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Road Trips to The Mall; or, What I Did on My Summer Vacation

By Kim E. Nielsen

ADA Day Toledo 2015 D
Photo credit: Kim E. Nielsen

In the last three months The Family and I have twice piled into the car for eight-plus-hour (one way!) road trips to Washington, D.C. As family road trips, the journeys necessarily included junk food, some nausea, lots of laughter, sunburn, bickering, loud music, crowded hotel rooms, and unscheduled bathroom breaks. Unlike the usual family road trips, however, it’s been the season of Civic Road Trips. 

On April 28, with thousands of others, we cheered for marriage equality before the steps of the Supreme Court building as the justices heard oral arguments. Road trip preparations had included learning more about the multiple state cases, interpretations of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause, looking backwards to the 1968 case of Loving v. Virginia that declared bans on interracial marriage unconstitutional, and arguing about the purpose of dissenting opinions. We fell out of the DC Metro carrying our homemade signs and looking like the out-of-towners that we are. We cried as the plaintiffs emerged from the Supreme Court at the end of the day, weary, optimistic, and surrounded by the love of family. Two elderly men from Nebraska, who had been in love for decades, asked if we would adopt them because their own extended family had rejected them. In the midst of the profound we mundanely argued over who had to stay awake in order to drive home.

On July 26, we drove to DC once again and with thousands of others celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) outside the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History. Once again we considered the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. The passion and mischievousness of those who pushed for the legislation that protects the civil rights of people with disabilities, and then demanded its enforcement, thrilled us. We expressed anger that the Supreme Court we had cheered only months earlier had eroded the ADA’s strength over the last two decades, and breathed a sigh of relief that U.S. legislators had seen fit to reinforce its original intention in the 2008 ADA Amendments Act. We fell in love with the bite and creativity of the activists who have emerged during the last twenty-five years. Sincerity and disillusionment blended amongst the crowds, during meals with friends, and in my own thoughts as we pondered how to make democracy accessible to all. It eased my soul to hear once more, again and again, that segregation is a civil rights violation. Overwhelmed by the privileges and disadvantages embodied in D.C., we had really good food truck tacos.

While both events were celebrations, both events included reminders that the democracy began in 1776 works wonderfully and is painfully deficient. The poverty and violence experienced by those whose civil rights still need expansion, whose civil rights still need protections, sometimes overwhelms my world. Too many die in interactions with law enforcement officers. Too many experience segregated, inferior educations and face future employment disadvantages because of it. Too many are sexually assaulted and too few are held accountable for assault. Too many are incarcerated in institutions of all kinds. Too many disabled parents have lost access to their own children. Social justice work, the living of democracy, must be ongoing.  

image from www.beacon.orgIt is ongoing. This spring I’ve been thankful for the (slow but) steady enactment of the Supreme Court’s 1999 Olmstead v. L.C. decision. In Toledo, Ohio, we recently celebrated the Ability Center of Greater Toledo’s successful efforts to thus far move 650 people of all ages from nursing homes to independent living, from needless segregation to community integration—saving tax money, improving people’s health and happiness, and adhering to The Law.

Because I’m a nerdy historian, my Civic Road Trips made me consider those who piled not into cars but into wagons, upon horses, and onto their feet for the trek to Philadelphia in the 1770s in order to create the U.S. Constitution and all that resulted from it (and to feed those who did so). Undoubtedly, their trips also included junk food (of the 1770s type), some nausea, lots of laughter, sunburn, bickering, singing, crowded rooms, and unscheduled bathroom breaks. They had great success and they were painfully deficient in their accomplishments. May we have all many more Civic Road Trips—but may we, and I, remember that our own communities, our own neighborhoods, and our own families, are civic spaces in need of road trips. 


About the Author

image from www.beacon.orgThe author of three books, including two on Helen Keller and one on Anne Sullivan Macy, Kim E. Nielsen is professor of disability studies at the University of Toledo.