Low-Income Minorities With Disabilities See Services Disparity The nation commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act last week. But a number of Americans have yet to fully benefit from the law. Individuals living with disabilities are disproportionally poor, many of whom live in low-income urban areas that sometimes lack necessary services or physical accommodations. Host Michel Martin talks with disabled rights activist Bobby Coward and Deidre Davis, the first director of ADA services for retail giant Walmart.

Low-Income Minorities With Disabilities See Services Disparity

Low-Income Minorities With Disabilities See Services Disparity

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The nation commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act last week. But a number of Americans have yet to fully benefit from the law. Individuals living with disabilities are disproportionally poor, many of whom live in low-income urban areas that sometimes lack necessary services or physical accommodations. Host Michel Martin talks with disabled rights activist Bobby Coward and Deidre Davis, the first director of ADA services for retail giant Walmart.


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, I'll share some thoughts on the NAACP Tea Party dust-up in my Can I Just Tell You commentary. Some thoughts I formed while I cooled my heels on an airport tarmac for six hours late last week. I'll tell you more about it a little later.

But first, we spend some time this week focused on the Americans with Disabilities Act as it turned 20 years old. And we wanted to get back to changes that have occurred since the act was signed into law and the changes that haven't. The ADA was landmark legislation. It made improvements in accommodations for many with disabilities.

But the idea that the law would put a ramp around the world still remains a distant goal for many people. Issues of education, housing, job training and transportation are still hurdles, particularly if you are a disabled person perhaps of color living in an impoverished neighborhood.

Disability rights activist Bobby Coward joins us in the studio today. He's the co-founder and director of Direct Action, the direct stand for disabled individuals for real empowerment and community training. He's also the chairman of Capital Area ADAPT. That's American Disabled for Attendant Programs Today.

Also with us on the phone from Bentonville, Arkansas is Deidre Davis. She's the first director of ADA services for Wal-Mart Stores, Incorporated. Ms. Davis also has a background in civil rights legislation, including work on the Fair Housing Act, the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. And I thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. BOBBY COWARD (Co-Founder and Director, Direct Action): Well, thank you for having me, Michel.

Ms. DEIDRE DAVIS (Director, ADA Services, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.): Thank you for having me, also, Michel.

MARTIN: Bobby, let's start with you. And I wanted to ask if you think there are particular challenges for people living with disabilities who are also people of color, who are people who are not of means.

Mr. COWARD: I would have to say, yes, I do think there are great challenges for diverse individuals with disabilities because we are an underserved communities, where the outreach and awareness doesn't really get inside the beltway to let you know about the services and programs that they can access for their particular needs to, you know, reside back into the community.

MARTIN: Why is that?

Mr. COWARD: Well, again, you know, the bureaucrats and the funding that kind of have to get down to the impoverished and economic depression of the African-American communities doesn't reach that far. That arm doesn't get into that community. So...

MARTIN: Well, why is that though? I mean is it a communications issue? Is it that a lot of the people who work in the disability rights area tend to be -well, just to be real about it - middle-class or are not of color themselves and therefore they don't know people in these communities? They're afraid to go into these communities? What do you think it is?

Mr. COWARD: That's one aspect of it - the outreach, you know. Whereas you would have to get into the field, to go into the red districts to make these individuals aware. Because a lot of times, because individual disabilities are impoverished, they don't have the funds nor the transportation and the awareness to know where to go to access the services needed. And thus the word doesn't get to that community. You follow me?

So that's where you have that barrier and that challenge because you don't have enough field workers to go into these communities. And the individuals in the communities don't have the money to leave their community to go to the departments of the bureaucrats to find out the knowledge.

MARTIN: Why? It doesn't occur to them? A lot of times people who live in impoverished communities do have some or at some point understand how to access some services. What is it? There's sort of a leap in this area, you think? Can you give me an example?

Mr. COWARD: Well, let me use the example - yeah, there we go.


Mr. COWARD: As transportation. Now, you know, we got metro access, paratransitted subway. Now if the elevators at a particular subway station aren't working - inoperative, I am denied access to get in that subway station in or out of it. Paratransit, again, you're waiting on paratransit. Your ride may come or may not come. Okay, so these are deterrents.

MARTIN: So you're saying, like, the political invisibility that a lot of these communities feel that they experience anyway is only compounded when you have a disability.

Mr. COWARD: Exactly. Exactly.

MARTIN: Deidre, what's your take on this?

Ms. DAVIS: Well, I'd have to concur that it is compounded for urban communities. When the ADA was passed - and I was only the very few people of color in the inner layers of helping to draft the ADA, implement it, enforce it from all different perspectives. It was our hope that the Title 3 Public Accommodations would really reach into the urban community where things were supposed to be accessible, our businesses and the like.

