AAPD President & CEO Maria Town’s 2022 AAPD Gala Remarks

Good Evening Everyone, thank you all so much for being here today. Thank you Jane for being such a wonderful emcee. Thank you to our sponsors for making tonight’s event possible.

Thank you to the AAPD Board of Directors for all of your work to support AAPD and ensure our organization is strong and effective. Thank you as well to our incredibly dynamic and dedicated staff – without you, none of our work would be possible. Speaking of staff, I am so glad you all got to hear from Jasmin Bailey tonight.

I met Jasmin when we worked together in the Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy, when she was an AAPD Summer Intern. It has been my honor to be part of Jasmin’s journey as she has grown from a stellar AAPD intern to a consummate professional who is involved in every step we make to move AAPD forward. Her story is emblematic of so many of our alumni: our Summer Internship Program participants, our Hearne Awardees, and our media scholars, many of whom have now started their own organizations, become experts in their fields, created opportunities for others with disabilities, and who push our movement forward. 

The long-term outcomes of AAPD’s programs highlight the importance of investing in individuals, both to advance disability employment and develop disabled leaders in order to  build a more just and equitable society. To maximize the impact of these individuals, we work to catalyze collective action and foster systemic change. We engage in advocacy and policy work to remove the structural ableism that exists within every US institution and system.

Through our REV UP program, we are ensuring that every candidate for state, local, and national office knows – that every issue is a disability issue. Over the past year, we have supported and partnered with 8 new REV UP and disability vote coalitions, for a total of 22 disability vote coalitions, organizing across the country. The REV UP network, in collaboration with many partners, is doing the vital work that Congress has so far neglected to do: prevent the further erosion of voting rights, especially for people with disabilities and disabled people of color. 

Of course, our ability to advance ideas like accessible voting rely on the maintenance and enforcement of existing civil rights laws – like the Americans with Disabilities Act. That’s why I remain proud – and relieved – that AAPD played a leading role in organizing disability organizations and advocates to convince CVS that preventing the erosion of Section 504 and the ADA is in all of our best interests. How amazing, how phenomenal, that only a few months later, AAPD was able to proudly support the confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman nominated and confirmed to the Supreme Court, who has a solid record on disability rights.  

Within the legislative branch, we successfully advocated for investments in accessible, green infrastructure and the expansion of affordable broadband to help close the digital divide faced by people with disabilities. I am so excited that the bi-partisan infrastructure law provides opportunities for disabled people across the country to directly shape the physical and digital landscapes of our communities.

Technology plays such a significant role in our daily lives and this role will only continue to increase as new tech is created and evolves much more quickly than our regulatory and policy frameworks can keep up. While tech has the power to create a more inclusive society by providing greater autonomy, economic opportunity,  for historically marginalized groups all too often, it instead exacerbates existing discrimination and the structural barriers faced by historically marginalized groups, and especially those who experience intersecting forms of oppression. AAPD works diligently on issues related to disability bias in artificial intelligence, particularly in hiring, and have embarked upon efforts to get public interest and government organizations to be more inclusive and center disability within technology. 

I would be proud of our accomplishments no matter what, but I am even more proud of what we have done when you consider the context in which we have had to work. For the past three years, disabled people have been dehumanized and our lives devalued at every turn. We’ve seen our neighbors rejoice in freedom from wearing masks, even though they know that such a move endangers disabled and high risk people’s health and safety. We’ve had regulators and associations actively acknowledge the critical importance of diversity in corporate governance, but still choose not to include disability in their definition of diversity.

Against the backdrop of rising cases and our community being at-risk, our nation’s leading public health experts have declared that the pandemic is over multiple times, and said things like, it is encouraging news that 75% of all COVID deaths of vaccinated people were people with multiple disabilities, because we “were unwell anyway.” We are currently witnessing a continued refusal by Congress to act and invest in the supports and systems that would help shift the institutional bias in the United States and save disabled lives. 
In the face of any of this, let alone all all of this, it would be so easy to give up. But we don’t.

We keep fighting – not only for ourselves, for our families and friends, but for the individuals who are new to the disability community, like those who have been disabled by Long Covid. We fight for the infants and kids born with disabilities in the hope that they will have more readily apparent role models and have no doubt can live the lives they choose for themselves. We fight for those aging into disability who deserve to continue living in the homes they love.

When I think about what we have accomplished in a context of constant dehumanization, it makes me think – can you just imagine – how much we could improve if we did not need to spend so much time justifying our humanity?

It’s going to take all of us insisting that disabled people are not disposable. It’s a refrain that is all too familiar because we have been saying it for decades. At AAPD, we work every day to ensure that this our organizational programs, our national policies, and our collective societal beliefs reflect what we know down in our aching bones, in our neurodivergent minds, and in our non-compliant organs, to be true: Disabled people are beloved.

