Don’t let Barham’s dream of disability rights die

Frank Barham, a jazz musician who grew up in Durham, was killed in Georgia last week while raising awareness about the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Barham, who had been a wheelchair user since a car accident in 1980, was making a 300-mile journey by wheelchair to draw attention to the importance of access and opportunities for people with disabilities.

Just 30 miles short of the goal, Barham and the van following him to support and document his journey were hit by a tractor-trailer. Margaret Kargbo, Barham’s PR person and friend, was driving the van and also was killed. Another friend and supporter, Carrie Johnson, is still in the hospital. The driver of the truck is being held.

Like Barham, I was raised in Durham. Around the same time as Barham’s original accident, I, too, was crushed by a car that left me a wheelchair user. Luckily for me, however, my situation has a far happier ending. With surgeries, therapies and good luck, my wheelchair use was only temporary. But as it was pre-ADA, I quickly discovered I could not get out of my apartment or into buildings without someone first lifting me up and carrying me to a place and then bringing the wheelchair. It was both highly inconvenient and humiliating. The ADA changed all that for people who use wheelchairs, as well as for people who need electronic on-ramps to technology.

What the ADA didn’t change was attitudes about people with disabilities. Stigma and low expectations still hold back people with disabilities today.

When I was a wheelchair user, people spoke to me

In North Carolina today only 30 percent of working-age people with disabilities are employed. This compares with 73.5 percent of people without disabilities. That’s a much larger gap today than pre-ADA.

There are 658,900 working-age people with disabilities in North Carolina – and two-thirds of them don’t have jobs to go to in the morning. That means no paycheck, no friends from work, no ability to contribute to the economic welfare of our nation. Fully 113,600 of them are living on government benefits, which costs taxpayers close to $5 billion a year. Yet vocational rehabilitation in North Carolina enabled only 7,320 people with disabilities in 2012 to get jobs. Thirty percent of North Carolinians with disabilities live in poverty, compared with 15 percent of those without disabilities.

Fully 36,600 young people ages 16-20 with disabilities in North Carolina are transitioning into what should be the workforce. That includes teenagers with Down syndrome, autism, vision and hearing disabilities, mental health challenges, intellectual disabilities caused from lead paint poisoning and other issues.

Without adequate access to assistive technology or proven programs like Project SEARCH, Bridges to Work and others, all too often these young people may simply move from school to the couch of their parents’ homes. For tens of thousands, if nothing is done, they will basically stay on the sidelines, living on government benefits, until their parents die. Then, in many cases, they will move to the home of one of their siblings, where the poverty and powerlessness will continue.

We can and must do better for people with disabilities. Most people with disabilities also have or can develop wonderful talents. People like Frank Barham, Stephen Hawking and the newly elected governor of Texas Greg Abbot are all mobility impaired but are also extremely talented.

Walgreens, Lowes and other companies hire people with disabilities and find the stigmas are wrong. They see that people with disabilities can be exceptionally talented and loyal employees. It’s a win-win formula for employers, taxpayers and people with disabilities alike.

Frank Barham, a UNC graduate, died raising awareness about these issues. Let his dream of equality and opportunities not die with him.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a Durham native, is president of RespectAbilityUSA.org.

Barham’s journey

Frank Barham created WHEEL 2 LIVE, “one man’s journey to share good music and raise funds for those needing wheelchairs while highlighting the public on the benefits of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) during its 25th national anniversary.” Find out more at wheel2live.net/.