And 20 years later, I'd have to concur with both you and Bobby, it hasn't happened. It hasn't happened. We've had a lot of starts and stops in terms of trying to study why the services to our folks in urban communities very rarely gets trickled down in the same way that services to the majority community happen. And even in this year's 2010, (unintelligible) to say that while most businesses in the majority communities have complied with the ADA, our communities are still lagging behind.

MARTIN: And why is that? Are you saying that the small businesses that often service these communities or the kinds of businesses that service these communities aren't able to or can't afford to make the adjustments necessary? Or you think it's a lack of awareness or what do you think it is?

Ms. DAVIS: It's a trifold. I think it's, one, a lack of awareness. Two, the lack of being confronted. People in our communities may have heard of the ADA, but are not armed with the specifics about what they are entitled to. And then the third thing is that our mom and pop businesses, the local cleaners in the neighborhoods and the stores in the neighborhood, don't realize that there are benefits, tax benefits for creating equal access. And so it's those things that happen.

Now, over the years, Michel, I do want to say that there have been many, many attempts both by the governments, the National Vocational Rehabilitation Services, the National Council on Disabilities, the National Organization on Disability to study these issues and to try to put forth plans that would help resolve these issues. But there have been start and stop.

We had a wonderful, wonderful think tank at Howard University, which was led by the late Dr. Sylvia Walker. And the think tank was dedicated towards finding rehabilitation and empowerment opportunities for those who were socioeconomically disadvantaged, i.e. minorities and those from multicultural neighborhoods. The data was clear that we were the last to get the services. And there have been attempts to get increased professionals from our communities as vocational rehabilitation counselors.

MARTIN: But, Deidre, I want to push you on this question of why this is. And there are two issues. One is that money in the sense that it's not a secret that a lot of times people of color are - what's the word I'm looking for -concentrated in certain neighborhoods, and maybe the housing stock isn't the best anyway. Or is it an attitude issue? Where maybe people either don't see people living with disabilities in these neighborhoods, or perhaps they feel like there's some - maybe there's some stigma attached to how people feel that they got those disabilities.

Ms. DAVIS: Well, first and foremost, let me just make one thing - the housing issues are not under ADA. That's under the Fair Housing Act. But it is a major factor in why we are disadvantaged in our communities. The lack of accessible housing. There is that information gap and there is the lack of funds. And then there's a lack of agitation.

In our communities I think that organizations like ADAPT that Bobby is a member of, don't want to challenge like they would ordinarily because our people may not have the funds to make a difference. And I don't think that we are as big advocates in our own communities because of that issue.

And in our communities there's a difference of service delivery. For example, if you had a battered woman, black woman who has children with disabilities, she may not be able to go to a shelter because the shelter's not accessible in the community as it should be.

If you have access to your doctor's or your lawyer's office, those are supposed to be accessible. But if no one has challenged that in our community, then they're not accessible. There's currently a great organization called the National Blacks with Disabilities Coalition and it is poised now to take on these issues. Whereas before we haven't had a sustainable organization to do that, but we believe that this new organization will be able to help address the myriad of these issues that we're speaking about right now.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the Americans with Disabilities Act now 20 years old. And we're talking about how the ADA has served and in some ways this has perhaps not served as well, communities of color.

And to have that conversation, I'm joined by Bobby Coward, the director of the group called Disabled Individuals for Real Empowerment and Community Training. He has a particular focus on working with people of color with disabilities. And I'm also joined by Deidre Davis, who's the first director of ADA Services for Wal-Mart Stores, Incorporated.

And, Bobby, can I ask you about the attitude question, too, you know, that there's - there are a number of surveys of employers have shown that one reason that young black men are often at a disadvantage in the job market is not just skills but also attitude. And many, many surveys going back years have shown this. Many employers assume that young black men have some criminal involvement even if they don't, okay? And so I'm wondering whether a similar issue attends to people who are disabled. Do people assume that they acquire the disability or they have a disability because of some criminal ability whether they do or don't.

Mr. COWARD: Of course. That has happened to me a million times quite frequently. You know, I'm an Air Force veteran. I got disabled. I suffered a spinal cord injury as a result of an auto accident. And, you know, when I go out and advocate in the communities or, you know, I'm in meetings, even at medical appointments, you know, it's always assumed that I...

MARTIN: Was shot. How do you know that it's assumed? How does that...

Mr. COWARD: They asked me. They would say, this is Mr. Coward, he suffered a spinal cord injury through a gunshot wound. And I have to correct them, no. People shot missiles at me, not bullets. And, again, you know, again, we are stereotyped. We are quick to be dismissed. Cultural competency is a major issue when it comes down to asserting and getting your rights within the black community. And being able to articulate our needs is a barrier, as well.

Now we got to have some type of accountability from the black community itself. And getting back to the point about the politicians, the lawmakers - if we can't change the politicians' minds, we must change their faces. And say we're not campaign contributors and we can't decide who sits in office, then again, we're not going to get a slice of that pie. Now, let me say one more thing about access issues.

Again, you know, we sued in a District - I was lead plaintiff in suing the District of Columbia around access issues.

