The ADA at 25: Disability issues find champion at Pitt
May 4, 2015 12:00 AM
In 2014, Kate Seelman was appointed by President Barack Obama to a 15-member council, which advises the White House, Congress and policymakers on disability matters.
Katherine Seelman is a professor of rehabilitation science and technology at the University of Pittsburgh.
By Mackenzie Carpenter / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Second in a series.
Today, for the first time in its history, the National Council on Disability will be meeting at the University of Pittsburgh, thanks to one of the most famous Pittsburghers you’ve never heard of.
Her name is Kate Seelman, and at 77 she is still in the middle of a long international career advocating for people with disabilities. In 2014, she was appointed by President Barack Obama to the 15-member council, which advises the White House, Congress and policymakers on disability matters. Ms. Seelman, now a Pitt professor, then persuaded the 31-year-old council, which has four meetings a year — two of them outside of Washington — to meet in Pittsburgh.
Today and Tuesday, the members, along with 300 national, state and local leaders in the field of disability policy, will gather at the William Pitt Student Union for a series of presentations. Former Pennsylvania Gov. and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh — who, along with his wife, Ginny, is admired in the disability community for his work in passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act — will receive an award. The meeting’s focus will be on Pennsylvania and the progress it has made since the ADA was signed into law 25 years ago, as well as the progress it has yet to make.
Ms. Seelman has had a lifelong hearing disability — but during an interview in a Squirrel Hill restaurant, she converses easily, without apparent effort. “Of course, we’re sitting next to a wall, so that helps,” she said — but she also is wearing cutting-edge devices that include a pendant that amplifies incoming sounds to her hearing aids.
Actually, she’s known as a “super user” in the field of disability, with access to the latest assistive technology. Her work is all about helping develop a support system in multiple environments, fueled by her own personal understanding of what it’s like to be someone who has trouble hearing without help.
For seven years during the Clinton administration, she served as director of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research, ensuring, for example, that all people with disabilities had access to the Internet. Since 2001, she has been associate dean of disability programs and professor of rehabilitation science and technology at Pitt, while continuing to lecture all over the world.
“When Kate came to Pitt, she was 62 years old,” said Tina Calabro, a writer on disability issues who is helping to coordinate the council’s visit. “It was the beginning of a whole new chapter in her life and career, and because of her presence and personality she immediately galvanized the disability community.”
Ms. Seelman not only urged the creation of Pitt’s Students for Disability Advocacy, the only formal advocacy group at any local college or university, she co-chairs the City-County Task Force on Disability. In this role, she has helped shepherd through numerous overhauls, including a tax credit — the first in the state — for homes that are renovated to make it easy for people with disabilities to visit; help for residents in removing snow from steps and sidewalks; increased accessibility at the Three Rivers Arts Festival and the David L. Lawrence Convention Center; and new guidelines for hospitals.
Her reach, though, extends far beyond Pittsburgh. Ms. Seelman was one of two U.S. representatives serving on the World Health Organization’s nine-member board on the first World Report on Disability and was principal author of one of the report’s chapters, which she presented to the United Nations in 2011.
“She is a big-picture, huge-ideas person at a global level,” added Elaine Mormer, an assistant professor in communication science and disorders at Pitt.
During all those years, her path has crossed frequently with Mr. Thornburgh, who, as U.S. attorney general in the Reagan and Bush administrations, worked behind the scenes to ensure congressional passage of the ADA. Although he is a Republican and Ms. Seelman a Democrat, they have worked together for the same goal — laws and policies empowering people with disabilities to enter the workforce and be treated equally in all areas of life.
“Dick and his wife, Ginny, were wonderful people, and I could always talk to them,” Ms. Seelman said.
In the 1980s, Ms. Seelman served as a public policy research specialist at the council helping to lay the groundwork for the ADA. Today, the children of the activists who promoted it are grown, and today’s first panel is dubbed the “ADA Generation,” consisting of young people who were born after the law went into effect.
“This new generation has benefited from the work of prior generations, who took direct political action, from lobbying to policymaking to civil disobedience, to change the landscape of their lives,” she said, and now they “have their own poetry, literature, even hip-hop music,” she says. “They have come to be very much actors in their own play.”
As has Ms. Seelman.
Mackenzie Carpenter: email@example.com, 412-263-1949 or on Twitter @MackenziePG.
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