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Disability rights front and center at March on Washington tribute

As the 50th-anniversary commemoration of the historic March on Washington approached, a buzz of excitement arose in the disability rights community. Fred Maahs, chair of the American Association of People with Disabilities was scheduled to be among the luminaries joining President Obama in honoring the progress made in civil rights since the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave his historic “I Have a Dream” speech.

To the delight of those who have long advocated for full inclusion for people with disabilities and Social Security disability beneficiaries, Maahs was scheduled as the first speaker.

Maahs, who began his speech by introducing himself as a “proud American with a disability,” was paralyzed from the waist down in a diving accident just days before he would have begun college 33 years ago. After spending seven months in intensive physical therapy to gain his independence in a wheelchair, he found that college was now out of reach for him -- because the campus was not handicapped-accessible.

“I thought that the doors to a fulfilling life had slammed shut,” he said. His accident occurred a decade before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which mandated full access for people with disabilities to employment, education, housing and public buildings.

That law opened the doors again. Now, not only does Maahs head the nation’s largest disability rights organization, but is also vice president of the Comcast Foundation. He has dedicated his life to equal opportunity for all Americans.

Today, however, that dream remains out of reach for many people with disabilities, Maahs says. Eight out of 10 people whose disabilities would allow them to work are still unemployed, and many who do have jobs continue to be legally paid less than the minimum wage, he added. And while he didn't discuss Social Security disability specifically, another important concern is the constant threat to these relatively minimal benefits.

For Maahs, the priority now is getting Congress to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, a treaty that could expand ADA-like policies worldwide.

"Looking back, it is fair to say that Martin Luther King, Jr. was the father of our movement as well. Dr. King had a dream. He had a dream about equality and dignity for all people,” Maahs said. “Our duty as citizens is to help one another achieve those dreams.”

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