The courtyard in front of the Westmoreland County Courthouse was packed on Friday with people gathered to celebrate the 24th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“The Civil Rights Act (of 1964) was for all Americans, and the Americans with Disabilities Act is the same transformational act for persons with disabilities as the Civil Rights Act was for people with ethnic and racial differences,” said Dirk Matson, director of Westmoreland County Department of Human Services. “It’s huge. It’s a transformational act that’s really lifted America a couple levels in treating people with disabilities on the same level as everyone else and opening up access.”
Norene Price, a member of the Westmoreland County dis+Abilities Task Force, estimated more than 100 people attended the rally, including representatives from organizations and agencies that offer resources and services for the disabled.
“Norene always takes the lead on that,” Westmoreland Community Action CEO Tay Waltenbaugh said of the rally. “It’s kind of refreshing to work with Norene because she’s always putting it out there; she’s a very straightforward person. She’s heavily involved and wants people to know that there are other people out there that do have needs.”
The celebration helps to put the community agencies and services on display, and it increased public awareness of the ADA and its importance, Matson said.
“It makes people with disabilities more aware of what’s available out there, and it helps them feel socially connected,” Matson said. “In a rural county like Westmoreland County, you tend to feel isolated. A lot of people, it’s not just folks with disabilities, there’s a lot of isolation issues. It helps them feel more connected and, just as importantly, it’s important for people that don’t have those disabilities to become aware to the importance of this Act and … how important it is for them to get behind this movement.”
Rob Oliver, a Disability Rights Network advocate, author and public speaker, said events such as the celebration and his own speaking engagements can help shift public perception of people with disabilities.
“I get disappointed because there’s been times when someone will come up to me after one of my presentations and say, ‘Hey, I want you to know I really was helped out by what you had to say today and here’s why: I thought that I had problems, but then I met you and you’ve got real problems.’ That’s not what I’m trying to convey,” Oliver said. “I’m trying to convey that everybody’s got problems, everybody’s got limitations. Mine are a little bit more visible than yours, possibly, but the fact is it’s all about choosing to focus on what we can do and making the most of that.”
County Commissioner Chuck Anderson echoed Oliver’s sentiments, noting Stephen Hawking and Franklin Delano Roosevelt as examples of individuals with disabilities who made tremendous impacts by accentuating their strengths.
“Everybody has something that they can bring to the table. Everybody has an asset, something that they do very well,” Anderson said. “Just because somebody looks a different way or they speak a different way or have some impediment, there’s some positive aspect of their lives that we can use that will bring them forward and makes them special. We have to acknowledge that and bring them to the fore and have them help us pull this wagon. That’s what we need to be doing.”
Greg Reinbold is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2913 or [email protected].