet I believe we have an historic opportunity to pioneer new ideas and contribute richly to this unfolding American Story. We can do this by helping to open new doors and transcend above what others before us have unable to do.
I work at Rise, Incorporated, a private, non-profit corporation entering its 34th year of promoting community integration and customized employment for people with disabilities. I believe Rise is well-positioned to become an organization of national significance. Really! To me, this doesn’t mean just doing a job, it means doing this job better than anyone else has ever done it before. I believe Rise has the organizational vision and range of talent that is needed to make this kind of difference. Let history record that it was Rise, among other progressive service providers, who led the way in creating integrated employment for all.
As reformers of the American Dream, may this be our shared legacy.

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