Community Voices: New law puts people first, not disability
James Woods, Special to the Republic | azcentral.com 5:52 a.m. MST May 1, 2014
When I was growing up in the East Valley, I always thought I would have the same opportunities as our most successful community members. I believed that if I applied myself, I could achieve the same success as someone like Eddie Basha, whose family-owned business now has more than a hundred grocery stores in three states, or Dr. Peyman, the University of Arizona professor who invented LASIK.
I was smart and curious and worked toward a career in the tech industry. I wanted the kind of job where I could support myself and a family, but also contribute to the quality of life in our state by developing technology-based solutions to our challenges. No one had any reason to doubt I could do exciting things with my life.
Then, a month before my 27th birthday, I was hospitalized for a rare illness that nearly killed me. While being treated for that infection, my vision started to get dim on a Monday. By Friday, I (lost my sight and) never saw again. From that day forward, like many people with disabilities, I have often been viewed in light of what I cannot do rather than what I can. But I am still a great listener and a thoughtful citizen. I am a brother, a son and a loyal friend. I have the ability to come up with new ideas for solving problems. I am able to collaborate with people from all walks of life. There is so much I can do and my disability certainly is not stopping me from running for Congress.
When I read Rep. Stefanie Mach's "persons with disabilities" legislation, which replaces words like "handicapped" and "disabled" in state law, I saw it as an opportunity to address the stigma faced by people with disabilities. It is important to understand that words go a long way in shaping attitudes and public policies. The changes Mach's House Bill 2667 makes in state laws are an example of person-first language — and person-first language is not only more accurate, it makes us attentive to what matters most in public policy. People matter most.
We need person-first language because currently, there is a dangerous lack of person-first policy. While things like employment, housing and health care have been a struggle for everyone over the past decade, for people with disabilities the picture is particularly bleak. Our labor-force participation is a shameful 19.5 percent. Hundreds of thousands of us work for sub-minimum wage, averaging about $5.80 a day. That does not even pay for a Big Mac Extra Value Meal at the McDonald's in my neighborhood. Students with disabilities who go to vocational training through their high-school special-education programs have virtually no employment options when they graduate. On top of that, poor enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act puts Americans with disabilities at risk of a lifetime of dependency and poverty.
A lot of work needs to be done to improve this situation. We must do more to ensure that everyone in our state has equality of opportunity, and an important first step is using language that does not define us by our disability. I applaud our Legislature and our governor for the bipartisan success of passing and signing this bill into law and making inroads toward equality and inclusion. I hope this shift in language sparks a shift toward better opportunities for everyone in Arizona.
James Woods is a Chandler resident and a Democratic congressional candidate in Arizona's Congressional District 5.