My Visit to the White House July 26, 2010
(reposted in honor of Black History Month 2017 and just because I was thinking about it too)
I suppose everyone has a time in their life when they pinch themselves to ensure that what they are experiencing is real. As a person diagnosed with mental illness, sometimes reality testing isn’t that simple, but I certainly wish that it was! On Monday July 26th, my wish came true as I experienced firsthand that moment of reality testing through “pinching myself” when I entered the White House gates as an invited guest to an event hosted by President Obama to com- memorate the 20th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act! NAMI selected four people with lived experience of mental illness to attend the event with Executive Director Michael Fitzaptrick. As a NAMI national board memher, I was selected along with the director of the Consumer Council also a NAMI board member (Michael Weaver), a long-time advocate and consumer council member Glenn Koons (PA) and consumer council member John Coon (NY).
My day started; however, with the selection of the most appropriate shoes to wear. Really it did, but I am sure no one wants to hear about that part of the day. On the road to the White House, I first wanted to attend a Congressional Event commemorating the 20th Anniversary of the ADA hosted by Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. I contacted my congressman’s office and Congressman Adam Schiff’s staff assistant Patricia Higgins graciously made the arrangements and even escorted me through the “secret passageway” (read: not so secret tunnel that connects the senate and house offices with the Capitol) to Statuary Hall in the Capitol itself. Speaker Pelosi a long time advocate of equal rights for people with disabilities relinquished for that day, her role of presiding over the House of Representatives to Congressman Jim Langevin (RI). This was a history making event as Congressman Langevin, a quadriplegic, would be the first person in a wheelchair to preside over the House of Representatives. Speaker Pelosi passed the gavel to Congressman Langevin and with that they made their way to the House floor and invited guest followed to the gallery of the House to be a part of history and watch Langevin rule! And rule he did, having to ‘scold’ Congressman Patrick Kennedy (a great mental health advocate himself) of going over allotted time while making comments to the House.
As 3 pm was drawing near, we left the gallery of the House and headed over to the White House South Lawn for the moment we had been waiting for the event hosted by President Obama. With Passport in hand, I proceeded to go through several secret service check points in what was a blistering hot, but beautiful day. Past the last checkpoint, and there I was, at the White House. The blazing sun was still shinning but a cool breeze suddenly swelled up, as if on cue, to indicate things are really different (and better) at the White House. The event started with the customary speeches by dignitaries and then a wonderful speech by Marlee Matlin quoting from Hellen Keller. Patti Labelle sang while softly crying – The Wind Beneath My Wings and then Nathaniel Ayers played both the violin and trumpet.
I knew the moment was near when several men came out of the White House carrying the wooden desk with the Presidential seal. I had no idea, first of all, that the desk was so small but more importantly that the President was going to “sign” something on this day.
And then it happened, there he was, the President of the United States. And there I was a mere few feet away, pinching myself! The President spoke eloquently about the passage of the ADA 20 years ago and how far we had come, but also how far yet we needed to go. “Yes, We Can” was his call during his election and now during his Presidency. Along with the President we all chanted “Yes, We Can” to his appeal for housing, employment, health care and access to transportation for people with disabilities.
People in wheelchairs cried out “yes, we can”, people who are deaf signed vigorously in the air so all can see “yes, we can”. I cried out along with my brothers and sisters “yes, we can”! And President Obama went beyond “yes, we can” and he actually “did”. On this day, July 26th 2010, the 20th anniversary of the passage of the American with Disabilities Act, he signed an executive order requiring the federal personnel agency to develop model guidelines for hiring people with disabilities in order to increase federal employment for people with disabilities. The Order included ensuring access to buildings, bathrooms, transportation and web- sites. “Not dependence, but independence is what it is all about”, stated President Obama.
With that, the day was nearly over as President Obama moved through the first row of attendees to shake their hands – I wish I could have grasped the hands of the President in that moment, but I was content with my thoughts:
- My mother, who passed away in December 2009, was my biggest supporter and would have been so proud of me today.
- My father, who sent me off that very morning wearing my mother’s wedding ring on my pinky finger, beaming at the front door and vigorously waving his “thumbs up” in support and who now loves to brag about his little girl!
- My co-workers at Project Return Peer Support Network who provide me happiness everyday and my NAMI family from across this nation that entrusted me to serve them on the National board and the California board.
I thought about my journey here to the White House as a woman, a person of color and a person who was told by a long since gone doctor that I would have to give up my goals and dreams because I would never experience recovery from a mental illness. Well… Yes, I can and yes, I am”! With that I did not need to pinch myself anymore because life could not be any more real, recovery could not be any more real and yes, I was really there at the White House on July 26th, 2010 on the 20th anniversary of the American with Disabilities Act! A day that rededicates us all to the knowledge that we have equal rights and protections to achieve our dreams!
Yes, I can. Yes, you can and together Yes, we can.
(Note – RIP to my dear friend Glenn Koons)