Jeff Sings at the Presidential Candidates Forum on Disability and 18th Anniversary of ADA!

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I stood unmoving at the microphone, guitar in hand, waiting for my audio cue from the video being projected on the giant screen next to me. The historic tape showed the crowded White House lawn, eighteen years before on July 26, 1990 at the signing ceremony for The Americans with Disabilities Act. The video was opening a national forum that was witnessed by a large and diverse live audience and webcast to sites nationwide. Broadcast from Columbus, Ohio, The Presidential Candidate's Forum on Disability Issues was an unprecedented event conceptualized by a few Ohio disability rights advocates and ultimately sponsored by over seventy national disability organizations. I had been asked to provide the music. During the planning process, I suggested that "The ADA Anthem" would be a good song for the event since the forum simultaneously celebrated the ADA's 18th anniversary and, most importantly, gave the Presidential candidates a chance to address the concerns of the disability community. Moved by the importance of the occasion, I had also written a song that I thought would articulate the nature of what the forum was about. The new song, "Created Equal," was to be performed later in the three and a half hour program. As the historic event began, I listened again to President George H. W. Bush's short and moving statement before he signed the Act into law, and as rehearsed, I started to fingerpick "The ADA Anthem."  Then the recorded applause quieted and I began to sing.

Ironically, the forum was being held in close proximity to The Columbus Developmental Center, formerly The Columbus State Institution for The Mentally Retarded. This landmark event was within easy reach of the site of my grim pilgrimages. In the twenty-seven years since I had returned to Ohio, I had not been able to go to Columbus for any purpose without feeling the visceral clench of knotted memory from the nineteen years of my brother Mark's imprisonment there. Thanks to decades of hard advocacy and reform, many people had been freed from the sort of suffering my brother endured.

The ADA's majestic weight, through the Supreme Court Olmstead Decision, had been driven like a battering ram through the closed gates of remaining institutions. Olmstead established that residents' Civil Rights for community living were violated by institutional confinement. President Bush had said at the signing, "Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down."  Although the ADA had been bruised and battered by The Supreme Court in the intervening years, Olmstead remains a towering ADA victory.

Later that afternoon, I returned to the microphone to sing "Created Equal" and was introduced by the MC for the event, Judy Woodruff of The PBS News Hour. After the song, Judy thanked me and noted that I had played at a United States Senate reception following the ADA's signing. She then introduced Senator John McCain, present on a giant screen, broadcast through a video feed from his home in Arizona. Judy noted that Senator McCain had been an ADA sponsor and was responsible for the Telecommunications Title, creating the operator-assisted relay service linking hearing telephone users with the deaf community. The senator began his remarks by saying that he remembered me from the day of the signing. I was honored by his mention.

At a break, I was in the lobby of the facility when I met Senator Tom Harken, Senator Obama's august proxy and a principle ADA sponsor. Senator Harken is one of the true legislative lions on Disability Rights. After Senator Harken and I had spoken about the impact having a brother with a disability, a photo was snapped of the two of us. Backstage after my final performance, another was taken with Judy Woodruff after we had spoken about her son's disability and my brother's. There is a bond that is formed between people when the mutuality of disabilities of family members is shared. What a day! The forum ended with my playing half a dozen of my disability rights songs as credits ran and the head of the American Association of People with Disabilities thanked the host of people responsible for the historic broadcast. Then I took my stage gear apart and packed my guitar. We squeezed everything back into my driver's two-seat hybrid hatch back and drove back North to Cleveland Heights and home.

CREATED EQUAL

By our hallowed Declaration
Created equal are we all,
A sounding for the ages,
A stirring, sacred call.
Not a promise, not reality
Did Jefferson inscribe,
For its want so many suffered,
For its want so many died.

And it's on towards our common dignity,
In a land whose great promise we now keep.
Civil Rights and an equal open door,
As we pass where so many trod before.

Lincoln guided towards that yearning,
With the slaves' emancipation,
But a bloody road still lay ahead
For those freed within our nation.
And then women took their rightful place
Sweet suffrage hard won,
Two thousand eight's historic milestones
See how far we've come!

And it's on towards our common dignity,
In a land whose great promise we now keep.
Civil Rights and an equal open door,
As we pass where so many trod before.

With civil strife and native rights,
Freedom's flames burned ever higher.
Then movements aimed at access,
A torch of truth's own fire.
Out of bleak and barren shadow lands,
Through the wailing of the storm,
The winds unfurled our banners,
A better day, a brighter morn.

Bridge:
Equal, we are created equal.
Given life, given liberty and more,
Equal, we are created equal.
Our Creator gave us rights none can ignore!

 

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