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Colorado Woman Who Helped Get ADA Passed 30 Years Ago Says There's More Work To Do

ARVADA, Colo. (CBS4) - A Colorado woman who helped to get the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990 says she is proud of how far the country has come but there is still more work to be done. The 30th anniversary of the law taking effect is Sunday just as her story is now celebrated in the form of a sculpture and as a children's book.

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"It was a really hot day in March, it was like 80 degrees," Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins remembers of that day. "When I decided to do the Capitol Crawl, I wanted to represent all the kids with disabilities and not just my generation but futures generations of kids with disabilities."

Keelan-Chaffins was only 8 years old when she got out of her wheelchair on the steps of the U.S. Capitol with other advocates trying to push the ADA to become law. Diagnosed six years before with cerebral palsy, she and her family quickly became active in the fight for disability rights across the country. Since the law was enacted, she has called Colorado home.

"As a young child that got to be so closely involved in this movement, I took my involvement very seriously," she told CBS4 on Thursday. "I had a responsibility to make sure that not only my voice was heard but their voices were heard as well."

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(credit: Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins)

But while physical access has improved greatly, she says the attitude toward her community still remains a barrier. The enforcement of the ADA and practicing it to its full effect are part of that challenge. She hopes the book, "All The Way To The Top," helps children of this generation know their rights and demand equality.

"Discrimination against any person is wrong," Keelan-Chaffins said. "The ADA is a civil rights law for disabled people."

In addition to the book released in March of this year around the anniversary of the Capitol Crawl, Colorado artist Gina Klawitter has memorialized that moment and re-imagined it in a sculpture. Capturing Keelan-Chaffins as an adult, the symbolism of her body and the images around her helps to highlight that history and look to the future. Klawitter's work is always about inclusion and she has long advocated for people with disabilities.

"They're just the most invisible in society," Klawitter told CBS4 on Thursday. "We just don't see 'em a lot and I wanted to create art of them and show their beauty."

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Keelan-Chaffins worked closely with Klawitter to make the sculpture and they both hope it can be another way to bring awareness. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a tour to promote the book at schools for local children. Klawitter is seeking out sponsorships for the sculpture to travel with the Smithsonian's American Democracy show and other public venues across the country.

"It celebrates the accomplishments that the ADA has made but it also is a representation of the work that we still have to do," Keelan-Chaffins said of the artwork.

The barriers around attitude have only been heightened during the coronavirus outbreak. Keelan-Chaffins says she is watching closely to make sure her community continues to have the access and resources they need, especially when it comes to medical services. She says in general the opportunities around education and employment have grown significantly in 30 years but those areas become a cause for concern during the pandemic. The ADA becomes even more relevant for people with disabilities needing help related to COVID-19.

"People like her have done so much in the past but she's always been thinking of future generations," Klawitter said. "Just seeing the beauty of this and beauty of her and the beauty of her community, that's what I hope sinks in."

Together in art and in print, her story lives on decades later and can inform a new generation of children about the additional rights they now have and encourage them to keeping fighting for equity. Keelan-Chaffins says early feedback from the book reminds her that disability rights has not become an essential part of American history. The need for it to become a part of everyone's curriculum is just one way she continues the work she started as a child.

"For me, the disabilities rights movement is just important as the civil rights movement and these are things that need to be taught in our schools," she said.

LINKS: Jennifer Keelan-Chaffins | ADA | Gina Klawitter

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