Celebrating the past, advocating for the future

Published 5:51 pm Wednesday, July 10, 2024

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Caravan for Disability Freedom and Justice makes stop in Austin


For years, Aaron DeVries, has been a proud supporter of his daughter who is wheelchair bound. Because of that he has been heavily involved in helping gain more visibility for those with disabilities when it comes to accessibility.

That’s why when the chance availed itself to draw into Austin the Caravan for Disability Freedom and Justice he took it. The caravan, which advocates for those with disabilities, arrived in town on Wednesday afternoon, and is part of a months-long tour of advocacy that started in San Diego in April and will end in New York this October.

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“I have a daughter who’s 22 years old and she’s in a wheelchair,” DeVries said. “I’ve been involved in the disabilities community accessibility stuff her whole life.”

“I asked them to stop in town to spread the word and keep talking,” he added, explaining he saw they were coming this way from Des Moines, Iowa, prompting the request.

In a general sense, the tour itself is a way to celebrate the wins of the past that allowed those with disabilities to better be a part of the communities they were living in.

However, it also celebrates one particularly important piece of legislation.

“The Disability Caravan really is just an opportunity for us to look at the past in the fight for disability rights, but also look to the future as well,” said CW Tillman, who was driving this particular part of the caravan. “Promoting the 25th anniversary of the Olmstead Decision. It allowed people living in institutions to move back into the community with support at the community level.”

In June of 1999, in Olmstead v. L.C., the Supreme Court ruled that unjustified segregation of persons with disabilities constitutes discrimination as it relates to the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The case was brought by two women who had mental illness and developmental disabilities, Lois Curtis and Elaine Wilson. Both were voluntarily admitted to the state-run George Regional Hospital, but when they were deemed ready to move to a community-based program, both women remained confined to the institution in the years that followed.

Part of that support for people with disabilities in the community is making sure these community members can go places any other person could go, something DeVries as seen first-hand with his daughter.

“It’s just a little thing you don’t notice when you can just step down (from a curb),” he said. “For me, as a father of a daughter with a disability, it’s just being able to show up at a place and not have to do something extra.”

Over the years, DeVries has been a proponent of accessibility for those with disabilities. He’s started a website, The Inclusive Dad, and has given two TedX Talks regarding the issue. He’s also started a podcast where he talks about topics including accessibility.

His work aligns with what the Caravan is hoping to achieve during its tour across the country.

“We really hope the public has greater awareness about the continued struggle for accessibility,” Tillman said.

The stop Wednesday was joined by Austin Public Schools’ Executive Director of Special Services Sheri Willrodt. She said that things like the Caravan is a good way to continue important conversations advocating for those with disabilities.

“From a school district, we always support the least restrictive environment and individuals being able to access the same types of facilities,” she said. “It’s great to see an effort like this going across the country, promoting those types of rights for those people with disabilities.”

Still, there remain challenges, especially off grounds of Austin Public Schools and that supporting the Caravan is about supporting the community.

“I think it’s all about access and inclusion,” Willrodt said. “They want to be able to hang out with other people their age and do developing activities and by promoting access we’re able to provide those activities for children.”