Helen Marie Russon
I love the “connection” theme for this year's MS awareness campaign. As scientists are discovering the
amazing process by which nerves start to form new connections (remyelination),
we in the MS community are also finding new and creative ways of doing the same
thing. This month, we are broadening and strengthening connections within our
neighborhoods and throughout the world.
Connections are often created because there is a common need, combined with
a realization that this need can only be met by a group effort. In many cases,
the resulting connection stays alive throughout generations and becomes a part
of history. Such was the case with a movement that many people still don’t know
about: the disability civil rights
People with disabilities used to be even more isolated than we are today. Not
only were we overlooked in the civil rights laws of the 1960's, but in some
cases we underwent forced sterilization and mandatory institutionalization.
There was also a general assumption that if we were unable to use a sidewalk or
get into a building to apply for a job, it was the unfortunate hand we had been
dealt and it was our responsibility to accept and cope with it.
Things changed when people with disabilities – all kinds of disabilities –
worked together to change peoples’ minds and eventually change the law. Ed
Roberts, the “father of the disability rights
movement,” used the press in 1967 to persuade University of California,
Berkeley that he could attend classes in
an iron lung. In 1977, disability activists organized a five-week sit-in at a
government building in San Francisco, until the Carter administration finally
implemented regulations to make public buildings accessible. And in 1988, hundreds
of students and alumni at Gallaudet University for the Deaf effectively closed
down the campus until a deaf president was hired.
It was these types of protests that eventually led to George H. W. Bush
signing the Americans with Disabilities
Act (ADA) into law in 1990. In fact, the Society just honored a congressionalchampion of the ADA at the annual Public Policy Conference. Although we
have a long ways to go before we have finally achieved a society free of
disability discrimination, we are in debt to – and forever connected with –
Russon is an attorney who currently investigates civil rights complaints for the
Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries. She also teaches a class on Disability
Law for the Willamette University College of Law in Salem, Oregon. Since being
diagnosed with MS in 1997, Helen has done volunteer work for the NMSS, and has
written several articles for Momentum Magazine regarding both the physical and
legal challenges of being a person with multiple sclerosis.