As a disability rights activist, I have protested and have been arrested at the White House several times. I have also been invited there twice. The first time was to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The second occasion was to attend a meeting between disability rights activists and President Bill Clinton.
While I still have the gold lettered invitation as a token of the first visit, it was the second visit that is memorable and which holds greater historical significance for me.
Back in 1994, President Clinton was pushing for his universal health care plan. At the same time, ADAPT was raising awareness of the plight of people with disabilities and seniors being forced into nursing facilities and advocating for a national, consumer-directed attendant services program based on functional, rather than medical need.
Fifty members of ADAPT, as well as representatives of other disability organizations were invited to the East Wing of the White House to meet with the President to discuss the issue of long term services and supports for people with disabilities. Several ADAPT members spoke at the packed meeting. Though we were scattered throughout the room, we were easily recognized by our colored t-shirts bearing our logo. I was near the back, sitting with fellow ADAPT members from Philadelphia.
During the meeting, President Clinton urged ADAPT to take our message to Congress, saying, “Be an agent of change, an agent of empowerment. Never forget that you are carrying on your shoulders now not only your own cause, but ours as well”. He went on to say, “We cannot run away from this, because we cannot afford to have everybody forced into a nursing home or living in abject neglect.”
At the end of the meeting, the President walked among us shaking hands and making small talk. I remarked to one my friends that it would be nice to meet him, but it would be hard getting through the crowd, and he would probably be gone by then. Hardly had the words left my lips when I felt myself being led to the front of the room right to the President! He took both of my hands in his and smiled broadly. I introduced myself, told him how nice it was to meet him and thanked him for listening to the concerns of the disability community. He was very gracious, telling me, “Keep up the good work that you are doing”, “Be sure to let Congress hear you voice because this is very important!”
Several weeks later, I received a package in the mail. It was a picture of me shaking hands with President Clinton. That picture is one of my treasures. Years later, I received a gift from a dear friend who has since passed. It was a copy of a leather-bound album called “Thank You President Clinton”, containing photos, quotes and messages from leaders in the disability community. My picture is in that album, which now sits in the William J. Clinton Presidential Library, in Little Rock, Arkansas.