Disability rights advocates will mark the ADA’s 27th anniversary with a Downtown Pittsburgh rally

“The ADA is one of the most powerful pieces of legislation,” Access Mob Pittsburgh’s Alisa Grishman said.

Luke Jones / Flickr
Sarah Anne Hughes

Alisa Grishman is older than the Americans with Disabilities Act.

That “kind of amazes” her, as the federal law is only turning 27 this year.

“The ADA is one of the most powerful pieces of legislation,” 35-year-old Grishman told Pittsburgh City Council after accepting a proclamation Tuesday. “It grants me and other people with disabilities the basic human right to ride the bus, get into buildings, communicate with people.”

George H.W. Bush signed the ADA into law 27 years ago today.

Grishman and her organization Access Mob Pittsburgh will mark the anniversary in Downtown Pittsburgh with a rally and march that begins at noon on Liberty Avenue between Commonwealth Place and Stanwix Street. Speakers will include state Rep. Dan Miller, who hosts an annual summit on disability and mental health, as well as community speakers who either have a disability or who have a child with one.

“It is kind of an annual tradition in Pittsburgh” to mark the signing anniversary, Grishman said of the event. This year, because of the rise in civic engagement after Donald Trump’s election, the rally is being presented by members of the disability community.

“This was a chance for us to shine and be very visible and be out there, and show the world that we’re not helpless beings waiting to be helped,” said Grishman, who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair. “We advocate for ourselves.”

Grishman has been doing that for years — and she has a tattoo to prove it.

She recently added a third chain link to a tattoo she has on her left arm to represent an arrest she took in Ohio protesting the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and potential cuts to Medicaid with other demonstrators from the national disability rights organization ADAPT.

As she protested at U.S. Sen. Rob Portman’s office in Columbus earlier this month, she ended up out of her wheelchair and on the ground after a police officer approached her. Witnesses claim the officer knocked Grishman out of her chair, an allegation Columbus Police are investigating using video from the scene. A police spokesperson told The Incline the incident is still under review.

Alisa Grishman was arrested earlier this month protesting the ACA repeal in Ohio.

Alisa Grishman was arrested earlier this month protesting the ACA repeal in Ohio.

Courtesy Alisa Grishman

“I’m not exaggerating when I say I literally will die if the new healthcare act goes through,” Grishman said on the day of that protest. “My medications … that’s not going to be covered completely. There’s a certain point where my parents literally can’t help, and I won’t have any options.”

As Congress moves forward with its repeal of the ACA, people with disabilities like Grishman have become some of the most visible protesters on the front line — and that visibility is more important than ever.

“People with disabilities for centuries have been seen as helpless but also not as good as people who are abled,” Grishman said. “We want to challenge that notion.”

Like most laws on the books, the ADA is not perfect. “The things it has given us are incredible,” she said, adding that there’s “always room for improvement.”

Grishman said the ADA is complaint-based and usually requires people with disabilities to file a lawsuit in order to see change.

Similarly, there’s no such thing as a perfect city on accessibility, she said. But Pittsburgh is ahead of many other Pennsylvania municipalities as it has a full-time ADA coordinator in the City Planning department, Richard Meritzer, who served on the planning team for today’s rally.

In Pennsylvania, each county and several cities are required to have an ADA compliance officer, Grishman said. As of her count last year, only 11 percent do. The fact that Pittsburgh has a full-time employee to handle ADA issues is a blessing, she said.

Then there are the many groups that advocate for people with disabilities, from Port Authority’s Committee for Accessible Transportation to the mayor’s Complete Streets advisory group (Grishman serves on both). Even though these players sometimes have to go to the people in power — as opposed to the people in power coming to them — Grishman said there are “so many strong fighters in the city who are kicking butt.”

While the Downtown rally is focused on a law that serves people with disabilities, Grishman encouraged all people to come. She describes people without a disability as “currently abled,” adding that being disabled “is the only minority group that someone could suddenly become a part of.”

“There’s nothing scary about disability,” she told council Tuesday. “We want to share that.”