As much as we need community, our communities need us, too. Our contributions, lives, and stories make our communities richer and better.

Beloved colleagues and friends, I am grateful to be with you as we support one another in the struggle, and I hope we will continue together in joy and solidarity for many years to come.

Thank you. 

Reflecting on January 6, One Year Later

By Maria Town, AAPD President & CEO

Today is a solemn day as America and the world reflect on the violent, anti-democratic actions that took place at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, 2021. The forces behind the January 6th insurrection represent some of the most evil tendencies in American life. 

It is not a mistake that these forces drove an assault on our democracy. More people than ever voted in the 2020 election, with more than 158.4 million people turning out to cast a ballot during a global pandemic. This increase in voter participation is thanks in large part to the organizing efforts of diverse communities asserting their right to participate in American democracy. There was a 6 percentage point increase in the turnout among voters with disabilities in 2020 compared to 2016, which translated to an additional 1.7 million votes from the disability community.  The historic violent attempt to overturn the results of a democratic election was driven by people who view diverse coalitions increasing access to the ballot as a direct threat to their own power. 

Although this assault on our democracy failed, the threat it posed persists. It is critical to recognize the weight and threat of this moment. 

The disability community intersects with every other voting bloc: gender, race, nationality, and of course, partisan affiliation and political ideology. The disability vote is evenly split between Democratic and Republican parties. Our interest in maintaining access to the vote for disabled people is not out of allegiance or antipathy to any particular party or politician.  Rather, it reflects our commitment to democratic government, the survival of which is integral to the rights and well-being of our community. 

We must remain resolute in our community-wide rejection of the actions and the spirit of what took place on January 6th, 2021. That’s why I wanted to share three things I think we as a community can do together in the year ahead to keep protecting democracy: 

1. Reject Attempts to Use Disability to Explain Insurrectionist Actions 

Over the last year, several of the insurrectionists have attempted to evade accountability for their criminal actions by citing disability diagnoses. On behalf of the disability community, AAPD rejects these attempts and calls for these individuals to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Let me be perfectly clear: having a disability diagnosis does not lead someone to violently attempt to overturn a democratic election. Weaponizing stigma against disabled people to avoid accountability for such heinous acts is unacceptable. We do not believe that disability should be used to minimize the culpability of those who attacked our democracy on January 6th.  

2. Don’t Limit Our View to Only That Day 

January 6th was a terrible day, where unthinkable actions took place. Worse still, it was not an isolated incident. It is easy to condemn specific violent acts on a specific day. It can at times feel harder to articulate and address the broader political environment which enabled those specific, violent acts. In recent years, people with disabilities have been one of many marginalized groups concerned by a growing climate of intolerance. 

People of color, women and gender-nonconforming persons, the LGBTQ community, Jews, Muslims and other religious minorities, and many other groups have been subject to hateful and often criminal acts designed to discourage their rightful participation in American political life. Individuals who are multiply marginalized experience compounding voter suppression efforts that make casting a ballot require a herculean effort. A recent research from the Election Assistance Commission and Rutgers University found that Black disabled voters experienced wait times at polling places more than twice that of white voters with disabilities. 

As an organization, AAPD is committed to monitoring threats to inclusive democracy. We will continue to fight attacks on our democracy, whether they come in the form of violent insurrection or bans on curbside voting in Alabama or efforts to restrict voter assistance in Montana. We are profoundly concerned by the close to 500 bills to restrict voting access that have been introduced since the 2020 election.  And, this  is why our team, along with the disability organizations and advocates in our REV UP Network, are dedicated to increasing voter access in the 2022 midterm elections. We also continue to urge the Senate to advance the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and to amend and pass the Freedom to Vote Act before the 2022 midterm elections. Such efforts need not be partisan – they simply protect the fundamental rights of all Americans.

3. Stay Engaged in Civil Society

Civic engagement extends far beyond the act of voting. A society that excludes disabled people from the broader community cannot sustain a truly inclusive democracy. In recent months, the disability community and our allies have fought for expanded access to home and community-based services. These supports are vital for keeping members of our community free and included in all aspects of American life. That effort has been characterized by unprecedented collaboration with the labor and gender justice movements. Our shared advocacy efforts to increase wages, enhance employment benefits, and improve quality of life for children and families will ultimately support the creation of a democracy that works for every American. I want to bring more of that energy into the year ahead.

Building lasting, meaningful relationships, built on the recognition of our shared mutuality, is a joyful act – one that safeguards and sustains our democracy. In the coming year, I hope you will join AAPD for an event, protest, community conversation, or policy action as a sign of our shared commitment to staying engaged in civil society together.

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