Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views, Issue no. 7 March-April 2001

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"Get Out the Vote" Efforts of the U.S. Disability Rights Movement: Interview with Judy Heumann, Assistant Secretary for Education

By Kay Schriner (kays@uark.edu)

This year's focus on "getting out the vote" is "a natural evolution" of the disability rights movement, said Judith E. Heumann, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, in an October 2000 interview.

Three weeks before the 2000 presidential election, in an interview with DisabilityWorld e-magazine, Assistant Secretary Heumann said that candidates running for elected office have had a "consciousness" about disability issues since the 1992 election, but now, there is a new level of awareness about the disability vote. Fostering this awareness, said Assistant Secretary Heumann, is the "obvious next level" for the disability rights movement. Compared to the political strength of the African-American and Latino communities, the disability community is "the baby on the block", according to Assistant Secretary Heumann.

The issue is bigger than just voting. The black and Latino caucuses realized the importance of getting people into elected office. The disability community hasn't been as aggressive about that. But, according to the Assistant Secretary, candidates who have disabilities cannot be seen as running as "disabled candidates" - they have to be viewed as disabled people running for an office.

Reflecting on her own tenure as a high-ranking official in the Clinton administration for two terms, Judy Heumann credits the administration with forming an effective team of people, most of whom have disabilities, who serve in numerous federal agencies and who coordinate their efforts to integrate a disability consciousness in education, housing, social security, labor, justice and other "mainstream" policy areas. It has been a process of "giving voice to underrepresented groups."

It hasn't been easy to bring the disability rights agenda into government. "At this level, what you realize is that problems are not easily solved," said Ms. Heumann. Sometimes it's hard to know what the problem is or to get the authority to solve the problem. "Now I can see how long changes takes, the depth of change that is necessary," she said.

Ms. Heumann emphasized the importance of institutionalizing change. "In order to get the changes that are necessary, they have to be in policy. If it's not on paper, it can and often does disappear with the group or person who instituted that change."

The Assistant Secretary has focused a lot of attention on educational issues. She noted that many children and youth with disabilities do not have access to well-trained teachers or accessible instructional technology. "I'm a different breed of educator," she said. "I do a lot of networking, putting people together, hoping the connections continue." This approach has paid off in some ways. "The Department of Education looks at discipline issues of disabled kids differently. We've made a difference on the issue of assessments in schools. We've made a change in the way some [education] associations look at disability issues. This new way of thinking isn't deeply embedded everywhere yet, but once you've made a systemic change anywhere in the system, it doesn't easily change back again."

What should the next steps be for the disability rights movement? Assistant Secretary Heumann advocates "keeping up the momentum." People like herself, said Ms. Heumann, have to keep in touch with people. "A meeting with parents [of a disabled child] will motivate you!" she said. But we also need additional policy specialists - people with disabilities who understand the intricacies of Social Security law, the provisions of MiCASA, and other policy reforms that need to be made.

The leadership of the disability rights movement must grow and change to meet these demands, said the Assistant Secretary. The independent living centers are a promising place for developing this new leadership. They offer a place for people with disabilities to discover the issues that are common to them, and give them a "place to take things to a new level." This is the next challenge for the disability rights movement.

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