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

by | Apr 30, 2022 | Blog

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.