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MLK’s dream burning bright

But promise of equal opportunity ‘great unfinished business’

Freelance writer/editor

Standing in the shadow of the great emancipator, President Barack Obama on Wednesday stood exactly where slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. did 50 years earlier to “awaken the slumbering conscience of America.”

On the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Obama borrowed heavily from King’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech to chronicle the rapid societal changes the landmark oratory set in motion for America’s excluded minorities.

It wasn’t just a black thing. It was a Latino thing. An Asian thing. A women thing.  A gay thing. A Catholic thing. A Jewish thing.

And it was a people with disabilities thing, the President of the United States told tens of thousands of Americans from all walks of life on a rainy day in Washington, D.C.

“Jobs and the promise of equal economic opportunity for all remains our great unfinished business,” he said.

Disability statistics from the 2011 American Community Survey at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. Employment and Disability Institute supports Obama and shows significant disparity in minority and white able-bodied employment rates.

Black unemployment rates remain twice as high as whites with Latinos lagging just behind African-American jobless rates, Obama said.

In 1954, the earliest year for which the Bureau of Labor Statistics has consistent unemployment data by race, the white rate averaged 5 percent and the black rate averaged 9.9 percent.

Last month, the jobless rate among whites was 6.6 percent. The black jobless rate was 12.6 percent, the Pew Research Center shows. Over that time, the unemployment rate for blacks has averaged about 2.2 times that for whites.

And however bad that is, people with disabilities have it worse.

In 2011, an estimated 69 percent of all females with a disability, ages 21-64, seeking a job were unemployed, the survey shows.

In the same year, an estimated 64 percent of all males in the same age range with a disability seeking a job were unemployed.

“We have yet to see a real improvement in the labor force for Americans with disabilities,” Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said this week. “Today, more than two-thirds of adults with disabilities do not have access to the labor force.”

“We were told growing inequality is the price of a growing economy. That greed was good and passion was ineffective,” Obama told the gathered masses on the National Mall. “And those without jobs or healthcare only had themselves to blame.”

Obama said he rejects that judgmental jab at those who seek economic parity and healthcare and are held back by stereotype, obstructionism and discrimination.

And in the disability community, that translates to arcane rules that bar the disabled from good wheelchairs and rules that incarcerate power-chair users in their own homes.

In Wednesday’s speech, Obama echoed the words of Frederick Douglass, the 19th-Century African-American abolitionist and social reformer.

“Freedom is not given it must be won through hard struggle, persistence and faith — a steady flame of conscience and courage” by “people who could have given up and given in, but kept on keeping on.”

Does that message ring true, fellow wheelers? Look at our rag-tag group of advocates. Have we “accepted a life of lower expectations,” as the President asked. “Our can we have the courage to change.”

“The March on Washington teaches us we are not trapped by mistakes of history,” Obama said. “We are masters of our own destiny.”

Like the quarter of a million marchers 50 years ago, Wednesday’s throng protested for jobs and economic equality.

“And when we find we do not walk alone, that’s where courage comes from,” Obama said. “With that courage we can stand for the right to healthcare in the richest nation in the world.

“The fierce urgency of now remains,” the President said.


Finn Michel Bullers, a freelance writer/editor from Prairie Village, Kan., is an advocate for people with disabilities. Contact him at finn.bullers@aol.com.


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