WHAT WE HAVE LEARNED

by Mark E. Seifarth

As the Month of October 2020 came to an end, not only have we observed this year’s National Disability Employment Awareness Month, but also remembered:

  1. 75th Anniversary of National Employment Awareness Month
  2. 100th Anniversary of the National Vocational Rehabilitation program
  3. 50th Anniversary establishment of Developmental Disability Councils
  4. In Ohio, 50th anniversary of Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities– housing the state’s vocational rehabilitation program
  5. In Ohio since 2016 (in many states for years) – October is Disability History & Awareness Month

I have been pondering how to remember these amazing milestones and how we move forward to our next challenges & accomplishments. Our current times have been perhaps wondrous, celebratory, stormy, unsettling, and scary during a pandemic.

I was drawn to this November 8, 2020 Washington Post announcement for a touchstone:

Jim Ramstad, an 18 year Member of Congress, died at 74. Why highlight this Republican from Minnesota to help celebrate our past and prepare for our future? Is it that shortly before his death he marked 39 years of sobriety from alcohol? Is it that he died of Parkinson’s disease? Is it that he was the chief sponsor of legislation that added significant protections in health coverage for those with mental illness & chemical dependency? Or (from my time some years ago as Congressional Liaison with the National Council on Disability) is it that he was Co-Chair with Rep. Jim Langevin (Democrat from Rhode Island) of the Congressional Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus?

Before I answer as to why I find the passing of a former Member of Congress from Minnesota of value in our remembrances, let me relate a quick slice of memory from a discussion I had with former Rep. Ramstad in his Congressional Office. He shared with me that he accompanied his grandmother very often as she supported and worked with children with disabilities. He related that when he was young he spend a great deal of time helping and having fun with children with disabilities.

So let’s take another moment to review one more bit of history and then use our history to look at today, tomorrow, and finally answer my questions.

In 1920 the Smith-Fess Act was signed into law by President Woodrow Wilson, (also known as the Civilian Vocational Rehabilitation Act). It established the Vocational Rehabilitation program for Americans with disabilities. At that point, only individuals with physical disabilities are eligible for services. This is the 100th Anniversary of the national Vocational Rehabilitation Program I noted as #2 above

Here is a bit of background on the Sponsors of the Smith-Fess Act:

Michael Hoke Smith (September 2, 1855 – November 27, 1931) was an American attorney, a Democratic politician, and newspaper owner; served as United States Secretary of the Interior (1893–1896), 58th Governor of Georgia (1907–1909, 1911), and a United States Senator (1911–1920) from Georgia.

Simeon Davison Fess (December 11, 1861 – December 23, 1936) was a Republican politician and educator from Ohio; Dean of the Ohio Northern University law department 1896-1900, and University Vice President 1900-1902; President of Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio, 1907-1917. He served in the United States House of Representatives and U.S. Senate from 1913 – 1935.

Again, we see the bipartisanship of Mr. Smith & Mr. Fess – a Democrat and a Republican – that has been the hallmark of disability policy and advocacy. We are all in this together.

So, in this time when many are talking about political partisanship and differences, the passing of Jim Ramstad reminded me – as I submit it should perhaps remind us all – that issues affecting Americans with Disabilities have historically been addressed in a bipartisan fashion. I raised all those questions about Jim Ramstad’s life, as his life might be all of our lives as he worked hard to include everyone, while dealing with his own life too. We must continue to advocate for ourselves as people with disabilities for independence, equal access and inclusion even more strongly than in the past. And we must try to work together while arguing vociferously and making sure we are in the room.

Looking to our future, here are three recent examples of leadership, learning, and growing that may be of interest:

  • The Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus was formed in the 107th Congress (2001-2003), and serves as a groundbreaking forum for Members of Congress and their staff to discuss the many issues affecting people with disabilities.  The primary purpose of the Caucus is to inform, educate and raise awareness on issues affecting people with disabilities. The Co-Chairs of this currently 58 member caucus are: Representative Jim Langevin (D-RI) and Representative Don Young (R-AK).
    • Look to see if Congress Members from your state are in the Caucus. If not, perhaps ask them to join and become part of the discussion. Link to Bipartisan Disabilities Caucus:
  • The California Developmental Disabilities Council produced “Let’s Work!” a documentary about 8 young people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their experiences and successes in competitive integrated employment. They held an online screening of the documentary & a panel discussion including people in the documentary and members of the California DD Council. Here’s the YouTube link to the documentary:
  • On November 4, a dozen women leaders in business, finance, law, education, journalism, politics, government and civic advocacy participated in panel discussions that explored women’s leadership in the U.S., reflecting on lessons learned, current challenges and action plans for the future. In addition, the nonpartisan Pew Research Center gave a briefing about its report, “Views of Gender Equality and Women’s Leadership in the U.S.” All were recorded and can be viewed:  

In the Women’s Leadership Forums, A closing quote from Women in Government Executive Director Lucy Gettman may be helpful as we chart our future: “Lead from where you are, we can all be leaders, and we are all leaders in our homes, our communities, and our public venues.” (Full Disclosure – I am Lucy Gettman’s spouse)

Finally, here’s the link to Jim Ramstad’s obituary if you wish to read more than my few excerpts: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/jim-ramstad-congressman-who-championed-mental-health-and-recovery-issues-dies-at-73/2020/11/06/b6b632f6-204d-11eb-ba21-f2f001f0554b_story.html?s=09#click=https://t.co/kOzVjZ4oU3

Let us learn from our past and learn how to be leaders together for our future.

One thought on “Essay: WHAT WE HAVE LEARNED

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