Pat Wright’s leadership during the ADA’s passage eventually earned her the nickname “The General.” She was one of a handful of leading strategizers based in Washington, DC, and worked especially closely with Ralph Neas, Executive Director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. Wright and Neas collaborated with a number of other leaders who focused on different objectives for passing the ADA: Washington lobbyists Liz Savage and Paul Marchand; Grassroots organizers Justin Dart and Marilyn Golden; and attorneys Arlene Mayerson, Chai Feldblum, and Robert Burgdorf.
Wright originally planned to be a medical doctor. During medical school in the 1960s, however, she developed a progressive eye disease that eventually left her legally blind. Being prevented from realizing her aspirations was devastating, and Wright was temporary aimless. But she found a new interest in assisting persons with disabilities move from institutions to community-based living. This also gave her an intimate knowledge of how legal technicalities affected the lives of persons with disabilities. Wright made her first major inroads to the disability rights movement at the Section 504 sit-in in San Francisco in April, 1977. Although she was there largely to serve as a personal assistant to Judy Heumann, Wright began to reveal and develop her negotiation skills in dealing with authorities. This experience led her to become more involved with advocacy. In the late 1970s she joined DREDF, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, where she worked with Robert Funk, Mary Lou Breslin, and Arlene Mayerson to advocate for disability rights on a national level.
In addition to sponsoring training sessions in disability rights, Wright and DREDF formed a crucial working relationship with Ralph Neas and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights by collaborating on such legislative initiatives as the Civil Rights Restoration Act. Such efforts earned Wright a place on LCCR’s Executive Council. Wright was so widely respected in Congress and the White House that her highly individual apparel and colorful vocabulary were safe from reproach. The ADA’s success was due in no small part to Wright’s strategic leadership. –from the NPR archives by Jonathan Young
Americans with Disabilities Act Turns 10 Years Old
CNN Interview Aired July 22, 2000 – 8:36 a.m. ET
KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: The Americans with Disabilities Act is 10 years old. The Disability Rights Education Defense Fund is the leading law and policy center in disability civil rights. Since its founding in 1979, it has won major legislation battles such as the enactment of the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990. The organization is about to celebrate its 10th anniversary and joining us is the organization’s Director of Governmental Affairs, better known as the general, Pat Wright.
Good morning, Pat.
PAT WRIGHT, DIRECTOR, GOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS, DREDF: Good morning, Kyra. How are you?
PHILLIPS: Very good. Thanks for being with us. Let’s talk about, let’s go back 10 years. How much of it is, how much of a struggle was it to get the ADA into the books?
WRIGHT: Well, the ADA is a culmination of 50 years of change, of public policy. Historically, the public policy in this country has been built on myth, stereotype and fears and 10 years ago the disability community came together, members of the death community, the physically disabled community, the blind community, the mental illness community and all said, all developed a political and economic strategy to obtain their civil rights.
PHILLIPS: I can understand that growing up with a mother who’s in deaf education. I think one of the attitudes out there is looking at folks with disabilities as helpless and unable but that’s so untrue. How do you think, how far have we come with regard to realizing these people are just like any other person?
WRIGHT: Well, I think what we’re faced with, Kyra, right now is that we have 21st century technology that we are still applying to some 17th century policies. So although 10 years post the ADA, I can assure you and all of your listeners that, in fact, the fabric and face of America has changed.
Today, 10 years post the ADA, there’s a national relay system where people with disabilities can do simple tasks that other people couldn’t, that others could do and they could not, as call 911 for emergency services or as simple as order pizza. We have people with physical disabilities able to get into new construction on buildings. We have people with, who are blind can access ATM machines. We have people with cognitive disabilities who are being accommodated in testing as entrance exams to colleges and universities.
So there are some major changes that have happened across the country. Ten years ago, if you held a piece of Swiss cheese up to the United States, it would be massive holes of where there were no civil rights protections for people with disabilities. So as a person who works, you could travel from one city to another city and not be able to find an accessible hotel room, not be able to find accessible transportation systems.
What the ADA did was leveled the playing field. It created a baseline that all states have to comply with and all businesses.
PHILLIPS: And now, and you’re pushing now for the ADA to cover people, I understand, with diabetes, breast cancer, epilepsy. Talk a little bit about that.
WRIGHT: Well, Kyra, in fact, when we passed, in 1973 the definition in this country of who was a person with a disability was put out as a three step definition, someone who has a disability, someone who has a past history of a disability and someone who even may not have a disability, but was being treated as a disability. From 1973 to 1990, that definition was solid across the United States.
So in 1990 when we started to do the Americans With Disabilities Act, we adopted that definition because it was a definition that the country was comfortable.
Since 1990, there’s been a series of attacks on the ADA to weaken that definition and most recently last year in the Supreme Court under the “Sutton” decision, that definition was limited and in that case people with diabetes, people with epilepsy, people with mental illness who took medication were all dropped from the definition in some circumstances.
That is a serious issue for us and for the community.
PHILLIPS: And I have no doubt that you’re going to make things happen. Pat Wright with the Disability Rights Education Defense Fund. Thank you very much for being with us.
WRIGHT: Thanks, Kyra.