MARTIN: For government building...

Mr. COWARD: Yeah, for government building. Exactly. The Wilson building, the mayor's office wasn't accessible. So this is a place where I just need to go to voice my right and I couldn't get in. So, again, if we can't get in to talk to our leaders about our needs, then our needs go unheard.

MARTIN: But there's no racial issue here 'cause the people at the Wilson building are the same race and ethnic background that you are. So what are you saying? You're saying even within the African-American community, within minority communities, there isn't necessarily an awareness of the same need to accommodate disabled.

Mr. COWARD: No, what I'm trying to say is if we're going to focus on the African-American community, that's the community that's underserved and we need to get to these leaders. So we're going to focus on the African-Americans. If they can't get there to be heard, then they are not going to be heard.

Also in institutions, now, there are an overwhelming number of African-Americans locked away in nursing homes and this is because that's the quick fix. Okay, the gunshot victim, they're impoverished, you know, they're uneducated. So instead of trying to support them with their needs in the community, we would just lock them away in a nursing home.

MARTIN: Oh, so, wait a minute, let me just understand this. You're saying that there are a number of people who are in nursing homes inappropriately, who don't need to be, because of a lack of accessible housing in other communities.

Mr. COWARD: Exactly. Without a doubt.

MARTIN: Deidre, can I ask you, because you work with people living with disabilities from a number of different communities, have you found that to be the case? Do you think that, for some reason, people of color who present with disabilities are viewed differently than white people with disabilities, in your experience?

Ms. DAVIS: Clearly they're viewed differently. All over this country there are people locked in, as Bobby said, nursing homes; and young black men sitting in rehabilitation hospitals coming out of a very myriad way of getting disabled. And the population in the black community ostracizes black folks with disabilities, often.

You're ostracized by your own community because of a lack of understanding that disabilities rights are civil rights. So you don't have the NAACP or the Urban League or the National Council on Negro Women embracing these issues as they move forward in the true civil rights status. And then, also, the majority community that ostracizes the folks with disabilities from the urban community.

MARTIN: But people...

Ms. DAVIS: They're getting it from two folds.

MARTIN: But I hear white people with disabilities say the same thing. So what I'm asking you is what's different about it for people with color. You're saying that, what, that there's an assumption that if you're a person of color and you're disabled you must've done something? Is that interesting or...

Ms. DAVIS: There are those - in our community, of course, we had the religious tenets - that this something that God has done, you know, because he was unpleased? And we have that. And then the second thing we have in our community is the sense that we're going to take care of our own. Our folks feel that if you're just taken care of, you'll be all right, as opposed to being empowered, as opposed to being - having equal access to the education system, equal access to the transportation systems, equal access to the medical systems.

And more importantly, equal access to a place - a decent and accessible place to live. If you don't have those four key things as a person with a disability, you're not in and of itself going to be successful to be able to get a job and keep the job and therefore contribute.

MARTIN: All right. Bobby, I need a couple final thoughts from you.

Mr. COWARD: Okay. Again - final thoughts - and I do agree with President Obama when he stated at the ADA anniversary on the White House lawn, how his administration is going to begin to promote the American Disability Act by public service announcements. And this will bring about awareness and full integration and inclusion for all persons with disabilities. You know, and I think that's the start when you start changing the minds that - and introducing people with disabilities into American culture.

MARTIN: But, Bobby, do you agree with Deidre that some of the attitude change has to happen within the communities as well as without the communities?

Mr. COWARD: I'm about to get to that point. Also, legislation (unintelligible) its more inclusive law, Community Choice Act, for one, that will mandate, you know, funding. 'Cause right now we just have funding that's optional in these African-American communities. If we get a legislation that's mandate, you know, funding to go inside the urban community, yes, we definitely need.

Also, getting back to the point, the awareness, 'cause, see, a lot of the African-American business owners, or small business owners in the communities, they state, oh, well, we don't have enough business from the disabled community to make the appropriate changes to our store. But - it's a Catch-22 because if you build it we will come, you see? And that's another point.

So, again, and I think, also, we need to have more, like, I'll put it this way, bureaucrats, you know, around, you know, the service delivery - more educated and not quick to dismiss. We need more cultural competent support. That's what culture where you may have - when I said African-American community - may have an African-American leader that they can identify with.

You know, 'cause if you have a leader that's non-cultural, you don't think this individual does not identify with your issues. So we need to identify with our leaders.

MARTIN: Disability rights activist Bobby Coward is the co-founder and director of DIRECT Action, Disabled Individuals for Real Empowerment and Community Training. And now I think I really understand what you're talking about when you say real empowerment.

And Deidre Davis is director of ADA Services for Wal-Mart Stores Incorporated. She joined us from Bentonville, Arkansas. I thank you both so much for speaking to us.

Ms. DAVIS: Thank you for having me, Michel.

Mr. COWARD: Thanks for having me. I hope that you can invite us back sometime.

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