Dis­abil­ity ac­tivist Eleanor Smith

De­catur res­i­dent has made his­toric gains in dis­abil­ity rights

GA Voice - - Out Spoken -

By PA­TRICK SAUN­DERS

psaun­ders@the­gavoice.com

Quite of­ten, you’ll find that LGBT ac­tivists have their hands in not just LGBT rights but other move­ments as well—women’s rights, im­mi­grant rights, Black Lives Mat­ter, Trans Lives Mat­ter, etc. One that doesn’t get talked about of­ten enough is the dis­abil­ity rights move­ment, and one of the long­time na­tional lead­ers is a les­bian who has lived in the metro At­lanta area for over 40 years.

Eleanor Smith con­tracted a se­vere case of po­lio when she was just three years old, in 1946, and has been in a wheel­chair ever since. The con­cept of “dis­abil­ity rights” wasn’t around when she was grow­ing up, or even well into her adult­hood. But af­ter at­tend­ing her first dis­abil­ity rights protest in San Fran­cisco in the early ’80s, she was hooked.

She founded Con­crete Change; a na­tional dis­abil­ity rights or­ga­ni­za­tion, in 1986 and, us­ing the term “vis­itabil­ity,” was able to help make his­toric changes for those liv­ing with dis­abil­i­ties both here in At­lanta and across the country. Smith re­tired three years ago but the pas­sion for dis­abil­ity rights re­mains as strong as ever at age 73.

Eleanor, tell me about the spark that turned you from some­one who is dis­abled to some­one who is a dis­abil­ity ac­tivist.

Even though I had a job at the time that was dis­abil­ity-re­lated, my head didn’t turn around to think about dis­abil­ity as an ac­tual op­pres­sion as op­posed to some­thing that made my life very dif­fi­cult. At that time the na­tional group [ADAPT] was work­ing on the is­sue of pub­lic trans­porta­tion be­cause you could not get on the bus if you were in a wheel­chair. So the move­ment chose the is­sue of get­ting a lift on ev­ery new bus. So I got in­volved in that move­ment.

I went to my first dis­abil­ity rights protest in San Fran­cisco. While try­ing to work

April 15, 2016

leg­isla­tively, we also worked at the civil dis­obe­di­ence level like all the great move­ments work—the gay rights move­ment, the black rights move­ment. I was just blown away at the power and the won­der of it.

When I came back to At­lanta, I had my own per­sonal brain­storm, which was to have a ze­rostep en­trance on ev­ery new house. You can’t go back and fix ev­ery old house but you could start build­ing ev­ery new house with ac­cess, which was a com­pletely rev­o­lu­tion­ary idea.

The only thing in peo­ples’ minds was if some­body gets dis­abled, then you try to scrape up the money to widen their bath­room door and put a ramp on. It re­ally cre­ated a sys­tem where a lot of [dis­abled] peo­ple couldn’t visit their friends or their close rel­a­tives, or couldn’t find a house to live in them­selves. I founded Con­crete Change in 1986 and that piece I took up to do be­came our mantra and our work. And that’s what I took on for the next 30 years.

What’s At­lanta’s record been as far as ac­cess for the dis­abled?

Cer­tainly At­lanta has to fol­low the Amer­i­cans with Dis­abil­i­ties Act. When­ever a new curb is laid, there’s a new curb cut. A won­der­ful thing on hous­ing is that be­cause of a lot of work on the part of the dis­abil­ity rights move­ment, the Fair Hous­ing Act forces ev­ery new unit in a new apart­ment build­ing to have ba­sic ac­cess—wide doors and a few other fea­tures.

In terms of At­lanta it­self be­ing ahead of the curve on hous­ing, in 1989 we were able Dis­abil­ity ac­tivist Eleanor Smith founded Con­crete Change, a na­tional dis­abil­ity rights group, in 1986. (Photo by Pa­trick Saun­ders) to get Habi­tat For Hu­man­ity At­lanta to start build­ing ev­ery new house with ac­cess. Habi­tat At­lanta was the first Habi­tat af­fil­i­ate in the world to build houses de­lib­er­ately with ac­cess for peo­ple who had no dis­abil­ity. It was a thrill to drive down Woodruff Av­enue and see those first Habi­tat houses [with ac­cess].

Out of that, we were able to make a city law re­quir­ing zero-step en­trances and wide doors in new houses. And the won­der­ful then-City Coun­cil­woman by the name of Myr­tle Davis, who had a daugh­ter who was a quad­ri­plegic, she car­ried our bill for us. And it cov­ered a lot of houses. Many hun­dreds of houses went up un­der that law.

For years it was en­forced and then un­der [Mayor] Bill Camp­bell, we re­al­ized it was not go­ing on any­more. That part fell apart, but what was cool was that it be­came kind of known through­out the country and oth­ers worked on it in other cities. So that At­lanta model, which was passed in 1992, was ba­si­cally the first law in the country that cov­ered some pri­vately-owned houses and re­quired them to have ac­cess.

What’s the next big dis­abil­ity rights chal­lenge to tackle?

The next chal­lenge not just for the or­ga­ni­za­tion but for every­body out there is to re­al­ize that a new house should be built with ba­sic ac­cess, which is one en­trance with no steps and wide enough bath­room doors—32 inches min­i­mum. It’s not a ques­tion of whether it’s cheap and beau­ti­ful—that has been demon­strated through the tens of thou­sands of houses that have gone up.

Every­body needs to re­al­ize that the way houses are go­ing up is dis­crim­i­na­tory and it can be dif­fer­ent. Ev­ery ar­gu­ment against it is false. There’s all types of ar­gu­ments from peo­ple, but you can’t ar­gue with the tens of thou­sands of houses that have gone up. The dis­abil­ity rights move­ment is an amaz­ing move­ment and it’s one that a lot of peo­ple don’t even re­al­ize is a move­ment.

—Eleanor Smith

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