December 21, 2016 | Jovan Ruvalcaba
Walking down the marbled halls of Congress, I cannot help but reflect on how lucky I am to be here. To be the son of working-class immigrants, born with Cerebral Palsy now interning for a U.S. Senator seems both improbable and yet emblematic of America. In a year when people with disabilities have been openly mocked; I have made it my mission to show that people with disabilities can be as productive, insightful, and resourceful as my non-disabled counterparts. Taking the mantra of “Nothing about us, without us” during my internship I was given the opportunity to look at disability rights legislation and by combining my understanding of the disability community with my legal studies I was able to offer ideas for improvement. I learned that legislative work can be arduous and capricious but worthwhile. Lost among political pundits, and the mention of filibusters, and poison pill amendments in everyday news, is the gratitude from constituents after they have been helped deal with a federal agency. Lost in the soundbites of controversy are the stories about people who get to keep their jobs because their legislator convinced a company not to relocate overseas.
It is true that not every decision is a popular one, but believe me when I say that every issue, opinion, and request is taken seriously in our office. Sometimes the best long-term decisions are the ones that leave all sides unsatisfied and as strange as it might sound, my congressional internship allowed me to detach from partisanship for three months. Pushing this ideological cleanse is the understanding that the senator and his staff serve all constituents. So, whether I am taking a call or writing a memo on a briefing I attended, data drives the message not my feelings. When passions rise and hotly contested issues come to the forefront as was the case with gun control and immigration in recent months, it can feel like there is little interns like myself can contribute, but this is only because we are so used to measuring our contributions by what we say or do, and not how we listen. The best moments I had talking to constituents came when someone called angrily and afraid that their second amendment rights would be taken away, only to discover that legislation they called about dealt only with requiring background checks, something they agreed with, and had be complying with at the state level for years. Or when constituents called furious about a news headline, peppering in profanities only to end the conversation with a “Thank you for listening to me today.” Sometimes a political position or belief cannot be compromised but courtesy, honesty, and respect will always be common ground. Most of us elect and reelect our leaders for their character, grit and vision not because we agree with them one-hundred percent of the time.
Washington belongs to all of us, but not all of us can make the journey down here. In D.C. like in New York opportunities are available not only to those who are qualified but those who can afford an unpaid internship and still bear the costs of food, transportation, lodging and the dry cleaners out-of-pocket. This means that a lot of smart and driven individuals never get to experience or influence policy-making because they cannot afford the expense. Among the least represented in the corridors of government and industry are people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, and those of low socio-economic status or a combination of all three.
Since opportunity begets more opportunity. It is not surprising that the underrepresentation of minorities as trainees correlates to their underrepresentation as professionals in these fields later in life. Now, privilege is not a sin, and if I have learned one thing about my internship colleagues is that once we are working side by side there is no discernable difference in attitude or skill between those who are sponsored by fellowships like the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI), the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF) or in my case the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), and the interns who have the means to take on this internship without a sponsor. Distinction emerges from the wealth of perspectives that our varying identities and experiences bring into the workplace. How else can genuine discussions about race relations, disability, poverty, or women’s issues take place if not for the presence and participation of these groups in the process. How common is it for unaffected people to forget that access, and inclusion is a matter of civil rights and not simply a noble pursuit? If there is no one there to remind them or help them understand then these areas get neglected. Resentment toward political correctness has grown I believe, not because people enjoy offending others, but because we are often told we can’t say or do something without truly understanding why those words or actions are hurtful. Even if it is explained to us, in the absence of those genuine discussions I mentioned above, political correctness can be seen as censorship by some. This is why programs like AAPD’s are so valuable to our community. They benefit individuals like me personally, but they amplify our voices collectively for our sake and the sake of others.
I was only one intern among many, but when the time came to explain why placing a person with a disability in a nursing or group home under certain circumstances, might not be so different from putting them in an institution, I know my comments changed someone’s perspective on this issue. Or when I provided simpler tips, like “If possible, sit down when having a conversation with someone who is wheel-chair bound.” Similarly, when Latin-American constituents called our office en masse, I helped our non-Spanish-speaking staff by teaching them essential Spanish phrases, and personally taking on the more complicated cases. I did these things not because I am special or particularly good. I did it because I was given an opportunity to be there in the first place, and had the knowledge to do so when it was neccessary. Plenty of other times, I was helped or informed by the same people that I helped, whether with a skill, a perspective, or with facts that I did not have. Our office was more representative of the people we served because programs like AAPD exist, and agencies and offices like Senator Schumer’s are willing if not actively seeking to give people of different backgrounds a chance to participate.
Lincoln’s immortal words: “Government of the people, by the people, and for the people” calls for the inclusion of all not as a political or social preference, but as a fundamental principle of democracy. If we are to fulfill this promise beyond the voting booth, we ought to ensure that programs and partnerships like AAPD’s with government are not only strengthened but replicated. Thus, it is with utmost gratitude to AAPD, the internship sponsors, and Senator Schumer’s office that I conclude my internship in D.C.
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Jovan Ruvalcaba was a 2016 AAPD Summer Intern. He is a student at the James E. Rogers College of Lawafter having graduated Magna Cum Laude from the University of Arizona with a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and a double minor in French and Spanish. This summer Jovan interned with Senator Chuck Schumer.